The Selling of Bookselling

Curator's Note

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.


Lisa Gitelman's picture

big boxes

Hi Ted. Thanks for this. I’m a fan of your book, but I guess I have a question about your final points here. While I appreciate that the contrasts between independents and big box booksellers may at times be overdrawn (part of a romantic ideology that chronically disavows books as commodities …), how can you use "history" to counter the impersonal and homogeneous qualities of commodity capitalism? Sure, my local big box bookseller is "my" local, and the folks at my Starbucks make me feel as if I had invented "my own" drink — for the record: the short double skim latte — but that makes neither store more personal or more human. Does it?

Ted Striphas's picture

History & the Impersonal

Hi, Lisa.  Thanks very much for your comment.  As an an admirer of your work, I was particularly excited to hear from you.

I suppose I’d respond to your question in two ways.  First, while I use the term "mass culture" frequently in my own work, I’m not sure that "mass culture" is as homogeneous as people tend to give it credit for.  The subtext here is my interest in the work of Gilles Deleuze, and specifically his book, Difference and Repetition.  There he notes that much of what we would describe as "repetitious" is in fact rife with difference, and that certain epistemological conditions encourage us to overlook the singularity — even the minor variations — of every repeated thing.

Second, and in a less philosophical vein, I believe that history allows us to tell more complex and interesting stories about mass culture, compared to those that are commonly in circulation.  Do big-box bookstores homogenize the world of letters?  Probably to some degree, though I think it is fair to say that they expand it in others.  But what really interests me is how mass cultural institutions are made to fit into the locales in which they’re located, and how they in turn inflect that sense of place politically and economically.  Chapter 2 of Late Age explores this dialectic through the case study of a Barnes & Noble in Durham, NC, where the store is involved — almost despite itself — in redressing longstanding racial and economic disparities in the area.  Ultimately, I’m looking to history as a means by which to stretch the familiar stories of mass culture to their limit so that a significantly greater degree of specificity might emerge.

P.S. I’m an ice coffee guy (with plenty of sugar and soy milk) myself.

Elizabeth Lenaghan's picture

When Superstores Collide

Ted, Great post! I fully agree that mass-culture warrants historicization and find the case-study in your book a particularly intriguing one. However, as your test case succeeds in exposing the particularities of mass culture through a lens of localization, I wonder whether you also think it might be possible to expose particularities of mass-cultural institutions by comparing them with each other? I’m thinking, of course, of the recent price war that took place between Amazon, Walmart, and Target. In this instance, do you think comparing these superstores with bookselling chains like Barnes & Noble or Borders might result in another way of humanizing (and therefore historicizing) the latter group?

Ted Striphas's picture

Apples and Oranges and Fruit

Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth.  I suppose it would be possible and perhaps desirable to, as you say, expose the particularities of mass cultural institutions be comparing them with one another.  This would likely lead in the direction of specificity and might well counter some of the more baleful accounts of homogenization that too frequently circulate.  That said, my purpose in doing so wouldn’t be to humanize, say, Wal-Mart, or even Barnes & Noble.  I’ll leave that to their respective PR people.  What might interest me, though, is the question of what practices do and do not flow between them.  So, for example, it would be easy enough to see and Barnes & Noble both as booksellers who are poised to blow open the e-book market with Kindle and Nook.  Homogenization, right?  But the differences between the two companies are astounding.  I’d venture to say that Amazon is really agnostic about books; the company wants to sell virtually anything.  B&N, on the other hand, very much remains a bookseller, however profit-oriented it may be.  So what might their respective business cultures tell us about the future of books, printed or otherwise?  Now, that to me is an interesting question — one that emerges only when you compare apples and oranges instead of reducing them both to fruit.

Lisa Gitelman's picture


I’m afraid I’d still resist this idea. Sure, B&N and Amazon are different pieces of fruit, but, well, fruit is fruit. The fact that one giant corporation sells books and stuff and the other ‘just’ sells books isn’t astounding to me as much as it is the general order of corporations today. They sell, and they do so according to elaborate architectures that are at once intensively capitalized and massively, intricatly constitutive of what today passes for identity: consumer preference and customization. Interestingly, contests between bookstores and department stores in the late 19th and early 20th century offer a related case. "Practices flow[ed] between them" as they competed with subscription sales (a commecrial form that didn’t survive) and yet bookstores and department stores were very different from one another. Difference between corporations doesn’t make them human, does it, it only makes them different? … Call me a cynic, sure.

A wonderful back and forth...

As a publishing exile to academia, I wish some form of this very discussion would be de rigeur among academics, who consume books in massive numbers…  Esp. media academics, who often think about these very issues in other contexts. 

I love — love, love, love — independent bookstores. The way they fit into the fabric of a town, the bizarre systems of organization they have, the way owners and workers know people, the way they have devoted time and space — their lives, often, quite literally — to literature in a very "on the ground" level.  That said?  In terms of the "classic" commodity capitalism argument re: David vs. Goliath?  B&Ns and Borders provide a huge # of jobs in a way Mom & Pop stores can’t, pop up in all kinds of places that would otherwise NOT have a community space devoted to literature, and — let’s be real for those of us who love to read and buy and are totally broke — are cheaper b/c they can arrange the discounts. 

I’m sensitive to Deleuze’s argument specifically b/c of these thing.  But on some level?  "Cost," like "value," is multivalent.  Book buyers, lit fans, whatever we want to call them, give up something with B&N — even moreso with Walmart, Amazon,, etc.  However romantic and affective it may be.  Yes online distribution aggregates and disseminates info about books and lit in different ways — I’m really interested in how Ted’s book delves into that.  B/c finding a weird novel on  Not nearly the same feeling as plucking it out of a corner of a weird little bookstore.  For better AND worse.


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