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Superstores, Narrowed Choices : Books: High-volume outlets are crushing the traditional booksellers who offered us new ideas and idioms.

October 16, 1994|STEPHEN GAMES | Stephen Games is a cultural commentator in Los Angeles, formerly with the Independent and the BBC in London

On a quiet evening in Westwood Village, four customers are gathered around the checkout in Waldenbooks, but they are not buying books. They are watching a video of Mel Brooks' "The Producers." This isn't going to do anything for the store's sales figures or its bookish reputation, but it hardly matters, because the branch reportedly will be gone in a few months.

If that happens, it will be Westwood's second bookstore death this year. Butler & Gabriel, which specialized in fiction, closed in August after losing a discounting war with UCLA's campus store.

Sadly, these two dealerships are just the latest in a chain of closures in Westwood that includes Hunter's, Campbell's and Westwood Books, all victims in a literary oasis that is slowly becoming a desert.

Westwood is not alone. Hunter's in Pasadena has closed, and the Old Pasadena Bookstore, and Eric Chaim Klein in Santa Monica, and Book of Wonders in Beverly Hills, and Blue Moon near the Beverly Center, and Jack Roth on West Olympic Boulevard, and Book Castle in Burbank, and Chatterton's in Los Feliz and Fowler Brothers on West 7th Street. Other stores said to be in trouble include Big & Tall, the literary coffee shop on Beverly Boulevard now closed for remodeling.

The appearance that bookshops are failing is contradicted, however, by a study published last month by Dun & Bradstreet and G.A. Wright, a retail consultant based in Denver, which suggests that bookstores are thriving, increasing their sales and taking on staff. It also finds that bookstores have one of the lowest closure rates of any retailer. Independent research by the American Booksellers Assn. confirms this view.

The study does not allow for local anomalies such as Southern California's recession, but even here, the data doesn't suggest that bookstores are at risk. The two losses in Westwood, for example, will be more than replaced by the arrival of Borders, a subsidiary of K-Mart that has taken over a derelict mall south of Wilshire Boulevard, and by Barnes & Noble, which is opening a huge outlet at the intersection of Westwood and Santa Monica Boulevards. The focus of bookselling may move half a mile from the sleepy environs of UCLA, but the result will be a statistical gain.

The discrepancy between the results of the survey and what booksellers report is important because it marks a difference of perception. While the industry as a whole welcomes change and replacement as a sign of health, individual booksellers feel beaten down by changes being forced upon them. Small generalists cannot compete with giant infiltrators that mainline on the bestsellers list, buy in volume and discount on price. In order to survive, the independents are being forced to become niche marketers.

This development has a special poignancy. The small generalist bookstore is a symbol of our open society. It represents independence and self-reliance. It is sustained by a liberal consensus that sees a moral value, and not just a utilitarian value, in the diversity of information and ideas. When it collapses or gets transformed by commercial pressure into a specialist store, it reminds us of the fragility of that consensus and the endangering of choice.

Chain bookstores endanger choice as an operational necessity. Group purchasing prevents them from selecting stock with the same sensitivity as local stores that buy on their own. Profit maximization prevents them from supporting books or areas of interest that may not sell well but expose readers to new ideas. Corporatism prevents them from expressing any kind of passion (whose passion would a Barnes & Noble store manager represent?) or taking risks or engaging with their neighborhoods.

Superstores may be better equipped to offer dynamic service and be more sensitive to market trends but their methods are inappropriate to the values that book retailing stands for. The effect of superstores on clothes-buying, for example, is that options become categorized and everything we wear becomes more or less an example of a uniform. The effect on books is likely to be the same. This is disturbing if what we read gives rise to what we think.

The effect of this is to alter the symbolic function of the bookstore. Today when we think of bookselling, we think not of informed browsers and intellectual curiosity but of Muzak and malls and the culture of calculation. The bookstore no longer stands for any kind of cultural mission but for the primacy of business. Its well-stocked shelves no longer invite but induce. The aim is to sell, not to challenge.

The new bookstore also teaches us that our purchasing decisions are merely the expression of probability and public trends. It isn't just that the extent of our reading--the scope of our thoughts--is predetermined by marketing directors a thousand miles away; it's that when we enter the bookstore we give up our claim to individuality, and that we find this acceptable--or don't even notice. The promise of the bookstore used to be that it led us to books that elevated us; in a mass market, its underlying effect is to diminish us.

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