Synopses & Reviews
Over the past half-century, bookselling, like many retail industries, has evolved from an arena dominated by small independent shops to one in which chain stores have significant market share. And as other retail fields, this transformation has often been a less-than-smooth process. But this has been especially pronounced in bookselling, argues Laura J. Miller, because more than most other consumer goods, books are the focus of passionate debate about commercialism. What drives that debate? And why do so many people believe that bookselling should be immune to questions of profit?
In Reluctant Capitalists, Miller looks at a century of book retailing, demonstrating that the independent-chain dynamic is not entirely new. It began a hundred years ago when department stores began selling books, continued through the 1960s with the emergence of national chain stores, and exploded with the formation of “superstores” in the 1990s. The advent of the Internet has further spurred tremendous changes in how booksellers approach their business. All of these changes have met resistance from book professionals and readers who believe that the book business should not be captive to market forces, but should also embrace more noble priorities.
Miller uses historical data and interviews with bookstore customers and members of the book industry to explain why books evoke such distinct and heated reactions. She reveals why customers seek out certain bookstores and why book professionals identify so strongly with different types of books. In the process, she also teases out the meanings of retailing and consumption in American culture at large, underscoring her point that consumer behavior is inevitably political, with consequences for communities as well as commercial institutions.
Over the past half-century, bookselling, like many retail industries, has evolved from an arena dominated by independent bookstores to one in which chain stores have significant market share. Yet unlike other retail industries, bookselling, many people believe, should be “above” questions of profit. In Reluctant Capitalists, Laura J. Miller investigates what drives this belief and how it is affected by the changing retail environment.
Miller argues that the independent/chain dynamic is not entirely newit started a century ago when department stores began selling books and has culminated in the advent of Internet marketplaces. Miller uses interviews with bookstore customers and members of the book industry to explore how these changes have met resistance from book professionals and readers who believe that the book business should somehow be ethically superior to market forces. In the process, she also teases out the meanings of retailing and consumption in American culture at large, underscoring her point that any type of consumer behavior is inevitably political, with consequences for communities as well as commercial institutions.
“Chain superstores, notes Laura J. Miller's fascinating new study Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, are the latest manifestation of a centuries-old struggle between bookselling Davids and Goliathsa battle over where Americans actually shop versus stores with, Miller tartly notes, 'a style of retailing that Americans at least profess to miss.”Voice Literary Supplement
One of the jobs programs launched by the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression was the Federal Writersand#8217; Project. What resulted was the American Guides series, one travel guide for each State, directing people on what routes to take and what to see, but also revealing the distinctive characteristics of individual states. One aspect of the Guides was the Literature Essays, which discussed nearly 3000 authors in all. Griswold focuses on the literary impact, revealing how diversified American literatureand#8217;s cast of characters was (by gender, ethnicity, geography) and how the State Guides introduced a shift in perception of American culture (it now seemed to come in state-shaped boxes). She tells us what the Guides looked (impressively produced) and how they told a story of each stateand#8217;s natural, social, and cultural heritage, its cities, and how motorists should see it. This was a time (1930s) when literacy in American was high and there was a boom in reading. These books were retained in libraries, they were continually reprinted and used by students, hence the State Guides normalized ideas about cultural diversity long before such ideas became mainstream. American Guides is the second volume of a trilogy on culture and place by Griswold (the first was Regionalism and the Reading Class, 2008).
About the Author
Laura J. Miller
is assistant professor of sociology at Brandeis University.
Table of Contents
1. Commercial Culture and Its Discontents2. From Dry Goods Merchant to Internet Mogul: Bookselling through American History3. Providing for the Sovereign Consumer: Selecting and Recommending Books4. Designing the Bookstore for the Standardized Consumer5. Serving the Entertained Consumer: The Multifunction Bookstore6. Bargaining with the Rational Consumer: Selling the Low-Cost Book7. The Revolt of the Retailers: Independent Bookseller Activism8. Pursuing the Citizen-Consumer: Consumption as PoliticsAppendix: Ownership Histories of Major American Chain BookstoresNotes