Stay Hungry

Surviving the book wars and outfoxing the wolves with the Hungry Mind's David Unowsky

The Los Angeles Convention Center was a hive of good cheer on the morning of Saturday, May 1. It was the climax of Book Expo America, the annual meet-and-greet of the publishing industry, and the cavernous exhibition halls were buzzing with the sound of movers and shakers moving and shaking. Smartly dressed movie executives scoured the crowd for the next John Grisham, and publishers eagerly hawked their fall lines to booksellers and distributors. Actor-turned-memoirist Bill Murray was spotted hobnobbing with the literati and plugging his forthcoming A Cinderella Story. Later in the afternoon, diet guru-turned-sweating oldie Richard Simmons brushed shoulders with author-turned-hermit Salman Rushdie, who was himself fresh from a romp at the Playboy Mansion. There, newly anointed Playmate of the Year Heather Kozar had mentioned to the acclaimed novelist that she admired his work because it often helps her get to sleep.

David Unowsky was nowhere to be found. Earlier in the day, the owner of St. Paul's Hungry Mind bookstore had slipped quietly out of the conference and, in the company of a comrade from a West Coast publishing house, had driven across town in the rain to Hollywood Park, the palatial horse track and casino complex in Inglewood. Once there, Unowsky checked the odds in a racing form, placed a bet on a mystery horse named Worldly Manner, and settled in front of the big-screen television on the infield to wait for the start of the Kentucky Derby. It was an indulgence he would never have allowed himself a few years ago, when independent bookstores like his Hungry Mind seemed on the edge of extinction and Book Expo was more like a minefield than a trade show. This year, however, things seemed a bit safer. There was talk of corners turned and storms weathered, and for the first time in a long while, it seemed reasonable to slip out and play the ponies.

Back at the Convention Center, Richard Howorth, president of the American Booksellers Association, was speaking enthusiastically of a new era of prosperity for the nation's embattled independent bookstores. The good news delivered by Howorth was that membership in the ABA was actually up after plummeting steadily in the early 1990s from 5,200 to less than 3,500. "These aren't exactly the glory days of bookselling," he said, "but I feel we are turning a corner."

Yet the mood was not as congenial as it seemed. Andy Ross, an independent bookstore owner from Berkeley, California, took the opportunity to publicly denounce Frank McCourt's appearance in a television ad for Barnesandnoble.com, essentially accusing the Angela's Ashes author of fraternizing with the enemy. There was talk of a lawsuit brought against Barnes and Noble and Borders by the ABA that charged the behemoth chain booksellers with "soliciting, inducing, and receiving secret, discriminatory, and illegal terms from publishers and distributors." Rumors were also circulating that the merger between Barnes and Noble and Ingram Book Group, the country's largest book wholesaler, was on the verge of being scuttled by the Federal Trade Commission.

At the ABA's meeting that evening, the organization had unveiled its "Book Sense" campaign, which gives independents a collective Internet presence, as well as a stake in a nationwide advertising blitz. If the indie-versus-chain store paradigm that has long defined the book industry gave rise to a battlefield mentality, it was obvious on May 1 that independents are now prepared to offer a more unified front in their own defense.

As the indies circle their wagons, however, the chain stores look increasingly like an unbeatable foe. Since the late 1980s, the market share for independents has dropped from 30 percent to 16.6 percent, while Barnes and Noble and Borders have gobbled up more than a quarter of the market. If Barnes and Noble were to control Ingram, indies around the country would be forced to buy much of their inventory from their largest competitor--a situation that the ABA claims would equal an unfair monopoly of the supply chain. And there was more bad news. The coveted prize for which both indies and chain stores are struggling--the hearts and wallets of American readers--is rapidly shrinking. At Book Expo, analysts from the Book Industry Study Group, a Publishers Weekly-sponsored trade organization tracking consumer buying habits, reported that book sales had dropped nationally by a disheartening three percent in 1998.

The most dramatic development in the industry, though, Internet bookselling, may soon dwarf all other concerns. The growth of Amazon.com may prove a common enemy for both chains and indies and may, according to some, eventually render the traditional bookstore obsolete. Although the legion of Amazon.com reps that regularly descends on Book Expo had discarded their distinctive red uniforms for this gathering, no one could ignore their presence.

Far from the madding crowd, David Unowsky watched Worldly Manner jump out to an early lead, then fade in the backstretch into seventh place, while a sleek three-year-old named Charismatic pulled up to take the race by a neck. It was a disappointing performance and meant a minor pecuniary setback, but Unowsky wasn't bothered. He has, after all, survived three decades in the precarious book business by gambling on the long money, and until now he has always beaten the odds. A decade after the invasion of book superstores first threatened indies and set off an interminable tolling of the death knell for the corner bookstore, Unowsky is still thriving by playing David to the chains' Goliath.

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