Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Remembering Better Times in Bookselling


Borders is as dead as a pop fly hit to Willie Mays. If you are in the book business as I am at Sporting Chance Press, you hate to see this kind of development. It's sad, but it also reminds me of when bookstores were lost many years ago to a previous wave of sales trends and developments.

When I was sixteen, I started working for Kroch's and Brentano's Bookstores. I had a lot of company. My brother and my cousin were already employed by what was certainly one of the largest independent store chain in existence. Even a relatively small K & B store had 30-50 employees--the biggest one on Wabash employed hundreds so it was also a good citizen offering many people jobs.

The store operation began with Adolph Kroch in the early 1900s and expanded greatly under his son Carl. At one time there was a tie-in to Brentano's of NY. Brentano's was begun by August Brentano in 1853 as a newstand and then expanded to become an institution in New York city. Nephew Arthur Brentano took over in 1873 (The Magic in an Old Book-Shop, Dearborn Independent, November 28, 1923).

I've read different variations on what the Kroch-Brentano tie in was, but it must have been fleeting. Both operations went their own way, but Kroch's kept the Brentano portion of the name.

K & B consisted of it's monster Chicago store and headquarters on Wabash, additional downtown Chicago prime real estate stores on Randolph, LaSalle, and Michigan Avenue along with a bunch of suburban stores--all totaling about 20 at its peak. If you visited the stores as I did, you found that each store seemed to have employees that matched up with its location and neighborhood. It was the people who made a difference.

Bookstores like many retail stores work with low profit margins and at that time many labor intensive operations. Before computers, books were special ordered by mail and phone directly to the publisher. I can remember the woman who handled all the special orders from a desk at headquarters. In a time before sticky notes, she had literally hundreds of small scraps of paper reminders pinned around her desk like an explosion of graffiti. You could call her to check an order and within a few seconds she could tell you when you might expect to see it based on current turn-around times and the status notes on those papers. However, while K & B was more than happy to special order for their customers, publishers did not share the same enthusiasm for the single orders and routinely botched them.

At the main store, there were managers for each category of books who were experts in their fields. They fielded calls from stores all over the chain as well as from customers. From an art manager who not only knew Manet from Monet, but could have lectured in any university fine arts program, to the manager of technical books who was at home with Chilton's manual, Modern Carpentry and the Pipefitter's Handbook.

I had the privilege of working in every store in the chain at the time of my employ (18) as part of a group of trouble-shooters. I was a clerk, stocker, window washer, fixture setter upper and take downer and practically every other job the chain offered. But the most fun and challenging job was manning the phones in the famous paperback section at 29 South Wabash. At the paperback phone desk, we took calls from busy downtown workers who called to order books for pickup. We would take one call after another on several lines, jot down the desired books and run out to the sales floor to determine if they were in stock and report back to each customer. The desired books were rubber-banded together with a sheet of paper indicating the customer's name and placed in a hold section. The furious pace of the job and mental acumen necessary for recalling the titles and their locations gave this job a sense of pleasure that few jobs could match. A week in the paperback section would provide a year's worth of training that might be had in any other store setting.

Gift wrapping was free of charge and included a gift card, beautiful gold or silver wrap and sticker medallions with the store logo. By the time I finished my time as a clerk in one store, I could wrap gifts almost as well as my four sisters who are legendary gift-wrappers.

Even "back in the day," a lot of people had similar tastes in books so K & B sold tons of best sellers. I believe it was best sellers that helped Kroch's keep going as long as it did and allowed it to carry the hundreds of thousands of books it did. Unfortunately, it was also best sellers that ruined stores like Kroch's. When the original book discounters came in, they were structured to operate under lower overhead so they could cut the price of best sellers. I believe that Kroch's did not have the financial footing to carry on as a full service bookstore--all the expertise, the customer service costs and every other feature that had been developed and honed over many decades were now unrecoverable costs that weighed the company down. In my opinion (I am no accountant), all the things that made Kroch's great were too costly for the discount environment. One by one the art, literature, business, history, and other experts would lose their jobs. Stores closed and a wave of discounters had their day for a short while.

Do you miss the creative window setting of the old line stores? Kroch's employed a professional window dresser who would travel to every store in the chain to design the windows. Themes were often employed that matched the season or a particular genre of book that was popular. In many stores today, books are simply piled like bricks.

Some of the discounters didn't last long, at least not in the Midwest. I believe they were killed off by discount superstores that gave readers discounts and a more upscale feel with coffee, warm woods and fine fixtures--and even some clerks who were knowledgeable. Barnes and Noble continues to adjust and survive--reinventing itself to respond to trends and threats. Now, online selling, digitization and deeper discounts have killed another wave of stores--from superstores like Borders to mom and pop Christian stores, children's and other specialty shops that had found a niche to serve when people liked to come in a physically look at what they are buying. Some continue to survive. But despite how much we may love our bookstores, they have never been immune to everything else that happens around us.

The world of books continues to spin round and round. Where it stops is anyone's guess. Right now my book world revolves around my publishing company Sporting Chance Press. I hope to continue to produce books with a soul regardless of the media and the method of sales. I hope my books help people feel human and connected regardless of what is going on around them.

Image is that of George M. Gibbs painting of Kroch's and Brentanos on Wabash Avenue in Chicago used for the cover of his book The Art of the Bookstore. George M. Gibbs publisher, www.gibbs-smith.com.
This article is Copyright 2011 by Sporting Chance Press.