By Andy Mannix
By Caleb Hannan
By Olivia LaVecchia
By CP Staff
By Aaron Rupar
By Jacob Wheeler
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Aaron Rupar
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.
His success and the survival of his Hungry Mind rest on the long-shot proposition that he can expand his small, tidy store into a small, tidy empire without becoming one of the corporate juggernauts he loathes, that the incursion of chain stores and, more recently, Internet retailers will never wipe out independents, and, most important, that the people who buy books from him will continue to see the survival of indie bookstores as the same sacred crusade against intellectual tyranny that he has long held it to be.
The irony of the situation is that just as chains once captured the market by copying the atmosphere of indies, independents like the Hungry Mind may survive only by learning to act like superstores.
In the chaotic world of bookselling, David Unowsky is widely regarded as something of a savant. He is a "warrior" to his staff and "one of the most creative minds in the industry" to fellow independent Joyce Meskis, who runs the Tattered Cover Book Stores in Denver and who served with Unowsky on the board of the ABA in the late '80s. Stu Abraham, a book buyer with Twin Cities-based Abraham and Associates, calls him "one of the smartest and most principled people in the book industry left in the country," with a gift for "thinking of everything before it happens." Who better, then, to explain what the shifting dynamics of the industry might mean for independent bookstores?
A week after the end of Book Expo, Unowsky agrees to a meeting in the Table of Contents restaurant adjoining his bookstore to talk about the Hungry Mind empire. Unowsky conducts his business over coffee because he doesn't have an office. According to his employees, he operates out of the pocket of his shirt and co-opts the space in which he happens to be standing at the moment as his headquarters. There is a desk for the store owner wedged into a corner of the small upstairs accounting office, but it is of the dimensions usually reserved for elementary school children and is often cluttered with an impossible mountain of unopened mail. When Unowsky arrives, the notoriously cantankerous don of independents seems in relatively high spirits. "Need coffee," he mumbles.
Taking a table near the window, Unowsky slips into media-relations mode. "It's an upswing for independents in a lot of ways," he begins. "A lot of us feel like we've weathered the storm and come out the other side."
"Of course," he adds quickly, "there are some of us who think we're just in the eye of the storm, and the other half is still coming. There's a sense that we've gotten through the tough times, but there are still some of us who could go under tomorrow. Who knows what the hell the future's going to be?"
At 57 and 29 years old respectively, Unowsky and the Hungry Mind both exude an aura of scruffy vitality. Broad-shouldered and bespectacled, Unowsky looks as though he would be equally comfortable in command of a factory floor or a steel mill. He has a round, serious face and a demeanor that tends toward casual irritability. His slightly tousled gray hair and informal attire, jeans and an unbuttoned button-down shirt, reflect the rumpled, no-nonsense persona of a man that some Hungry Mind staffers describe as "a bear with a heart like a marshmallow." He speaks in clipped phrases and gesticulates generously, especially when talking about books, which he likes, baseball, which he loves, and chain bookstores, which he loathes.
Despite the presence of new Barnes and Noble superstores almost within spitting distance of the Hungry Mind, Unowsky notes that business has been good. There is usually a lag in revenue when his neighbor and landlord, Macalester College, goes on vacation, but sales are up slightly from last year. The 5,000-square-foot main bookstore on St. Paul's Grand Avenue stocks around 100,000 titles and does a respectable three million dollars in business annually. The Expanded Mind, a smaller bargain book outlet down the block, is also prospering as the campus bookstore for Macalester College. The Hungry Mind Press, which Unowsky founded in 1995 with his second wife, Pearl Kilbride, is chugging along, and the nationally circulated Hungry Mind Review, which he started in 1986, is finally turning a small profit after more than a decade in the red. In addition, plans are in the works for a new 3,500-square-foot, 40,000-book satellite store in downtown Minneapolis, in the new Open Book literary center on Washington Avenue between Tenth and Eleventh avenues. With an uncharacteristically overt pride in his gravelly voice, Unowsky also mentions that he has been selected as Honorary Grand Marshal for this year's Grand Old Day Parade.
That the Hungry Mind is not only surviving but expanding would appear to make it something of an anomaly in the indie world. Certainly, quarterly cash infusions from Macalester students (who have been known to call the store "The Hungry Wallet") has something to do with it. But a casual poke around the store's narrow aisles also reveals a calculated marketing strategy. The book selection is eclectic and expansive, including everything from thick volumes of academic esoterica and limited-edition poetry collections from small presses to Lolita on tape and Martha Stewart's latest textbook for the domestically challenged. Handwritten staff recommendations provide context for the conscientious browser, from intimidating minidissertations written in the neologistic jargon of comparative lit grad students to simple raves like "What can I say about a book that changed my life."
All of it is designed to let customers know that the Hungry Mind is more than an alternative to the chain stores. It is a store with an ideology, and spending a bit more to shop here is also a political statement. Unowsky and his staff actively perpetuate the store's mythology: The in-house reading series and Hungry Mind Review are all designed to lure the local cognoscenti with the promise of an authentic literary experience.
"For book lovers," says Nancy Gaschott, administrative director of the Loft, "the Hungry Mind holds a special place in the heart, not just as a bookseller, but as a presenter of literary events." Indeed, the Hungry Mind Reading Series, which brings in 250 authors annually for book signings and public readings in either the back of the bookstore or Macalester's Weyerhaeuser Chapel, has become a touchstone for the local literary community. Like the non-profit Hungry Mind Press, which publishes mostly out-of-print literary nonfiction such as New Yorker scribe Lawrence Weschler's A Wanderer in the Perfect City, the reading series and the Review give the bookstore the added gloss of a cultural institution.
Accordingly, when the Hungry Mind opens its new Minneapolis store, it will not be so much an expansion of the business as an expansion of Unowsky's sphere of influence. The Open Book center--a joint project with the Loft, Milkweed Editions, and the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts--is, Unowsky admits, something of a financial gamble. "I'm being very cautious about this. History is full of people who opened a second store and went down the drain."
As if expansion were not in itself a risky enough wager, the location of the new facility, near the Metrodome, is generally considered a retail dead zone, with little parking and almost no pedestrian traffic. There is also a gargantuan Barnes and Noble a short jaunt away. "People who walk in the skyways downtown are fickle about going ten feet out of their way," says Abraham. "Opening a bookstore down there certainly isn't something you do to make a fortune."
Yet for Unowsky, it looks like a good bet. The Hungry Mind's vitality depends on its image as a community nexus, and even if the new store does not draw business from Barnes and Noble, it will draw the attention of the literary crowd.
Atmosphere sells the Hungry Mind, and that, too, has a lot to do with David Unowsky. Melanie Miller, a ten-year veteran of the store, likes to tell the story of a fresh-faced college kid who walked in a few years ago and inquired about a job. With the artless candor of a college kid, he asked Unowsky about the dress code for employees. Unowsky looked him over and rumbled, "Cover yourself." And that was it: casual, gruff, pragmatic. Here was a place where employees could go barefoot if they cared to, bring their dogs in for visits, and collect fees from bounced checks to buy beer for the refrigerator in back. "He hired me because I could lift 50 pounds of potatoes," Miller claims. "That's just the kind of guy he is. If there ever was a person whose bark is worse than his bite, it's David."
Everyone who works in the Hungry Mind talks about the influence of the store's curmudgeon in chief. Most also do a passable Unowsky impression, which generally involves growling and crowding words into short, blunt phrases. Yet when they talk about Unowsky, the staff members mix their affectionate caricatures with a near-reverence. According to Carolyn Kuebler, who worked as a sales clerk and an editor for the store newsletter before cofounding Rain Taxi Review of Books, even the low-wage part-time employees who receive St. Paul Saints tickets in lieu of health insurance have a healthy regard for Unowsky. "He knows how to pick out employees with guilt complexes. That's what keeps the store running. He makes you feel like you're saving the world if you put in extra hours doing the books."
Richard Fuller, a small, intense man with a mane of gray hair and a well-tended beard, has been working as Unowsky's left-hand man and de facto steward for 11 years. As we talk, he is standing in the cramped and dimly lit rear office, near the back alley where staff smokers congregate and where Unowsky has been known to conduct meetings. Fuller offers a "free association" judgment of his boss' character. "The marketplace is both a commercial location and a place where free ideas are exchanged between free people." He pauses for a breath before launching into another sound bite. "David is very constitutionally minded. He's a believer in free speech who would risk death to defend it."
"In the classical sense, though, not the neoliberal Nazi sense," adds another young staffer, who disappears into the labyrinth of books and cardboard boxes without elaboration.
"Yes," continues Fuller, "without being authoritarian. He expects you to be honorable and decent. He's got a '60s social conscience." Among the virtues that store staffers praise--including Unowsky's uncanny ability to add large numbers in his head and quote from an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies--his iconoclastic politics rank among the first. Fuller recalls a decision a few years ago to stock Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, after Barnes and Noble stores had pulled it because of bomb threats. (The Rushdie incident is an oft-cited bit of the indie rhetorical vocabulary. Andy Ross of Cody's Books in Berkeley also remembers the Rushdie controversy: His store, too, refused to pull the book and ended up with a Molotov cocktail thrown through the front window.)
Unowsky also supports the varied, and sometimes radical, political activities of his own staff. A few months ago, for instance, salesperson Emily Lindell mentioned to her boss that she was living full time in the impromptu encampment of activists protesting the Hwy. 55 reroute in South Minneapolis. She asked Unowsky in advance for time off in the event that she was arrested; Unowsky promptly offered to bail her out of jail if need be.
Though Unowsky's employees paint a convincing picture of a basically amicable ex-hippie who disdains traditional managerial hierarchy and bureaucratic excess, they also admit that he is something of an ideologue. "He's a warrior," says Fuller, "The one thing he cannot forgive is disloyalty." Like any good general, he gives each incoming worker a lecture on the sad state of the book industry and the Hungry Mind's essential mission in preserving the survival of free society. Indeed, the common metaphor invoked by Hungry Mind boosters is that of a bastion of intellectualism under siege by corporate-led armies of ignorance.
From the beginning, David Unowsky has treated the literary business as a crusade. In 1964, shortly after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in psychology, he was a newly married and underemployed young man who loved to read and who hated the war in Vietnam. He took a string of odd jobs, schlepping groceries for Applebaum's Supermarket and delivering Fuller brushes to traveling salesmen working out of their cars. He also worked as a shipping clerk in his father's liquor warehouse, which folded in the late '60s.
Eventually, as antiwar protest intensified, he began campaigning heavily for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. He tamed his unruly hair, trimmed his sideburns, and lost his drooping mustache--going "clean for Gene," as the slogan went. Together with his then-wife, who unbeknownst to Unowsky was pregnant with the first of two sons, he drove to Whiting, Indiana, a depressed and depressing industrial town near Gary, and began door-to-door canvassing. As he describes it 30 years later, it was "a lesson in American civics." The residents of Whiting, who were almost all employed by either Standard Oil or U.S. Steel, had been herded toward the mainstream Democratic agenda by their labor unions. Unowsky saw people who had been marooned by an economic downturn in United States industry and who had also lost their political agency. "It was quite interesting," he recalls. "They all wanted to talk and they loved the attention. But they'd had all their options taken away."
Upon returning to St. Paul, Unowsky gravitated back to the area around Macalester College, which was then a center of antiwar protest and countercultural (read: hippie) activity. As he describes it, the idea of starting a bookstore began as a modest impulse: "I woke up one morning and decided I was going to start selling books." Yet, he says, it was also a political statement: Disseminate as many ideas and opinions as possible and give people their options back.
He found a storefront space across the street from the store's current location, and started the Hungry Mind. Although Grand Avenue was at its least grand at the time--boarded-up storefronts and tiny markets occupied the majority of neighborhood retail space--the burgeoning college campus next-door with its captive population of voracious readers kept business comfortably brisk. (Borders, it bears noting, shares a similar origin; the mega media merchant began with a simple campus bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the early '80s.)
When Unowsky opened his little shop, the major competitors in the Twin Cities market were department stores like Dayton's. Eventually, in 1968, however, the nation's first major chain bookstore, B. Dalton, appeared in Minneapolis. After a few shaky years in which one of the store's employees slept in the back room and Unowsky had to take a second or third job to pay the rent, he signed a lease agreement with Macalester and began a symbiotic relationship with the college. In '72, the Hungry Mind moved into a college-owned building across the street--a converted car-repair garage without a front window. Macalester acted as the store's landlord and accountant, and, in turn, the Hungry Mind became the campus bookstore.
Meanwhile, B. Dalton was swallowed by Barnes and Noble, and smaller discount stores like Pickwick folded within a few years of opening their doors. Unowsky recalls the July 4 morning in 1983 when Dayton's closed its unprofitable Pickwick stores--he was standing on the sidewalk out front, shaking his fist and hooting. Safe in the bosom of Macalester and located in what was fast becoming a profitable retail strip, the Hungry Mind grew steadily and continued to turn what he sardonically calls a "ridiculously low" profit.
Then the superstores hit town. When Barnes and Noble arrived in 1991, there were a dozen general-interest independents in the Twin Cities. According to Unowsky, the superstores, which are called "big-box category killers" in the esoteric parlance of the industry, began actively trying to bump off their Lilliputian competitors. He likens their strategy to that of Wal-Mart, which expanded aggressively into small-town markets, drove corner drugstores and grocers out of business by undercutting prices, and then raised prices back to profitable levels when they were the only merchant left standing. Because Barnes and Noble had the capital to take enormous losses in overstocking fees and marketing expenses, they could also afford deep discounting that would send an independent reeling into bankruptcy. In 1996 Odegard's folded quietly, followed a couple of years later by Baxter's Books in downtown Minneapolis.
The same thing happened across the nation. In Denver, Joyce Meskis's indie megastore, The Tattered Cover, was battered by what she calls "relentless" expansion--four superstores opened within a few miles of her business. Richard Howorth, who owns Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and currently serves as president of the ABA, offers somewhat more strident criticism of the chains: "They're a bunch of bastards. They offer this perception of bringing books and reading to the masses, but the number of books sold is actually going down. The superstores fill this vast inventory, then return their orders to the publishers, so the publishers' profits go down....It all leads to incredible disruptions that harm stable businesses in this important industry. We think it's predatory and illegal."
Unowsky concurs: "It's one of the big lies they tell. They say they create the market for books, when actually the market is past its saturation point. The only reason they maintain that kind of inventory is to drive smaller stores out."
Lyle Starkloff, an assistant manager of the Uptown Borders, contends that "the intent is not to drive anyone out of business. It's just supply and demand. I personally try to avoid the us-versus-them mentality."
The problem, according to Howorth and Unowsky--booksellers who don't demur to the us-versus-them mentality--is that while chain stores give the impression of selection and diversity, the vast majority of books that make it into readers' hands are those from publishers willing to pay for extra promotion through "face-outs" and endcaps (prominent display in windows and on shelves and retail floors). Books from small publishers like the Hungry Mind Press might make it onto the shelves at Barnes and Noble, Unowsky says, but they are likely to be returned without being sold.
Sarah DiFrancesco, a regional community relations manager for Barnes and Noble, rebuts the claim that chains are either predatory in their business practices or antithetical to intellectual diversity. "Everybody tries to service the customer as best they can. We look for markets where there are unfilled opportunities. We've just opened our 13th local store, in the Mall of America, so we obviously think there's bigger pies to be grown."
Yet the pie, according to the Book Industry Study Group, is shrinking. Simply put, there are fewer people buying books and more people than ever selling them, including the newest addition to the fray: the online media merchant. Amazon.com, which was founded in 1995 by an exceptionally perceptive venture capitalist named Jeff Bezos, now boasts a list of around 1.7 million book titles and a roll of over 8 million customers. Although massive marketing expenditures have kept Amazon.com from turning a profit (the company reported a staggering loss of $61.7 million in the first quarter of 1999), online book retailing represents a new foe for all retail booksellers. "It's a complete economic absurdity," says Howorth. "It's a new way of selling books and a completely different beast, albeit one that looks more like a monopoly every day. Amazon's competitors are also showing their monopolistic tendencies by refusing to concede defeat even when they're losing tons of money. It's nuts. It also sort of makes sense."
When asked if Amazon.com discounts prices to unprofitable levels in order to undercut competitors, Lizzie Allen, public relations manager for the company's book division, responds: "We at Amazon have great affection for independent bookstores. We think they're an important part of the community. And we by no means wish to replace them. The experience of the virtual and the real world is different. They offer the physical experience of holding a book in your hands and cracking the spine. That's something we can't replace and wouldn't want to."
If Internet retailers don't necessarily want to replace real-world bookstores, however, they do seem intent on seizing their share of the sales. Barnes and Noble was quick to jump on the cyberbandwagon, and its Barnesandnoble.com, co-owned with German media conglomerate Bertelsmann AG, now has around 1.7 million regular customers. Borders soon followed suit with its own Web site as well.
Though late to the game, the ABA is now working to establish a net presence for independents. The Book Sense Web site (Booksense.com), which is scheduled to be online by August, will allow customers to order from an Amazon.com-like database and will credit the nearest Book Sense indie store for the sale. While the Hungry Mind will be a part of this project, Unowsky, a self-described tech novice, is skeptical about the reaching implications of online bookselling. "I'm mystified by the popularity of Amazon.com....I personally don't visualize an America where everyone sits at home ordering stuff off their computer and never seeing anyone but the UPS man. That's a horrible vision of the future."
Even for a savant, the times are confusing. The indie-versus-chain war is a tired old song by now--so tired, in fact, that it has already been turned into a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film. The current conflict is like the one in You've Got Mail, except that in real life, Meg would have sued Tom, turned him in to the FTC, and set his hair on fire. And, according to Unowsky, there are more pernicious corporate forces at work than the expansion of superstores and Amazon.com. The publishing world--the business end of the supply chain for both the Hungry Mind and the superstores--has changed dramatically over the last decade and the changes are having an equally dramatic effect on the books that end up on the nation's shelves.
In the Table of Contents, the late lunch rush is beginning to die down. Unowsky, however, is winding up. "When publishing is in the control of a few hands, you're only going to see tried-and-true commercial ideas that can be packaged with movies and TV shows."
Unowsky points out that mainstream publishing is now dominated by only seven media conglomerates: Hearst, Time Warner, News Corporation, Pearson, Bertelsmann, Viacom, and S.I. Newhouse. Thus the books that end up on the shelves of the Hungry Mind or the nearby Barnes and Noble are largely determined by a small group of power brokers. And in the world of massive multimedia corporations, those power brokers making decisions from the top are less and less likely to be "book people." According to Unowsky, as media conglomerates like the colossus Bertelsmann AG struggle to wring high profits out of the traditionally low-margin publishing business, the books that actually make it to those shelves will become increasingly homogenized.
Lisa Bullard, marketing director at local independent Graywolf Press, explains: "It's a cultural risk. You're looking at seven people making decisions about what books get published. Mass marketing is based on the notion that everyone wants the same thing. They want to convince a gay man in Minneapolis and an 80-year old woman in Utah that they should want to read the same books."
In the worst cases, publishing decisions are made not on the basis of economics, but on that of political expediency. As an example, Unowsky points to the questionable boardroom hustling surrounding a recent memoir by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patton. HarperCollins, an arm of the media concern controlled by mogul Rupert Murdoch, quashed the book because it threatened Murdoch's media interests in mainland China. It was a good book that was nearly killed because it was bad for business--the sort of thing that Unowsky claims would become increasingly common in a world controlled exclusively by media conglomerates with their fingers in publishing, print media, and retail bookselling.
Mass publishing is also bad for midlist titles--books that are unlikely to become bestsellers. Because tax disincentives make it extremely unprofitable for publishers to maintain backlists, books that don't immediately become bestsellers can go out of print within months of release. University and small nonprofit presses pick up much of the slack by keeping books in print longer and publishing titles that might otherwise never find a home, but smaller publishers also rely heavily on independent bookstores to hand-sell their books through in-store promotion or recommendations to customers. If independent bookstores disappear, Unowsky argues, independent publishing may soon follow.
Book wholesaling and distribution, the crucial link between retail stores and publishers, is now dominated by only two major players: Baker & Taylor and Ingram Book Group. (For a profile of an alternative distributor, St. Paul's Consortium, see "St. Paul's Other Book Baron," p. 23.) Despite assurances of fair play, if Barnes and Noble were to control Ingram, they could control when and where books are delivered, essentially forcing independents to buy from their competitors. (Barnes and Noble could, at the least, collect extensive information about their competitors' stock and sales.) Federal regulators may stop the deal, but Unowsky is not optimistic. "If I'm having a cynical day, I think it has a lot to do with whether Hillary Clinton runs for senator in New York," he says. "Leonard Riggio [CEO of Barnes and Noble] is a big contributor to the Democratic party, so if she's running, they'll find a way to allow the Ingram deal. That's politics."
As Unowsky expatiates on the threat of media monopolies, he grows visibly agitated. His hands dart to the breast pocket of his shirt, hold for a second, then dive beneath the tablecloth. He shreds sugar packets as he speaks and adds them to a mound of paper scraps at the center of the table.
"Those guys control reviewers, cable TV, and newspapers. The Rupert Murdochs of the world limit ideas, make them commercial to sell goods rather than promote discussion. The more conglomerated it gets, when they determine what gets published and what sells, the more those people control culture and information. If they control information," he adds, with an emphatic and unprovoked assault on the table, "they control the truth."
Today America's culture industry resembles not so much a polarized battlefield as a messy microcosm of Darwinian evolution, which has as its organizing principle a particularly virulent form of corporate synergy and which lends itself naturally to survival of the blandest. For some, the survival of indies is, thus, not only a matter of nostalgia or fair business, but an ideological cause: Independent publishers and booksellers are promoting themselves as the last, best hope for intellectual biodiversity.
In the meantime, the giants seem to be launching their own campaigns to speed the process of natural selection. Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com recently started discounting New York Times bestsellers by 50 percent--a game that the independents cannot afford to play. Perhaps, in the struggle between online retailers, ravenous chains, and plucky independents, survivors like the Hungry Mind represent the evolution of the new independent: a business model that is as much about perception as selection and price. As David Unowsky well knows, the new independent thrives on both an aggressive, pragmatic retail strategy and a carefully cultivated popular image as an alternative to aggressive, pragmatic corporate stores.
"We were smart enough in the beginning to know the national chains were driving out independents," he says. "Now my vision of the successful independent of the future is one with a main store and niche stores tied to a neighborhood, college, or farmer's market--a big nucleus that's small enough to be linked to individual communities. We survive because people know why we're here."
The meeting adjourned, Unowsky rises from the table and walks back through the store, passing the main registers on the way. There, behind the counter, along with a clutter of Hungry Mind crockery and general merchandise, hangs a conspicuously displayed T-shirt with the Hungry Mind's trademark cow and a message: "Independent bookstores are the intellectual backbone of this country." The shirt retails for ten dollars
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