Never-Ending Story

Independent? Chain? The Bookstore Dilemma

Congress Avenue Booksellers

photograph by John Anderson

There's no hard data to corroborate the claim that many Austinites are highly attuned to the political consequences of their consumer choices, but for the simple sake of argument let's accept the claim as valid. It could even be ventured that in Austin there are more consumers per capita actively considering whether they should frequent independent or chain stores -- and this goes beyond just bookstores -- than in any other city in Texas. And for those Austinites, the issue can be articulated by a variety of approaches, like detailing point after point its complexity, or by comparing the independent and chain stores financially, or by invoking the debate's emotional aspect, which businessmen (some of whom are also local booksellers) will freely tell you is a bad idea.

But if that latter aspect of the debate were to be raised, the "emotion" you'd hear mentioned most often would be loyalty, which is what Eleanor Cochran, who owns and runs Congress Avenue Booksellers with her husband Jim and his brother Bill, felt an appreciable lack of when Book People opened in its present location in May 1996, when friends started shopping at Book People doubtlessly for a variety of reasons, but probably because of their curiosity about its newness and its opening goal to have in stock one copy of every book. Every book, period.

Since 1975, Congress Avenue Booksellers has occupied three locations on one block of Congress Avenue, the 700 block. Eleanor speaks for all the Cochrans when she says that they "would never go anywhere else but downtown" because "downtown needs a book presence," a presence, as far as numbers are concerned, of an estimated 15,000 titles, 10 percent of them periodicals, an amount which may be outsized by other local bookstores but a selection which far and away makes the store the most comprehensive seller of periodicals in the city. But the presence Cochran speaks of is a more ineffable one, evidenced, though, by the respectfully familial ease with which she treats her four knowledgeable employees, Cliff Taylor, James Rost, Kenneth Lloyd, and Sam Waring (who though he isn't seen regular hours at the store due to his job as user support for the city's purchasing office is well-known for his investigative talents when it comes to finding old or out-of-print books). The store's clientele consists for the most part of downtown businessmen and, especially on Saturdays, tourists and hotel dwellers, who have a relatively easy time getting to the store, since, as Cochran stresses, "Parking is a big, big problem." She reports that business is doing well after an initial period of difficulty upon the opening of Book People. Rare for a bookstore, Congress Avenue Booksellers delivers.

Susan Post, who owns Bookwoman, doesn't deliver, though she does pride herself on maintaining a tenaciously constant presence on location, delivering intimate knowledge of any title in the store, whose roomy layout affords it the semblance of a more sprawling space than it is. Bookwoman also opened in 1975, initially as a collective located for two years at 21st and Guadalupe, the next two years at 1510 San Antonio, for 14 years at Sixth and Trinity, and the last three years at its present location on the northwestern edge of downtown near 12th and Lamar. Post, who employs one part-time and one full-time employee, doesn't cite financial measures when asked whether she noticed a change in sales after the opening of Book People, saying she doesn't think about the store in terms of the money it makes but does recall a decline in store traffic. In keeping with her politically active nature, Post says, "We will prevail, but two years ago I thought we might not."

It can safely be presumed that the two stores don't expect to "prevail" over chain stores, opting instead to maintain steady, profitable businesses serving their already established clientele. Their more immediate concern is maintaining steady, profitable businesses in the face of a nearby independent bookstore, Book People. In turn, Book People CEO Phillip Sansone frames his store's recent title and space downsizing of the great majority of the third floor (everything except for the author reading area) as a defensive move in light of the chain stores' spatial and financial encroachment. Barbara Thomas, owner of Toad Hall Children's Bookstore, who this May will be ending her second consecutive term as president of the American Booksellers Association, says of Austin's book market that it's "so competitive." She's right: It's not a vicious circle, it's just vicious.

With this dynamic in place among at least the downtown bookstores, is there anything that unites them in a common "struggle" against the chain stores? They all could utter in unison "Thank god for the Great Depression," since it was the Great Depression that produced on June 19, 1936 the Robinson-Patnam Anti-Discrimination Act, an antitrust statute which declares that "it shall be unlawful for any person engaged in commerce, in the course of such commerce, either directly or indirectly, to discriminate in price between different purchasers of commodities of like grade and quality... where the effect of such discrimination may be substantially to lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly in any line of commerce." Even for a legal document, the words are clear and pointed: A business cannot unfairly discriminate against a retailer by offering pricing or provision of promotional allowances at different prices to different retailers.

The American Booksellers Association filed an antitrust lawsuit not seeking monetary damages under the provision of the Act in May 1994, but not against the chain stores. The ABA's initial suit was filed against five publishers, Houghton Mifflin, Penguin USA, St. Martin's Press, and two smaller publishers, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates of Southport, Connecticut and Nashville's Rutledge Hill Press. Calling into question large publishers' discounting practices was not an unheard-of action, since the Federal Trade Commission began an investigation in 1979 against six publishers (Random House, HarperCollins, The Hearst Book Group, Macmillan, Putnam, and Simon & Schuster), an investigation that did not net any conclusive decision until the FTC brought suit against the publishers in 1989, with settlement negotiations reportedly concluded but then stalled and finally abandoned in September 1996.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal on May 27, 1994, "The [ABA's] suit alleges that the five routinely favor giant chain stores with secret discounts and promotional deals not available to smaller bookstores." Two examples are cited in the Journal article: Houghton Mifflin publishes the Columbia Encyclopedia, whose 1994 list price was $125. But since Barnes & Noble was selling the title for $60 or $75, it was alleged that the publisher was giving Barnes & Noble a larger discount than it gave other retailers, if it gave them one at all. Houghton Mifflin for its part stated that Barnes & Noble was given a discount since it bought 10,000 copies of the Encyclopedia on a nonreturnable basis and that that discount was not unfair. Bookstores typically have the right to return any unsold book. Somehow, warehouse chain stores around the nation were able to offer a Rutledge Hill title the sort of which were popular several years ago, a book of sickly sweet aphorisms called A Father's Book of Wisdom for $3.99 while bookstores sold it for $5.95. That same discrepancy was cited in the initial ABA suit. None of the sued publishers ever admitted wrongdoing, preferring to settle and sign consent orders that clearly outlined fair business practices.

Bookwoman's Susan Post

photograph by Kenny Braun

So while a case of that magnitude certainly brings credibility to independent stores' claims that they are being unfairly run out of business by larger stores and commercial publishing practices, the dictum that chain stores by nature run independent stores out of business is at worst sketchy and at best begs for further investigation. Comments from bookstore owners and employees around town who prefer to remain unnamed run the gamut from "Chain stores don't run independent stores out of business, just sloppily managed ones," to detailed defenses of chain stores' abilities to create just as unique a buying atmosphere as smaller, independent stores do, and even more fervid rebuttals that they treat their employees as well as the owners of Congress Avenue and Bookwoman, and that only locally bred, niche stores can truly know and cater to their clientele.

To compound the issue, in Austin, the usually clear distinction a book consumer could make between choosing an independent bookstore over national chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble is muddied by the fact that Book People, the largest bookstore in town, is also an independent one. That means that Austinites who are choosy about their book purchases have to decide not only between a chain or independent store but between Austin's relatively rare wealth of independent stores.

It would be a uniquely dedicated book buyer who would consider all of these issues when going out to buy a copy of, say, Cold Mountain, but to be honest, Austin has plenty of them. And for Austin's booksellers, that is either boon or bane. Depending on whom you ask, of course.

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