Nostalgic for New Bookstores? Not I.

Not even if Barnes & Noble disappears tomorrow.

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

you probably know, the book-selling and publishing industries are undergoing severe change, economic convulsions and high tech disintermediation.

That last one is a fancy word for new technological developments causing extreme disruption in business models.

I don’t have any insider insight into all this, but one aspect of the ongoing streams of arguments bugs me.

So many people talk about new bookstores as though they are the book publishing equivalent of Mom and apple pie.

Do We Really NEED New Bookstores to Hold Up the Sky?

There’s a subtext that we as readers and writers need new bookstores. That without them we wouldn’t be recreational readers. That American culture depends on them. That they deserve preserving even if they’re not profitable.

So commentators look at the decline in brick and mortar bookstores in the United States, and decide the sky is falling.

In a sense, they’re right.

Independent bookstores have been in decline for several decades, thanks to the two corporate behemoths. The Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie You’ve Got Mail dramatized the issue. Tom Hanks’s character was the grandson of a family-owned book chain to make him more sympathetic, but the movie certainly took aim at how Borders and Barnes and Noble discounted book prices to drive independents out of business. Because those companies were so large, they could take advantage of economic efficiencies impossible for the owners of single bookstores.

Many right-thinking culture snobs of that era decried the rise of those corporate big box stores. That’s even though the average Barnes and Noble and Borders store carried FAR MORE titles on their shelves than any independent bookstore I’ve ever been in.

How times have changed.

Borders declared bankruptcy in early 2012. One corporate behemoth out of the game.

Barnes and Noble are closing some retail stores, and converting a lot of space to nonbook use. Would you like a game with that?

James Patterson took out a full page ad in the New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly calling for some type of government intervention to protect book publishers and book sellers.

In interviews, he did cite several European countries as good examples of governments protecting bookstores for the sake of culture and literacy.

James Patterson on government intervention in book publishing

An Ebook Pioneer Went to Bat for New Bookstores

Stephen King released the first mass market ebook, Riding the Bullet, back in 2000 — years before Amazon produced the Kindle. In 2009, he came with a novella (title: Ur) that’s only available on Kindle. Therefore, fans had no reason to think he’s a Luddite.

However, when King released Joyland in 2013, it didn’t have an ebook edition. (It does now.) His stated goal: helping bookstores, who have helped him so much over the year.

He is on record as saying people who want to read that book should get off the stick and drive to an actual bookstore to buy it.

Stephen King on Joyland

This makes no sense to me. Maybe he got push-back from bookstores over Ur, but he did his fans, especially those in rural areas, a disservice.

Now, I’m a reading addict, have been since age 7 or so. I’ve read as many books as just about anybody. And over the years I’ve spent a large amount of money on books. Sometimes I told myself to stop, to read more of my To Be Read boxes (NOT a mere stack of books, mind you — a stack of boxes), but something always came out I needed to buy and read right away.

That’s been my pattern for over fifty-five years now. I’ve been in more bookstores than most people my age have owned TVs.

Why do I support the movement toward ebooks?

So why don’t I feel any of this great nostalgia for new bookstores?

Because it’s 95% BS.

*GASP!*

How can I say such a thing?

What About Mom and Apple Pie?

Let’s step back and get a little perspective, okay?

Printed books have been around since Gutenberg invented the printing press. Literacy, writing, periodicals and literature have spread gradually since that point.

In 19th century America, literacy was still an elite skill. For most frontier farmers, miners, soldiers and factory workers, literacy was for the upper classes, preachers and men of questionable masculinity by the standards of the time. (Preachers were allowed to read so they could know what’s in the Bible.)

(When Oscar Wilde toured the Old West, the miners in Leadville took him down a deep shaft, thinking he’d be one effete English “Nancy boy” shaking in his boots. Instead, he out-drank them all.)

Those people were rough, but not necessarily ignorant. They memorized poetry and knew Shakespeare and classical mythology. But they didn’t sit down and read novels.

Probably many more people attended Mark Twain’s lectures and readings than actually read his works.

However, late in the 19th century, that changed, thanks to the implementation of universal education. Also, no doubt, to the desire by many immigrants to see their children grow up to become successful. Many European immigrants also brought a respect for culture and education with them.

Anyway, the demand grew for stories. Humanity needs stories, but only the elite could afford to buy the expensive hardcover books sold in bookstores.

And bookstores existed only in large cities. That does make sense economically. A bookstore owners need to sell books to pay the rent, and if the only two literate people in a fifty-mile radius are the preacher and the newspaper editor, that wouldn’t work.

Therefore, some enterprising entrepreneurs brought out dime novels to meet the need for cheap stories. Most of their distribution no doubt came in large cities, where there were enough literate (often barely literate) men and women entertained by the stories. But they also reached American small towns and cities.

These tales were never published in luxurious hardback books. Hardcover books were reserved for the wealthy, and sold in new bookstores.

Dime novels most likely spread through newsstands, candy stories and so on.

Pulp Magazines Also Brought Cheap Adventure Stories to the Masses “Literary” Publishers Ignored

Late in the 19th century, pulp magazines became the dominant vehicle for cheap adventure fiction. A ton of them filled the newsstand racks.

The black and white photo down the page at this site gives an idea of how magazines on display used to look. And that’s on a city sidewalk.

Here’s a display in Manhattan that appears to be outside a drugstore.

Here’s a picture that gives a closer look at a few of them.

Pulp Magazines Created the Idea of Genres

A few of the pulps, such as Blue Book, published almost any kind of story if well written and exciting enough, but most were specialized, so readers would look for the same title next month.

Before this period, general readers would of course perceive that The Time Machine by H.G. Wells was a different sort of novel than Moby Dick by Herman Melville. But book publishers brought out any story they considered good enough. They did not have separate imprints for science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and so on. They expected all their customers to be a potential customer for every novel.

But periodical publishers wanted that reader recognition and bonding, to create loyalty to their magazine titles.

So, pulp magazines came, by the hundreds. Spicy stories. Air war stories. Love stories. Confessions. Mysteries. Westerns. Hardboiled private eyes. Science fiction. Horror. Also, magazines dedicated to one character, such as Doc Savage.

More expensively produced magazines (“slicks”) published stories intended for more sophisticated audiences. This included The Saturday Evening Post. In the 1920's, when the average annual wage was $1,296, the Post paid $1 a word. Sell one story a year to the Post and you were set for the year. That’s how F. Scott Fitzgerald paid off his debts and supported his wife Zelda in the mental institution.

Although they competed with the growing movie and (starting in the 20's) radio industries for the fiction-seeking audience’s time and money, pulps survived until 1955.

Supposedly it was a problem in distribution that finally did them in, not the growing competition from television and paperback books, their direct heir.

Some pulps still survive, though in the smaller digest format: ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION (which began life as the pulp ASTOUNDING).

My point is, reading and fiction thrived for decades with little or no support from new bookstores.

How New Bookstores did NOT Help Me

I grew up in the small city of Alton, Illinois, just north of St. Louis, MO, but considered part of the Metro St. Louis area. So although my immediate environment was much like a small town, I had ready access to a significant urban area.

What do I owe to new bookstores for my love of books and reading from an early age?

Nada.

Of course, schools got me started reading, and supplied my earliest books. My mother took us to Hayner’s Children’s Library. In the summer after the third grade, I won the summer contest for reading the most books. Despite attending on the swim team practice every morning and playing in the pool all afternoon.

Freddy the Pig. The juvenile novels by Robert Heinlein. A Wrinkle in Time. Hundreds I’ve forgotten.

Before long, I walked up the stairs and began checking out the adult section of the library.

I remember the awe and chills I felt looking up and spotting the huge collection by Arthur C. Clarke, Across the Sea of Stars. What a great title.

In the years to come, I checked out hundreds of library books.

If there’s any one American institution responsible for widespread literacy and the appreciation of literature, “great” and genre, it’s not bookstores — it’s the public library.

God Bless Andrew Carnegie. (Though I’m not sure whether or not he funded Alton’s public library.)

(I just found out. The Jennie D. Hayner Library Association actually turned down funding from Mr. Carnegie because it would have required Alton’s residents to pay a tax to continuing to support library. Until the city took it over just before I was born, it was the only totally free library in the United States. So I owe a big debt of gratitude to Jennie D. Hayner and the other ladies who founded the original Alton Library Association in 1852.)

(But God Bless Andrew Carnegie anyway for all the other public libraries he helped build.)

Yet, the Big 5 publishers the cultural elites are crying tears for, are making life difficult for libraries.

How the big publishers are hurting libraries

Mr. Patterson, explain to me again how book publishers protect American culture?

God Bless the Newsstands and Paperback Books

If there’s another American institution that also deserves immeasurable credit for widespread literacy and the appreciation of literature, it’s the newsstand.

(And the candy stores and drug stores that also carried magazines, comic books and paperbacks on display.)

Why hasn’t anyone bemoaned the death of the newsstand?

Although I got lots of free reading material from Hayner Library, it was certainly not the only source of my literary fix.

From kindergarten through sixth grade, I attended McKinley Elementary School in the North Alton business district. I don’t recall exactly when my mother decided I was big/old enough to walk home from school, but it was at least by the fourth grade.

Alone and with friends, I explored the possibilities of fun and adventure.

And soon discovered the Wardein Pharmacy I walked past carried lots of magazines and comic books. And held a revolving rack of paperback books.

Mass market paperback books. Also called pocket books, because you could fit them into the back pocket of your pants. The true heirs to the pulp tradition. Especially paperback originals.

These proved so popular, hardcover publishers began selling the paperback rights to the “elite” novels. Soon it became SOP for a book first published in hardcover to come out as a paperback about a year or so later. This made even “literature” cheap enough for working people to afford.

Books that bombed as hardcovers could make a profit and even build an author’s reputation in paperback.

However, only hardcover book publishers were respected among the literary hoi polloi. Paperback originals continued to have a lower reputation, a carryover from the pulps. Jumping from paperback originals to hardcover publication was a milestone in an author’s career.

Paperbacks began to appear in the 1930's, and were especially popular with mystery fans. By the 1950's, as pulps fell in popularity or distribution, paperback originals took their place. At first, the main genres served were mysteries and westerns.

Fawcett Crest Gold Medal books published a lot of terrific mystery and thriller books: Wade Miller, John D. McDonald, and many more.

Except for a few “literary” works such as those of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, science fiction as we know it today is a creature of the pulp era. Although many adventure writers dabbled in it or used its ideas as exotic settings for adventures (Edgar Rice Burroughs), the first magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction was AMAZING, founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback.

The great SF writers of the early generation — Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein — as well as many others, wrote their stories for the magazines, never expecting them to be reprinted in permanent book editions.

One of the first science fiction publishers was Fantasy Press, established in 1946 by Lloyd Eshback. While he probably also hoped to make some money, Eshback founded Fantasy Press as an act of love for the genre.

Related to science fiction is fantasy and horror. The pulp era was not a good one for straight fantasy as a genre. The one pulp magazine devoted to straight fantasy was Unknown Worlds, and it lasted only four years.

However, the more dark fantasy oriented Weird Tales made history. Among others, it published Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and H.P. Lovecraft.

Neither of those two authors ever saw or — possibly — imagined, their stories would someday be collected into books and even celebrated and praised around the world.

Both died in 1936, long before they achieved fame and a kind of outgroup stardom.

In 1940, a Lovecraft devotee named August Derleth founded Arkham House, devoted to promoting Lovecraft and similar horror works. Its first book, The Outsider and Others, is now worth a lot of money.

As Fantasy Press, Arkham House and a few others were small publishers devoted to extremely “fringe” genres and authors, I’m certain the bookstores of the time never carried their books. They sold through ads placed in the magazines, science fiction conventions and word of mouth.

Science fiction book publishing didn’t really begin until the early 1950's. Doubleday did start publishing science fiction in hardcover editions, then made book club editions available to those who couldn’t afford hardcover.

In paperback, Ace Books and Ballantine began the next phase of the genre’s popularity.

Three Cheers for Revolving Wire Racks of Paperback Books

I’m fairly certainly Wardein’s is where I bought my first Fantastic Four comic book (#15 — how I regretted not getting #1) and first Spiderman (#6).

I’m also fairly certain that’s where I spotted the Richard Powers covers of the Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Chessmen of Mars was the first ERB book I bought and read. Ballantine reprinted the Mars and Tarzan books and gave them all great Powers covers.

Ace got hold of the rest, and gave them even better covers by Frank Frazetta. I still well remember buying Carson of Venus by ERB there at Wardein’s.

But Wardein’s was primarily a drugstore. Their magazines and comic books occupied a section of the wall about four feet long. I appreciated the comics, and, later on, the magazines. (Magazine of IF, Galaxy, Amazing, Fantastic, etc). But most of the magazines were mass market. Time, Newsweek, Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post, and a long row of confessions magazines.

And the paperback books occupied just one revolving wire rack with, I believe, four columns. It didn’t take long to turn it around to look for new releases.

Then I discovered the newsstand across State Street. I don’t recall its name. It had at least four or five revolving racks of paperback books, and many shelves of periodicals. It smelled strongly of tobacco, which I didn’t like, but I put up with it to browse through all those books for sale.

So for years, I bought comics, magazines, and paperback books from Wardein and that newsstand.

After I went on to high school, I bought from Kerr Drug in Upper Alton and the Broadway Newsstand downtown.

Man, talk about a cramped, dark little place. The front of the Broadway newsstand was small, and the one aisle leading to the back even more narrow. The better for the tiny, cramped lady who owned it to keep an eye on customers, I guess.

But she carried magazines I saw nowhere else: The Magazine of Horror and Startling Mysteries Stories.

These were digest sized magazines that consisted mainly of sloppy reprints of stories from Weird Tales, selected by Robert A.W. Lowndes, an old time fan and pro.

Since Weird Tales was long out of print and only available from mail order used dealers who charged extremely high prices for them, I loved getting to read those old stories. RAWL reprinted Lovecraft stories I could not find in paperback. Non-Conan Howard. Seabury Quinn Jules de Grandin stories.

But RAWL sometimes bought new stories as well. Two issues of Startling Mysteries Stories, which I bought at that newsstand when they were brand new, each published a short story by a newcomer named Stephen King. They now command a hefty price from dealers.

Mr. King, I Discovered You in a Newsstand — Not a New Bookstore!

As I recall, this same newsstand is where I could depend on finding the latest releases from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and the Ace Science Fiction Specials (edited by Terry Carr).

The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series was the highest quality line of fantasy books ever published.

The Ace Science Fiction Specials was the highest quality line of science fiction titles.

And I bought them all — at a newsstand, NOT a bookstore!

I Didn’t Set Foot Inside a New Bookstore Until I Started College

To the best of my memory, the first new bookstore I ever walked into was the university bookstore in Columbia, Missouri when I bought my first semester’s textbooks. And others. I enjoyed browsing through the many fiction books required by some class or other, and bought some.

Still, my hometown, Alton, Illinois did NOT have a bookstore!

Heck, it doesn’t even have one now. You live in Alton and you want to go to a new bookstore, you have to drive across the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to St. Louis. Then you must search for the nearest Barnes and Noble that’s still open.

As I recall, when it opened in 1978, Alton Square Mall had both a Waldenbooks and a B. Dalton, but that didn’t last long.

Sometime in the 70's, The Godfrey Book Store opened in Monticello Plaza, and I remember going there to visit with a buddy who was a clerk, but it long ago converted to a used bookstore.

All right, St. Louis is a big city. St. Louis had bookstores, though I never entered one until I was grown. I loved all of them, but they didn’t make me. They didn’t nourish my love of science fiction and other genre fiction.

I bought a lot at Paul’s Books in University City, especially when I lived around the corner in the Loop neighborhood. Yet they eventually went under, despite their close proximity to the staff and students of Washington University.

I’ve forgotten the name of the bookstore that occupied three separate locations in downtown Clayton, before the owners sold out to Borders Books.

Left Bank Books on Euclid Avenue carried a small assortment of bestsellers and ordinary genre books. They are a hippie/New Left collective, and so mainly carried a lot of leftwing periodicals and books you couldn’t find anywhere else. It still survives.

I do recall how happy I was when Barnes and Noble opened its first area store. In Ladue, but near both Clayton and University City.

Hey, I never said I didn’t like new bookstores. I’ve been in lots of them over the years.

And independent bookstores? As the corporate chains collapse and shrink, they’re actually increasing in numbers. They can focus on specific genres — science fiction, mysteries and so on. They can carry small publisher offerings not available at B & N. They can talk to the customers and find out what they like and enjoy.

And some of them are now partnering with Kobo. Go to the bookstore, browse, find a book you enjoy, but instead of then going to Amazon to buy it, you can buy it in electronic form right there at the store, and they get a percentage. Only fair.

The Megabookstores Saturated the St. Louis Market

But I’m not nostalgic about the whole idea of new bookstores. And I never dreamed St. Louis could support close to twenty superbookstores. (Now, with Borders out of the picture, it doesn’t.)

And I’ve been close to a major metropolitan area.

Many people live hours away from the nearest supersized bookstore. That was true even before Borders slit their own throat and finished bleeding to death.

So Stephen King’s admonition to fans to off their sticks and go to a bookstore to buy King’s book Joyland was ignorant.

Of geography.

I don’t know about Maine, but out here in flyover country, people who live in small towns may be a hundred miles or so away from the nearest brick-and-mortar new bookstore. They have NEVER been well-served by new bookstores.

Their drugstores used to get new comics, magazines and paperbacks, but that distribution system is now gone.

Now, if a writer’s fans are forced to buy the physical book, they’re going to order it from Amazon anyway. Why not let the UPS do the driving?

How does it help new bookstores for people to order a physical, paper book from Amazon instead of a Kindle version?

I don’t know.

My main point:

I’m a voracious reader and book consumer.

But new bookstores didn’t make me that way.

Libraries did.

Newsstands did.

Used bookstores did.

I am Nostalgic for Used Bookstores

All right, I didn’t talk about used bookstores. This story is long enough. Let’s just say used bookstores perform an important function new bookstores do not — they make older works available to readers.

If a writer is not a bestseller, new bookstores don’t carry their backlist. If you just today discover an author who’s been writing for years, so you want to read all their old books, and their name isn’t Stephen King or James Patterson, a new bookstore won’t help you.

Heck, I bet they don’t carry more than a fracture of the backlist of even those two guys.

You can check out a used bookstore if you live near any, or go to Amazon. If you’re lucky, there are Kindle editions of the older works. Older paperbacks are usually available on Amazon.

Amazon has done readers and used bookstores a tremendous service by allowing used bookstores to list their inventory on Amazon.

I’ve spend hundreds of hours of my life staring at the shelves of used bookstores, searching for something I wanted.

Thanks to Amazon, books available in used bookstores all over the country are now easily available to readers — no matter where they live. That’s a tremendous service to those of us who feel compelled to buy every book beloved authors have ever published.

And it’s a major service to those used bookstores. Now they can sell books to readers all over the country, or the world.

Used bookstores have had it rough economically as well as used bookstores. Many have gone out of business.

But, I suspect, some used bookstores in small towns are now thriving. They don’t have to pay the exorbitant rents necessary to attract a lot of traffic. They might simply exist in a garage or basement. By listing on Amazon, they can sell their inventory to anybody.

By De-Emphasizing All Books Except the Latest Hardcover Releases by A-List Writers, It’s New Bookstores that are Degrading the Culture

New bookstores are where you go to buy hardcovers of bestselling writers when they’re first released.

I for one never joined the fan club of hardcover editions. They’re expensive. And trade paperback editions, which I never saw on sale when growing up, aren’t much better. Too big, too expensive. Both formats are difficult to read while I eat. Both formats are difficult to carry around while waiting at the bus stop.

They don’t fit into the back pocket of your jeans as paperbacks used to. (In fairness, Kindles don’t either. But they are easier to carry around than a hardcover book.)

The more new bookstores cater to the grab so-and-so’s expensive new hardcover on its publication date crowd and the Big 5 publishers who cater to that mentality because that’s where their profit is, the more irrelevant they are to me.

I don’t see how making every release of a new hardcover by a bestselling author at the expense of making writer backlists available to readers is promoting “culture.”

The I enjoy browsing at Amazon because I know just about every book in English ever published might be available.

My emotional attachment is to the paperback, and the Big 5 are abandoning that format. They hate to cater to readers who want to pay only $8 for a book.

Self-published ebooks are the new mass market paperback books.

Check out my Income Investing Secrets newsletter now — click here.

Originally published at http://www.richardstooker.com on August 5, 2019.

Copywriter, financial writer, editor & unconventional thinker. Check out Income Investing Secrets newsletter https://incomeinvestingsecrets.substack.com/about

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store