Finding good books

The company has revealed to its employees that it intends to install a new inventory program in its stores, purchased from Wal-Mart. The system offers no control to workers in individual stores, and will not change the selection of product according to the store they are sending the books to, except in terms of size. Thus, the Chapters I worked at, with its huge clientele of students of English as a second language, will lose its selection of ESL textbooks. It will also presumably eliminate several areas that account for a significant portion of the store's sales, including their corporate sales department and the ability of the music section to sell local independent artists' work. All in all, the store is completing its transition from an example of classic capitalist exploitation - that is relying on human skill for the creation of surplus-value - to an efficient, mechanised example of the modern service economy.
Dale McCartney, Closing the book on Chapters, March 2004

The first sign of what was to come was an announcement by Borders Books at the end of August that the chain would be setting aside dedicated sections for products from Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc.

Borders’ explanation was, their sales of books were declining and they felt this was because people were migrating to electronic reading devices. This despite strong evidence that ebook sales at that time were accounting for a lot less than 10 percent of publishers’ revenue.

Soon after the Borders announcement, Chapters-Indigo in Canada announced that they intended to be Canada’s largest retailer of toys and games for the upcoming Christmas season. Not to be outdone, Barnes & Noble announced that they too would be setting aside significant chunks of space for toys and games.
Richard Day, Issues in Book Retail, Feb 2011

I had an exciting book-week last week.

First, I found out that a new John Sandford novel was coming out Tuesday, October 4th.  I stuck my head in Coles Books (part of the Indigo-Chapters-Coles chain) late Monday just on the chance.  A pleasant young man assured me they couldn't release the book before the 4th.  Not to worry, he said.  There were two copies out back.  (Two!  Only two!  What's going on here!)

So I went over Tuesday and cleaned out half their inventory of new Sandford titles.

Then, Wednesday, Jacques Poitras was in town, signing and selling copies of his new book Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border (Goose Lane Editions).  I wanted to go, but had class.  So, instead, I went back to Coles at lunch in hopes of finding a copy.

"Do you know if you have Jacques Poitras' new book?" I asked, mangling his last name as only an anglophone can.

"How do you spell his last name?" she asked, turning to the computer.

For me, this was the point of disconnection.  She wasn't going to search the Coles store, much less answer my question.  She was going to search the computer.  But computers need precise information (Google search being the exception) and I didn't know how, precisely, to spell his name.

"He's the author of the history of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery," I said, with diminishing hope.  "The author of The Right Fight.  And his new book, called 'An Imaginary Line' or 'The Invisible Line' or something just came out."

"Nooo...," she said.  "I don't see it here."

"All right," I said.  "I just thought you might have it.  He's in town doing signings tonight."

"No," she said, smiling a little at my foolishness.  "He can't do signing unless its in the bookstore."

I didn't argue.  I just went to the university bookstore the next day and picked up a signed copy.

What was foolishness, I suppose, was to think someone working at a bookstore would know what books were on the shelves just because I always mostly know what books are in my bookwagon, or my storytent, or the bookroom where we keep our spares.  But that's because books are important to me, and I think about them a lot.

Cheryl and I both are book people.  That makes it easier for us to work together, and also explains the thoroughly bookish nature of all our projects.  Consider our storytent program: we set up a canopy on lawn, put down a blanket, spread out some books, and read to ourselves until kids come by who want to read with us.  It's hardly a sophisticated program.  Some people have trouble recognizing it as a program at all.  But it works exactly because of its simplicity; and the fact that we take care to have terrific books.

To get these books, we used to take a road-trip to Moncton or Fredericton to visit the bookstore Chapters.  Later, we got an Indigo Books in Saint John, but it turned out to be a different kind of place.  The children's books section, for example, featured a hard, noisy floor and ride-on toys.  The rest of the store had fewer books, and more stuff (notebooks, CDs, lamps, toys, knick-knacks).  And now, I understand, the Fredericton and Moncton Chapters are being made over into the Indigo model.  At least, that's what Cheryl says - though I can't find my notes from the last time she went to Chapters.  (I remember I wrote down what she said because she doesn't usually swear that much.)

Anyway, I see there's a bit of news on the wires about the Indigo-Chapters-Coles chain further decreasing their book holdings in favour of bottled water and toys and such.  See, for example, this piece from the Toronto Star ("By now, regular customers have noticed lamps, clocks, scarves and other Indigo-brand lifestyle products displayed in priority areas where book tables once stood").

The executive types say the changes are a reaction to the ebooks and internet bookstores; to falling sales caused by the new technology.  See, for example, the PricewaterhouseCoopers report cited in the Sydney Morning Herald (Oct 4, 2011). The report is clearly daft - the accountants describe what Indigo's doing as "an example of an independent bookseller leveraging people’s affection for books" even though Indigo is anything but an "independent bookseller" - but it confirms the trend.  I think these stores are being run by people who don't much like books.  Certainly, they don't make it easy to buy them.

But then, few of the bookstores around here do.

One major, on-going barrier we face in the storytent and bookwagon programs is the difficulty purchasing books we know to be popular.  We can't buy Yummy Yucky or Quiet Loud anywhere in Saint John, though the much poorer Tubby is on sale in a couple of places.  We can't buy any of Byron Barton's books, and can only sometimes find copies of classic Munsch.  It's been a while since I've seen Sheree Fitch's Mabel Murple or Toes in My Nose for sale anywhere.  No one in town stocks Donald Crews' Freight Train or his Sail Away.

Luckily, Scholastic and a few other catalogue sales places sell some of these titles.  We can order them.  But that distance-sales is exactly what the local bookstore and chainstores say are hurting their business.

Go figure.

The big chain theory was built on the premise that books could be sold like soap powder: computers would track sales in each store, group of stores, and chain-wide, and would determine what to keep on the shelves and what to drop. That model never really worked. The best bookstores have always been those where there is an element of “hand selling” — where staff know and care about books and can advise individual consumers, “if you liked that, I think you will also like this.”

Operators of those stores understood the seasonal ebbs and flows of the business; they knew from long experience in the trenches that certain books sell steadily all year while others are more incandescent, attracting a lot of consumer interest for a brief period before flaring out. They stocked accordingly. Computers working on sales “models” don’t get the differences. The buyers working behind the computers tend to have months of experience, rather than decades, and many don’t reach the point of understanding their market before they are moved on, up or down or sideways.
Richard Day, Issues in Book Retail, Feb 2011

But clearly, these are advantageous changes for the company. Part of this is the layoffs engendered by the changes - certainly there is much less management in the stores, and likely fewer employees as well....  When I started at Chapters, though, I thought it was one of my better employment options. After all, the job appeared to be about books. Ultimately, though, as Chapters' new changes demonstrate, the job was never about books; it was about profits. The changes over the next few months are only the final stage in a process intended to secure as much of these as possible.
Dale McCartney, Closing the book on Chapters, March 2004


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yep, I went to the local Coles in search of the Canadian novels shortlisted for several national and international prizes. Nada. The Coles guy was surprised that I was surprised that they are not promoting, selling, or even planning to order these books.

My word verification test is bogism. Indeed. Bogism is running rampant.