Saturday, March 2, 2013

Eccentric retailing: crazy like a fox or crazy like crazy?

The backlash against homogenized, industrialized, cookie-cutter retailing is in full swing.  You see it in the embrace of the local and sustainable; you sense it in the glorification of retail authenticity, even and especially if it includes business practices that seem unbusiness-like; you can read it in the cottage industry of business books arguing that the key to a customer’s heart lies in not seeming so desperate to get there.

As consumers, we’re so sick of being managed and sold to, and we can only look forward to the heavy hand of the digital marketplace reaching ever deeper into our souls in coming years.  So we eagerly embrace shopping experiences that feel like something more than slick gimmickry designed to get you to buy.  There’s something uniquely nauseating about mega-banks that only want to be your friend.

For the book industry, achieving an irrational, on the fly business persona is an easy fit.  It’s playing on our home turf.  Despite the decades of mergers, downsizes and attempts to standardize our world, many publishers and booksellers have clung to a DIY “we’ll do it our way” approach.  Perhaps this is because very few people enter the book world in search of some product to sell.  They sign on because they love books and reading, writers and writing.  Business plans, P&L statements, turn analysis and chirpy customer service bromides are all a necessary evil.

The book business is filled with eccentrics.  Like the retro diners that draw customers who expect and hope to be abused by sassy waitresses, some may actually turn a chronically cranky special order department, an extreme lack of amenities, or a lunatic inventory into a selling point.  It seems like bookstores are more personality-stamped than just about any business going today, with the possible exception of local indie coffee shops (though many of those have mastered a kind of fake authenticity.)

I’ve been pondering the line between eccentricity in business practices and plain craziness.  Can we really sort the charmingly counterintuitive and the economically suicidal into two neat piles, or must they of necessity bleed into each other a bit?

What got me going on this was an anecdote in a review by Michael Lewis (a wonderful writer) of Capital (a wonderful book) by John Lanchester (a wonderful writer) in the New York Review of Books.  Lewis is lamenting that cutthroat capitalism and money-grubbing have taken hold of contemporary London.  When he lived there in the eighties, he said, the city seemed to “exist for just about any other purpose than for people to make money in it.”

                “…the most extraordinary anti-commercial attitudes could be found, in places that existed for no purpose other than commerce.  There was a small grocery store around the corner from my flat, which carried a rare enjoyable British foodstuff, McVities’ biscuits.  One morning the biscuits were gone.  ‘Oh, we used to sell those,’ said the very sweet woman who ran the place.  ‘But we kept running out, so we don’t bother anymore.”

Though I can’t swear that this particular scenario plays out in bookstores, it struck a chord.  It’s both eccentric and a little crazy, or at least straddles the line.  But it’s charming, and I suspect Lewis found it endearing and continued to shop there.

I’ve been in many bookstores over the past couple decades.  I’ve worked in them and sold to them and patronized them, and a long roster of “crazy or just eccentric?” business practices come to mind.

There’s the wonderful store where you’re welcome to browse until you take out a pencil (or heaven forbid, a phone) and begin to take notes.  You will be pounced on by the proprietor and given a stern lecture about how bookstores have become showrooms for Amazon.  Perhaps you will be back, perhaps not.

There’s the new/used store piled so high with inventory that it’s impossible to turn around.  There’s a vague categorization, but new unorganized piles colonize every corner.  Luckily there is an inventory control system, but it resides in the proprietor’s head and on his Blackberry.  I’ve never met a better master at ABS (Always Be Selling) in the book business.  But I can’t help wondering whether potential customers scared off outweigh potential customers won.

There was the superb academic store, now just a good memory, where inventory was sorted and displayed by publisher rather than subject since it made stock checks and returns much easier (for the store, not the customer.)    Visitors to the shop would be met by a large dog and a front table full of rep and bookseller debris, including Indian takeaway lunch.  Charmingly eccentric or a little nuts?
The publishing side of the book industry has its own menu of incomprehensible business practices.  As I chuckled to myself about the London shopkeeper, I was reminded somehow of a peculiarity of academic publishing that drives retail booksellers and customers- rightly- insane.  This is an archaic textbook pricing model whereby you are charged more per book the more copies you order.  This is business counter-intuition at its finest, and there is a very convoluted and arguably rational justification for it.  But on the face of it, it’s hard to think of another kind of retail where the price per piece goes up the more you buy.  Lacking any shred of charm, I code this bit of eccentricity crazy.

Many booksellers find the freight policies of publishers deeply eccentric, and more than a little crazy.  I could say more but the subject is also deeply boring.

And- back to textbooks- there is the ongoing revolt among students over what they see as unnecessarily high prices and needlessly frequent new editions and updates.  The last place I got an earful about that was, of all places, at the US-Canada border crossing in Port Huron, Michigan last week.  When the young agent asked about my job and I told him who I worked for, he responded with a tirade against the high cost of textbooks.  (In truth, this seemed more crazy than eccentric, since there was a line of cars behind me.  But I've had more idiotic conversations at this particular crossing.)

When I was a bookseller, I managed the downtown Milwaukee branch of a small local chain.  The store owner, David Schwartz- who walked the high wire between shrewd businessman and crazy eccentric with great skill and love- had a pet peeve: he thought I let our staff spend way too much time indulging the street people, characters, and assorted downtown problem patrons who spent lots of time in the shop.  It wasn’t that I had a more generous spirit; I just thought he underestimated how hard it was to keep them away.

One man in particular drove David bananas.  He was nearly blind.  He was deaf.  He couldn’t speak.  He drooled.  He smelled bad.  When he came into the store we knew we were in for an hour of incomprehensible note-passing that always ended in stalemate.  He was forever in search of some elusive book and we were never able to identify it.  But what could you do?

One Christmas Eve afternoon, David made the rounds of the stores to monitor how things were going.  He popped in at a very busy time, and one desk had a very long line of customers.  At the front of this line, passing notes to our most patient bookseller and drooling on the impulse display, was our friend.  David headed straight for him and shouted in a very angry voice “YOU!  OUT!  OUT!!!”  The man was steered toward the door while the line of customers retrieved their jaws from the floor.  In terms of impression management, this store full of many once a year customers probably didn’t leave with the warm fuzzies.

It’s a tricky thing.  David was a mensch and anyone with a misleading snapshot takeaway of that scene would be missing essential background.  But true eccentricity in a retail setting can’t be tamed or branded in some top down way.   

Sometimes I’m not sure the people who are advocating the real, the local, the authentic know what they are asking for, or will be happy when they get it.  For a buying experience to feel honest, it may not necessarily feel “nice” in that plastic, have a nice day way.  If you want interactions with real people, you have to be ready for the realness.

But I’m pretty sure that more and more people will be craving real (as opposed to real™) shopping experiences in years to come, and bookstores are poised to be those spaces.


  1. There is a story (possibly apocryphal) of two economists who tried to convince their (commercial) publisher to lower, rather than raise, the price of their introductory textbook the year after its publication, arguing that after the initial adoptions had been secured, they were no longer competing with other textbooks but rather with used copies of their own textbook. Needless to say this didn't find a welcome reception.

  2. Very funny post, and what you say about bookstores rings true. I remember a left-wing bookstore in Chicago where my brother was scolded for special ordering what the guy at the counter said was "a very expensive paperback." He uttered it with a tone and an expression of deep disgust.

    Please e-mail me and tell me which bookseller confronts the Amazon customers, because I don't view that as eccentric at all. In fact, I often tell booksellers they should do exactly that. Of course, they never listen to me, so maybe you'll think that I'm the eccentric.

    By the way, I know your blog isn't a business, but if you have an e-mail list, please notify me when you write a new post, or am I supposed to simply check, or wait for Jack C. to tell me about it as he did this one?

    Bruce Joshua Miller

  3. There's a chance you are eligible for a complimentary $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.