Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Evolution of Book Stores

When I was writing my dissertation I frequented a small bookstore around the corner from my office called Levinson's.  Academics have an odd relationship to books.  They seem to consume a lot of them.  The manager of Levinson's was my supplier.  His name was Norman Olson.   He did not know economics - but he did know books.  Very rarely would I be able to stump him.  The hardest were books of economists who wrote in the early part of the twentieth century.  He often had editions of 18th or 19th century economists - often only one but it was there.  I was always amazed like the time I came in and had just discovered Frederic Bastiat and he had a copy of Economic Sophisms.  Knut Wicksell was a bit tougher.

What was most interesting about Levinson's was that it seemed to carry the right set of books.  Ask for a classic novel and he would have it.  Ditto for any contemporary fiction.   But the bookstore also had a superb range of other books on a wide range of subjects.   There were larger versions of Levinson's in other cities but they were much larger - the Tattered Cover in Denver (where my parents loved to take my kids when they visited); Powell's in Portland and Vroman's in Pasadena were all much larger but staffed with people who knew books.

About the time I was finishing my degree the first chain stores came into the business.  They were stocked with cheaper editions of classics and a lot of books for people who do not like to read. It was there I first encountered the "coffee table" book designed more as an artifact than as something to inform.  I never could understand those chains' economic model.  They were almost selling seconds in the business.  They were staffed by people who knew little about books.

The third iteration of bookstores came with Barnes and Noble and Borders - chains that mostly get it right.   I remember an argument with one of my aunts when I visited them in Winston Salem.  There had been a good bookstore there which was being chased out of business because Barnes and Noble was coming to town.   My aunts grumped about the competitor but soon began to shop there and the smaller place went out of business.   The small shop was owned by the brother of CBS news guy Charles Osgood but it failed because it could not compete.  But when that failed they soon began to appreciate the local B&N.

The fourth iteration came with Amazon and eventually Barnes and Noble and now iBooks.  The original of this model combined electronic searching with millions of books (and now like the third generation physical stores CDs and DVDs).   It lost some of the personality of Levinson's but gained in efficiency.  And because the Amazon model understood the intrinsic nature of connection - it added a series of recommendations from all sorts of sources to take the place of Mr. Olson.   For the last couple of years, after the invention of the Kindle - I have consumed almost all of my books electronically.  That means two things.  First, the wait I had to experience in the Levinson's era is gone.  Second, I am not forced to build an addition on to my house for all the books I've added.  My wife is a consumer of novels - so she more than competes with my attraction to books.

There are two points here - besides the history.  First, markets do move toward demand.  Second, the Long Tail (first explained by Chris Anderson) which argued that as things become digitized there soon becomes a market for less sold content - was manifested in earlier times by places like Levinson's and the Tattered Cover.  But Anderson's insight about the potential power of the digital market continues to evolve.

My suspicion is that although I do not think Norman Olson ever encountered digital books I think he would have appreciated the extra benefit that they offered to those of us who read.

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