Rewriting the chapter on big

Westminster: The expansion of Random House's 84-acre book warehouse will make it the largest in the country.

October 31, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Even by warehouse standards, Random House's Westminster Distribution Center is enormous.

It has more floor space than 10 Wal-Marts, bookshelves that are seven stories high and more volumes than the world's largest library.

Each week, Random House packs and ships 4 million books out of Westminster, about twice the number available in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's main library and 26 branches.

Yet the center is not big enough.

This 24-hour-a-day city within a city -- where safety crews rappel down 70-foot stacks, books zip along conveyor belts and forklifts are dispatched by radio commands -- is getting bigger.

By January, Random House will complete a $30 million expansion that will add a sixth warehouse and make the 84-acre complex the largest storehouse for general-interest books in the country. It will have space for 160 million volumes, dwarfing the collection of 27 million books and periodicals at the Library of Congress, the world's largest library.

"I don't think people realize how big of an operation we have here," said Jeffrey A. Sprinkle, a Westminster native and 30-year employee who oversees the operation.

Everything about the place is big.

Random House says it is the world's largest publisher of English-language general-interest books. Sprinkle says that means that no matter where in the world someone picks up a book, there is a good chance that it came through Westminster.

Edmund Morris' biography of President Ronald Reagan is being shipped through Westminster.

So is a hot-selling biography of presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

A tour of the place reveals no literary reasoning for how books are stored and no Dewey decimal system for retrieving them.

The latest John Grisham novel is on shelves next to "The Ultimate Hot and Spicy Cookbook." James Michener might be stacked alongside "Making Great Gingerbread Houses."

Storage and shipping are more a matter of computers and scanner codes.

"If the computer system goes down, you're cooked, so everything has to have a backup system," Sprinkle said as he tapped into a computer near a pallet filled with 1,500 copies of a Judith Krantz novel to demonstrate how he tracks a day's shipment.

A computer accepts orders from 3,000 bookstores and wholesalers across the country at a customer service center near the front of the complex.

Orders are then dispatched to a fleet of forklift operators and cranes spread among the complex's warehouses. Binderies deliver books to Random House boxed or in small shipments that workers hand-pack into boxes.

The forklifts deliver boxed books to a loading area, where they are placed on conveyor belts and carried under a scanner that reads the codes attached to them.

A computer then sends the books zipping along a network of conveyor belts, where they look like speeding cars as they veer off main belts to any of 20 individual ramps and loading areas.

"It does have sort of an automated, futuristic feel to it," Ted L. Stonesifer, a supervisor, said as he watched a box of best sellers wind its way to a loading dock for shipment to a Chicago wholesaler.

Books that are hot sellers -- such as the Reagan biography, which has sold more than 442,000 copies since its debut in mid-September -- will move faster and are stored in the more accessible warehouses, Sprinkle said.

"The goal is to be able to satisfy as many orders by moving as many books as quickly as possible," Sprinkle said.

Many of the slower-selling titles are stored in the tallest warehouse, an imposing structure with seven-story stacks that opened last year on the north side of the complex.

Known as Building No. 5, the behemoth looks like the setting for a Stephen King novel with its slow-moving cranes and dimly lighted rows of 70-foot shelves.

Books there are retrieved with cranes that are locked onto rail lines running between the stacks. Crane operators must ride up the shelves to retrieve the books.

Stonesifer said no one has been stranded in the cranes, but state safety inspectors require Random House engineers to train about once a year in rappeling down the side of the shelves just in case.

"It's not that scary. When you're up there you can't really look down. All you can do is look from side to side because you have all of that crane underneath you," said Ralph Walkling, a maintenance worker who repairs the cranes.

When a new book is released by a best-selling author, such as Michael Crichton, it is often put on the shelves -- in as many as 3,000 stores across the country -- on the same day. Such books are shipped out two weeks in advance to more distant bookstores and a day or two in advance to stores closer to home.

Random House Inc. owns 60 publishing companies, including Knopf, Crown, Ballantine, Bantam Books, Doubleday, Dell and Delacorte. Most of their books are shipped out of Westminster.

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