Independent booksellers: Lovely ants, among aardvarks

June 11, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Last week, the annual American Booksellers Association Convention and Trade Exhibit drew to Chicago an estimated 42,000 people. That's equal to 8,400 basketball teams or 930 infantry platoons or the entire United States Congress multiplied 78 times, a terrifying idea. Throughout its three days, I kept asking what the purpose was. The responses, all of them fascinating, ranged from scouting to buzz-building to schmoozing to stroking to simply being there. More or less as swallows gather at Capistrano. Many mentioned a legendary, or perhaps mythic, past: Retailers came, looked, listened to talk about new books and then bought them. No longer. Selling is done elsewhere. But I witnessed clear purposefulness: Meeting schedules began at 7:30 a.m., continued to 6 p.m. and then were followed by parties, parties, parties, endless parties, given by publishers, magazines, distributing companies, and here and there, a private citizen. The talk was as varied as the people involved, who were booksellers, agents, scouts, authors and, above all, exhibitors. Those included both publishing companies and other vendors, 1,800 in all. Some 1,500 people had press credentials.

Gray Ponytails

I am sure there were intense conversations about literary and intellectual matters, but as hard as I eavesdropped, I could not find one. Here, an exemplary snippet of what I did hear, from a book shop proprietor from Los Angeles and two people who now work for a major chain but are soon to open their own independent shop in suburban Detroit:

LA: 'Candles! Get into candles. You'd never believe how many candles we sell.'

Detroit One: 'We're looking at aroma therapy items. What's your experience?

LA: 'Big, very big. Of course, we're in heavy New Age country.'

Detroit Two: 'Us too. Perfect site. Gray ponytails, lots of them.'

LA: 'You got it. Two floors?'

Detroit Two: 'Yep.'

LA: 'Put the greeting cards and the candles and incense sections in the back of the top floor. I sell a lot of books to people who pass them on the way up there.'

Detroit One: 'Hey, thanks.'

Detroit Two: 'Books are great, just great.'

LA: 'Yeah! Yeah, but the money's in the sidelines.'

Recounting that might seem disrespectful. But no. These were gentle, earnest people who love and read books, intelligently. What that conversation represented is a major aspect of the position into which the phenomenon of the so-called superstore has thrust independent booksellers.

The most respected current surveys say there was a 31 percent growth in book sales in the U.nited States from 1991 to 1994, in a $20 billion industry, with substantially more than 1 billion books sold. That reflects a sustained annual growth of 7.5 percent, well above the expansion of television, video or recording.

In that wondrous burgeoning, however, independent booksellers' share of the market dropped from 32.5 percent in 1991 to 19 percent in 1994, while the chains' share rose from 22.1 percent to 27 percent. (The rest is divided among book clubs, with 17 percent, and single digits for discount stores, price clubs, mail order, used books stores, drug or food stores, department stores and card/gift shops.)

Every independent must look at the chains precisely as an ant views an aardvark.

And, like the man said, the money's in . . .

There was splendid attendance at bookless vendor booths. There were lots of teddy bears and other stuffed animals. One booth touted nothing but tops to spin. There were a half-dozen rubber-stamp vendors. Bookmarks galore. Book covers of all materials and patterns. A host of angel accoutrements. Drums. Masses of New Age artifacts. Candles, calendars, jigsaw puzzles, greeting cards, posters, love beads, worry beads, bead beads, perfumes, incense, aromas both liquid and solid. There was a kaleidoscope booth.

God's Golf Partner

But there's lots of action as well with books that aren't exactly Dostoevsky or Dickens.

On the floor, anyone without a badge is stopped by security. As ......TC wander, I am inescapably flagged as 'Press.'

I am accosted by an overweight man with a Southern accent and wide lapels whose name tag identifies him as 'Rev.' and who has written a book with a title something like 'God Is My Golf Partner.' A nagging doubt tells me that he is not, as he avers, deeply and personally concerned about my individual eternal soul. I mumble some evasion about not covering spirituality and wrench myself away.

Down the aisle a bit, there is a lithe, long, lovely woman wearing clothes smoother and closer fitting than a snake's skin. She has written a book with a title along the lines of 'Save Your Marriage Below Your Abs.' 'Ah, Press,' she says, grasping me, 'I love you.' Somehow, I suspect she has not been instantly stricken by my unique personal magnetism, as her spontaneous cuddling seems to suggest. Some abs. I flee.

Finally, of course, some of the merchants will follow the sidelines' stars all the way out of the book biz. Fair enough. But other small independent shops, with drive and grit and imagination and strong abdominals, will go on contributing to the richness of humankind's mind and spirit.

That's what booksellers have been doing since almost 500 years ago when books first escaped the monastery. Finally, the ritual in Chicago was a celebration of that noble cause - and strangely beautiful.

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