A novel, super concept

February 23, 1996

I respond to a bookstore like a gambler to a casino. And for many years my Las Vegas was London. Indeed, ever since my days as a postgraduate student in London, I could never sleep on the overnight flights back to Britain. I would stay awake, anxiously planning where to initiate the day's action: Dillons? Colletts? Foyles? The Economist? Compendium? Or Central Books for a look at the second-hand collection? Ah, the good old days . . . My family would be picked up at Heathrow by my wife's former flatmate, and I would head immediately for the first bookshop on my list. Between trips, I would dream about those rooms of books.

Much has changed. Admittedly, there is now Waterstone's. But, sadly, Colletts and Central are gone; the Economist is a shadow of its former self; Dillons has had its troubles; and Foyles seems even nastier than it was. Honestly, while I still look forward eagerly to visiting London - and still spend too much time in the shops - it just is not the same.

Yet, before you think me merely nostalgic and ready to take off in a tirade against the corporate takeover of bookselling and everything else, let me say that while the London scene ain't what it used to be, neither - thank goodness - is the American.

As those of you who have visited the United States know, what we Americans have been willing to call bookstores were not really bookstores at all. Sure, a city like New York has had its Barnes & Noble and The Strand, and the San Francisco Bay area its Cody's and Moe's. And, yes, every big-time university town (which Green Bay is not) has had a campus co-op stocked with workbooks, textbooks and a selection of real books, plus an assortment of eccentric new and second-hand booksellers.

Nevertheless, you would have had a really hard time finding a good bookstore when the skyscrapers or ivory towers are no longer visible on the horizon. There were exceptions, but the independently-owned, main-street shops of smalltown America were mostly purveyors of greetings cards, magazines, calendars, bestsellers and How-to books. Perhaps they were welcoming places, but I feel confident in saying that those portrayed in Hollywood films are always more interesting, cavernous and well-stocked than the real ones.

The suburban scene was just as bleak. Recognising the commercial possibilities, in the 1960s and 1970s "chain" bookstores arose and installed themselves in the new shopping malls. Offering the literary counterparts to the jeans, cassettes, and cosmetics on sale elsewhere in those sparkling but culturally antiseptic environments, their merchandise was just as bland and packaged. Given this apparently far greater space, they were able to entice customers away from downtown with the newest picture books, the latest biographies and pathographies, and the slickest self-help books on "relationships" and New Age business and religion.

Desperately, one would search the shelves, hoping to find something of value. There were now more and bigger stores, but things had hardly improved. Actually, they had gotten worse, for at least the downtown bookseller had had an interest in books. The staff in the mall knew less and did not care. All decisions were made at headquarters.

However, as evil as corporate capitalism can be, sometimes it surprises even me. And recently - via the competitive enterprise of two companies, Borders and Barnes & Noble - it has seen fit to create a new kind of US bookshop, the "superstore". A truly marvellous development on the otherwise depressing corporate-cultural landscape of 1990s America, superstores are popping up in city centres and suburbia alike. They are most remarkable places. From a distance they would seem to be simply bigger versions of the mall stores but, trust me, they are not. Arguably, they are more like bookstores of our nostalgic past, but on a giant scale.

For a start, they are regularly stocked with a whopping 100,000 titles, including books on every possible subject from astronomy to zoology, classics to cultural studies. The history and social science sections alone contain more volumes than an entire chainstore outlet. Additionally, the superstore's newspaper and magazine racks appeal to every taste imaginable and, amazingly, there are usually several dedicated specifically to political and literary journals traditionally associated with the likes of "intellectuals" (eg, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement).

Plus, the underpaid but interested, college-educated staff is usually well-versed regarding the stock in their respective sections and, in any case, computers can quickly tell them what they need to know.

Moreover, while you can enjoy these emporia on your own and for many hours - they stay open very late and have comfy chairs and couches to settle in for proper browsing - they are also welcoming of families and social outings. A few times each week, such stores host such promotional events as talks, readings and even small concerts, and I have visited several stores where book groups have formed and hold weekly discussions, occasionally with a visiting author.

Moreover, every store has a children's section with its own furniture and storytelling corner where, on weekends, you will find a staff or guest storyteller performing. Presumably appealing to somewhat older kids, I have even read of singles' gatherings at superstores.

There is more. Superstores often have a music floor where you not only can browse, but, as in the stores of old, you can pick up headphones to hear the latest recordings before you buy (something I had not seen since my first visit to Edinburgh almost 20 years ago). To top it all off, superstores have built-in coffee bars where you can get a bite to eat with your favourite flavour of coffee, juice or soda (a yuppie version of the teashop that used to be situated beneath Dillons).

I have not gone soft on corporate capitalism. I am aware of the criticisms of the superstores but, in contrast to most other commercial developments, I love this one. I have read reports that they are driving the remaining independent shops out of business. Yet such reports usually refer to urban areas where there is a surfeit of good bookstores; not to mention that certain independent shops have successfully confronted the invasion of superstores by transforming themselves into such.

At the same time (and I say it with a smile), I know that mall stores too are going under because they cannot compete with nearby superstores. Also, it should be noted that superstores pay their staff no worse than the independents and are probably more likely to provide employee benefits like health insurance (a crucial thing in this country).

Neither am I naive. I know that many of the shoppers entering superstores are seeking out the same pop reading they would have looked for in mallstores. Still, in the superstores they might pick up something original (besides a date), or they might stop in on an evening when a good writer is speaking . . .

I continue to dream of London. But I also have begun to fantasise about possibilities closer to home. By way of the local Oneida and Menominee tribes, we now have casinos and slot machines in northeast Wisconsin. Why not, I figure, a really super bookstore?

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. His new book, Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History? and Other Questions, has just been published in Britain by Macmillan.

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