Friday, June 18, 2010

business books & the last laugh part 2

To David Schwartz, the success with Winning Through Intimidation suggested that a big, untapped book retail niche was germinating under our noses. Though there were a handful of business and technical specialist booksellers in the country, very few general trade stores showed much interest in the business book market in the late seventies.

Enter Jack Covert. Jack and his wife Ann were proprietors of “Jack’s Record Rack,” the legendary music store on the east side of Milwaukee. Anticipating the demise of vinyl, Jack closed up shop and brought his savvy and enthusiasm to the book business by signing on with Schwartz to find and develop a clientele for business books.

The focus on professional books was not entirely new at the store. For years, David’s father Harry had built and maintained a significant medical book specialty, and we sourced textbooks for the Medical College, Marquette University and other schools and hospitals. But this was a very small operation and not terribly proactive compared with the business book program envisioned by Jack and David.

My memory of the details may be a bit hazy, but I recall three things pretty clearly:

First, though they had a reasonably firm idea of where they wanted to end up, the road map to get there was pretty sketchy. I don’t think Jack or David really knew for sure that the idea of selling big quantities of books to corporations would ever really bear fruit, nor how long the experiment to find out would have to last. But there was a willingness to commit resources and tweak the program until it got traction. I suspect there were many moments when both of them were tempted to pack it in.

Secondly, I remember Jack’s enthusiasm. He brought an old school sales evangelism to his outreach attempts that we hadn’t seen much in the staid world of the bookshop. Even by 1980, when the threats of chain competition were alarming (we were worried about Walden and B. Dalton! Can you imagine?), the genteel bookshop philosophy was to do your best and keep a tidy store with the right books and hope that the customers would come to you. Meanwhile Jack loaded up his trunk with business books and drove to remote parts of the state to make cold calls on small and medium businesses.

Which leads to my third recollection: the rest of the staff thought the whole thing deeply weird. The rest of the booksellers were not unlike current bookseller demographics- youngish fiction readers, sometimes with specific interests in history or the arts. We had been drawn to working in the store by the Schwartz sensibility, a somewhat nebulous vibe but one that definitely did not include hawking capitalist apologetics to The Man.

We watched the growing business section in the store and the huge claims on David’s attention as a kind of internal threat, despite the fact that Jack was the only dedicated staffer working on it. In the same way that I sometimes feel guilty now about how contemptuous I could be toward my younger sister decades ago, I sometimes feel a pang of remorse when I think about how unpleasant we booksellers behaved toward our new, entrepreneurial colleague. But Jack seemed to let it all slide by, and kept his focus on the mission.

And in some ways, Jack has had the last laugh. In 2010, the Harry W Schwartz Bookshop is no more. But its direct descendent, 800CEOREAD, is the most impressive and profitable business book retailer in the country.

More on them and how they do what they do to come.