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Adventures in Retailing
Part III: Manhattan Bookstores


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
January 6, 2005

There was a time when going into a bookstore gave me a thrill. I would go out of my way to visit them. One by one, however, my favorite bookstores have either gone out of business or were co-opted by the mainstream.

My earliest bookstore expeditions were as a high-school student in the 1960s. Although downtown Elizabeth, New Jersey still had something to offer the bibliophile—an independent bookstore, the book sections of the big department stores, and two substantial used bookstores (none of these have survived to the present, nor have replacements for them appeared)—Manhattan ("The City") was where the real books were.

Yes, Virginia, there once were bookstores on the main shopping drag of Fifth Avenue. Lots of them. To me, the Doubleday bookstore was the focal point, but it was difficult to go more than a block or two in the heart of midtown without running into a bookstore. And downtown, where rents were lower and it was hip to be an intellectual back then, had an even higher density of bookstores. The largest of them was the flagship Barnes & Noble with its sales annex across the street.

Manhattan's bookstores served as valuable function aside from being a place to buy books and related items. At a single glance one could get a feel for what was hot (or, more correctly, what was hot a few years ago given the long publication lag) in a given field. Such insights were even more valuable when tracked over time. For example, my favorite bookstore for books in math, statistics, computers, economics, and finance was the McGraw-Hill Bookstore, located underneath the McGraw-Hill Building on the southwest corner of Rockefeller Center. I can remember a time when I could stuff every book from a major publisher on options and derivatives securities inside my briefcase and have room for lunch. Over time, I saw options and derivatives sprout their own section within the finance books that would grow longer every time I visited the store.

The McGraw-Hill Bookstore, like so many of Manhattan's great bookstores, is no more, having bit the dust in 2002. On my last few visits there, I wondered how it managed to stay in business so long. In a world of rabid discounting, virtually every book in the store sold at the publisher's list price. The service in the store, such as it was, crossed the border into rudeness (I have one particular employee in mind). Increasingly, I saw my fellow customers furtively scribbling down titles and ISBNs and the lines at the checkout counter vanished. By its own admission, the bookstore had fallen victim to the Internet.

Another of my favorite Manhattan bookstores, the Coliseum, also vanished in 2002, but it managed to resurrect itself in Eisnerland on 42nd street the following year. I have not visited the new store, but reviews on the web indicate that it has lost a bit of its charm and square footage in transit. The Coliseum was an excellent marker of the state of Manhattan "culture." The front table was a ten-second guide to which books were currently hot with the "media people." And if you were really lucky (or unlucky), you could end up on the Letterman Show. While many celebs frequented the store, Dave's theatre was a few block down and when he showed up, he brought cameras with him.

All told, it seems like Manhattan has at most a quarter of the bookstores that it had during the great literacy boom of the 1960s. The bookstores that remain tend to be larger and most of them were built during the great chain bookstore explosion of the 1990s. Sadly, the copies are not nearly as good as the originals. Take Barnes & Noble, for example. The original downtown store was notably for its comprehensive collection of textbooks. When I worked at GE, I would drag my interns down to the store and buy them the books that they needed to fill the holes in their technical backgrounds. (We stopped letting GE's top executives visit my office because when they saw all my books they would say "Have you read all of those?" and think to themselves "Am I paying for those?") I can now get several varieties of Tarot cards at my local Barnes & Noble, but almost no textbooks. The name of the store is the same, but the contents are vastly different.

Manhattan and other large cities are lucky that they still have physical bookstores. I noticed that several years ago, bookstores began to disappear completed from suburban malls. Two bookstores used to be standard issue for malls (one B. Dalton and one Waldenbooks). Now, many smaller malls (as well as some larger ones) have no bookstores at all.

Of course, two things are happening. People are buying fewer books, especially books that are not linked to the world of entertainment, and what books are being bought are not being purchased in bookstores—the Internet and the discount retailers have taken big bites out of the book market. But something deeper is going on. "Books" are moving from the physical realm to the digital realm. Browsing through a bookstore is becoming like searching for radio stations by turning a dial.

Before I take another whack at Google, I will bring my adventures in retailing series to an end with a visit about 50 miles north of Manhattan to Woodbury Common. This upscale outlet mall has thrived at a time when many traditional Upstate New York malls have been bulldozed and replaced with big-box retailers. What's more, Woodbury Common may just underline the illusory nature of America's merchandise trade deficit.

Copyright 2005 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to