The Selling of Bookselling
by Ted Striphas — Indiana University, Dept of Communication & Culture
November 24, 2009 – 16:49
Bookselling isn’t just about selling books, it’s also about selling bookselling. The same might well be said of the representations of bookselling that circulate in the public sphere. Consider, for example, the 1998 feature film You’ve Got Mail (dir. Nora Ephron). It helped crystallize and bring to widespread public attention the conventional wisdom about retail bookselling in the United States.
As you’ll see in the clip, the film frames the primary conflict as a David and Goliath story. A local independent bookstore owner struggles against an oversized national corporate bookselling chain that, almost without warning, seems to fall out of the sky, land in the community, and lay waste to existing mom-and-pop shops and the longstanding human relations they’ve cultivated. Independent book dealers like Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) are portrayed as maintaining a deep and abiding commitment to customer service, grounded in an extensive knowledge of the books they sell. Superstore executives like Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), on the other hand, are depicted as modern-day robber-barons who are driven not by a passion for books — objects that are apparently incidental to what they do — but rather by the book business. Independent bookshops are small and cozy; superstores are massive and impersonal. Independents are real bookstores; superstores are vague simulacra. Independent bookstores foster a more culturally and intellectually enriching world of letters; superstores homogenize the world of letters by over-emphasizing deeply discounted bestsellers and other cheap books. Independents engage only in friendly competition and are more concerned with books and community building than with profit; superstores are predatory operations that drive neighborhood independents out of business. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, independent bookstores are said to posses a deep, rich history, sometimes extending back generations, while superstores are more commonly represented as ahistorical, ideal types.
I don’t wish to dispute the effects that real-life large-scale corporate bookselling chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders have had on independent bookstores — which is to say nothing of book culture in and beyond the United States. I do, however, think it is worth questioning these and other commonsense understandings of both types of stores. This is precisely what I attempt to do in Chapter 2 of my book The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (Columbia University Press, 2009). There, I try to write superstores back into history, by exploring how they come to inhabit and inflect the senses of place in which they’re located.
Big-box bookstores — and indeed other artifacts of mass culture — may be "impersonal" and "homogeneous," as Kathleen claims, but this can hold true only for as long as they remain abstracted from history.