Lessons Gleaned from the Bookstore

June 06, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

ROCKVILLE, MARYLAND — Rockville, Maryland. Reading the torrent of essays about the end of reading, and the glut of books about the death of the book, leaves little time for savoring the significance of Borders bookstores, which are flourishing.

There are 14 of them so far. The first was in Ann Arbor, Mich. The one here in suburban Washington is typical. It has more than 100,000 titles, 1.3 million volumes and a staff which when asked ''Where is 'Billy Budd'?'' will not reply, ''He doesn't work here.''

No one works here who cannot pass a quiz featuring questions like, ''In what subject areas would you look for books by or about Jean Piaget, Gustav Klimt, Dorothy Sayers, Karen Horney, Ludwig Wittgenstein''? ''Who wrote 'Tin Drum'? 'Native Son'? 'Where the Wild Things Are'?'' Non-readers need not apply at Borders, which unlike lots of supposed bookstores sells neither games nor globes nor garden hoses.

The number of bookstores increased 76 percent in the 1980s. Only fast-food restaurants multiplied faster. Unfortunately, some of the bookstores resemble those restaurants, serving up a high volume of unnourishing stuff in an ungracious ambience. They make much of their money off best sellers. They have transitory inventories: If a book is not moving fast, yank it off the shelf, fast.

A better way of doing business in books began 20 years ago with the Border brothers, University of Michigan graduate students, Tom, an English major, and Lewis, a computer wiz. Their idea was to use modern information systems to make possible, meaning profitable, small-volume purchases of many titles rather than large-volume purchases of titles that will sell at a high velocity.

The bulk of Borders' stock consists of just one or two copies of particular titles. A book selling 8 to 10 copies a week is a strong seller. But, then, people do not come here for Danielle Steele.

Borders believes that the secret of a seductive store -- selling books should involve enticement -- is not just selecting stock with interesting eclecticism from the 55,000 new titles each year. It also involves offering selections from publishers' backlists.

Both the Walden and B. Dalton-Barnes & Noble chains account for approximately 12 percent of U.S. retail book sales and up to 25 percent of many best sellers. But chains are only 32 percent of all bookstores. Independents are thriving because of their independent judgments about book stocks.

If everyone who entered a supermarket bought only the food he or she had in mind when leaving home, the supermarkets would fail. Supermarkets depend on impulse purchases. So do bookstores like Borders.

Supermarkets depend on display and packaging to trigger purchases. Borders knows it is enough to get real readers into the store and confront them with variety in a ''browser-friendly'' ambience.

Great independent bookstores -- Denver's Tattered Cover, St. Paul's The Hungry Mind, Square Books in Oxford, Miss., -- are receiving from some chain stores the homage of emulation. The chains are installing stuffed chairs and wooden shelves.

There is a public interest at stake in the fate of bookstores that quicken the public's appetite for printed words.

Seventy-two percent of 8th graders recently surveyed said they watched at least three hours of television a day; only 27 percent said they read for pleasure each day. The rising generation is characterized by ''aliteracy'': It can read but doesn't. It prefers less demanding, actually less active, activities -- mere distractions, really.

At most 12 percent of the adult population sets a good example by reading serious literature. Small wonder that SAT scores measuring verbal skills of the college-bound cream of high school students have declined.

The success of stores like Borders encourages the hope that Alvin Kernan is wrong to say (in his book ''The Death of Literature'') that serious literature has ''almost no presence outside university literature departments.'' But Mr. Kernan rightly worries about the ''transition from a print to an electronic culture.''

What is changing, he says, is not just the way we do something -- communicate -- but consciousness itself. In our electronic culture the mind is becoming a thinner, more watery, less interesting thing.

Reading is private, silent, inward, active, demanding. It is linear as a sentence, orderly as a paragraph, governed by a logic of coherence. Electronic ways of learning things, using pictures rather than words, are passive, noisy, chaotic, communicating surfaces and meanings that are immediately and easily accessible. Electronic pictures, unlike words, are ill-suited to communicate irony, ambivalence and other elements of adult wisdom.

Words are complex signs sending sometimes elusive signals. Television, particularly, is less suited than printed words are for requiring, and developing, intellectual maturity -- the complexity needed for governance of the self, and for self-government in society. So there is a civic interest served by anything, be it a better school or a better bookstore, that stimulates the wholesome addiction to printed words.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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