"In the pre-Internet world, Steve's Sundry was one of the rare places in Tulsa where you could walk in and get a snap shot of the world -- the whole world -- and get a soda, to boot."
--former Tulsan Don McCorkell
"Haven't really been to Steve's in a while. I went over about a month ago for nostalgic purposes -- to see the soda setup."
--Tulsa lawyer/publisher James Goodwin
Like many Tulsans with a bookish inclination, I have a deep acquaintance with Steve's Sundry, Tulsa's iconic book and magazine store at E. 26th St. and S. Harvard Ave. In the '80s and '90s, I spent lots of time and cash, especially on the weekends, at the store. At the time, Steve Stephenson, the seemingly always-on-tap founder and impresario, and his crew carried lots of books, especially ones by local writers, but the shop also stowed hundreds of limited-circulation periodicals on foreign affairs, science, niche hobbies like astronomy, and magazines that covered the then-embryonic world of personal computing.
Two "Steve" incidents stand out for me. One of them I'm betting Steve conveyed to other customers more frequently than I'd like to think: he once told me that my magazine selections were consistently "classy," and I glowed for days afterward. There's also a searing memory: in late 1989, I was in Steve's with Elyse Reingold -- a planner and health care analyst and fab woman I was very close to. During a weekend sojourn to Steve's, she made a sadly prescient, startling remark. While staring at a fashion magazine, festooned with a cover story on "dressing for cancer," out of the blue, she announced that she might soon have practical need for this particular issue. I told her that she couldn't be serious -- and got nervous laughter and a concession that she was being loopy. I told her she was among the healthiest humans I'd ever met. Sadly, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer about three months later. Ms. Reingold died in 1991 at 37, her death framing a Steve moment that is burned in my cortex.
The realm of books and our capacity to find them, buy them, and consume them has changed utterly over the course of the last 15 years.
This is has been especially true of independent bookstores or indie shops. Wildly, "book world" has changed not once, not twice or even three times, but perhaps four times, in huge measure over this period. Big box book retail and heavy, multi-store chain book distributors have been gonzo re-shapers: the rise of Amazon and other virtual book-sellers with next-day delivery, shiny online portals and sharply discounted pricing has been another part of a tectonic shift. And these vectors have been abetted, amplified across the board by ubiquitous internet availability, huge, all-encompassing online inventories, and one-button purchasing. Finally, the availability of single-purpose book "slate" hardware and general scope tablet computers is another dynamo, getting heftier by the day, in this continuing transformation.
Independent booksellers have been part -- until very recently -- of an outsized part of our print ecology. They have been resilient, if buffered and sometimes battered players across this entire 20-year period. This essay is an examination of their fortunes here in Tulsa, an imperfect look at some of the winds that are shaping their futures. It is also a glance at wobbles in your access to these Green Country businesses, their offerings and the roles that they play, and new roles they might play in shaping our local entertainment and intellectual landscapes.
Drivers: The New Book Landscape
A raft of powerful economic and production forces, chimeric technologies, "biz cult" changes, social marketing and networks, intellectual property frissons, and combinations of these drivers are assaulting book production, distribution and pricing here in Tulsa and across the country:
'80s-era entrepreneurial machinations. Mathematician Louis Borders and his brother transformed book inventory, shipping, and delivery logistics and created a dense, cross-country network of physical stores with tens of thousands -- sometimes hundreds of thousands -- of book holdings at each store site. Louis Borders was an operations research specialist --someone who knew a good deal about using classic algorithms and early-stage commerce and industrial systems software to choreograph inventory management, packaging, and transport to get books to brick-and-mortar spots. These techniques and their brio allowed the Borders brothers and their investors to transform a University of Michigan-Ann Arbor single store operation into a national empire. Only a few years later, Amazon's Jeff Bezos took the heavy logistics/huge inventory spin a step further by marrying the online-ordering and individual processing routines pioneered by Michael Dell and others for quick customization and "zip" shipping of computer hardware. Amazon was born as a consequence. The book-selling/consumer/grocery goods behemoth arguably now dominates the pricing of new book titles and, indirectly, that of used books as well. And a recent court ruling gives the already omnipresent company even greater sway over e-book pricing as well;
E-Readers. The advent, about three years ago, of Amazon's Kindle e-reader devices and a clutch of later (but essentially similar) machines, including single-purpose book reading "slates" from Barnes & Noble with their Nook device and flotilla of other players;
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General-purpose e-books. These include electronic volumes that are available from the Amazon site and from iBook/Apple Inc., Walmart's web spaces, and others; digitized, highly accessible placement of tens of thousands of classic, now free, mostly older books on the web -- standardized and scanned renditions of books whose copyright has expired. This massive, "open access" project was facilitated and managed by Google and some unrelated players.
It's kind of hard to know which of these forces is more important now than they were earlier -- or which drivers will be stout pushers in the years to come. But one strand of the new book world -- e-books, that is electronic books -- may have temporally peaked:
Nick Carr, writing in January for the Wall Street Journal, puts it this way:
"The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration. The technology's early adopters, a small but enthusiastic bunch, made the move to e-books quickly and in a concentrated period. Further converts will be harder to come by. A 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16 percent of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59 percent say they have "no interest" in buying one. Meanwhile, the shift from e-readers to tablets may also be dampening e-book purchases. Sales of e-readers plunged 36 percent in 2012.... When forced to compete with the easy pleasures of games, videos and Facebook on devices like the iPad and the Kindle Fire, e-books lose a lot of their allure."
And a recent overview of the book industry suggests:
The Annual Review explores demographic changes in the context of overall market trends culled from the Bowker Market Research consumer panel of almost 70,000 Americans who bought books of any format and from any source in 2011. It reveals another pivotal year in the evolution of the book industry, marked by significant events.
One seismic shift came with the collapse of Borders Group, Inc., which accelerated movement of book sales to online retailers and away from bookstore chains. By the fourth quarter of 2011, online retailers' share of unit purchases had risen to 39 percent, up from 31 percent at the close of 2010. Conversely, chains' share fell to 30 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 from 36 percent in the final period of 2010. Growth continued, rising from 4 percent of unit sales in 2010 to 14 percent in 2011. Among major subgenres, e-books had the most impact in the Mystery/Detective category, accounting for 17 percent of spending, followed by Romance and Science Fiction; where the format accounted for 15 percent of dollars spent. The slow economic recovery, which continued to nudge more book spending into affluent households in 2011. Fifty-seven percent of book spending in 2011 came from households earning more than $50,000 annually, up from 54 percent in 2010.
Though still a more powerful spending group than men, women's share of unit purchases declined to 62 percent from 65 percent in 2010 and their share of spending dropped to 55 percent from 58 percent in 2010."
Big Box "Bookies"
The future of the last remaining, comparatively healthy big box physical book chain is morphing even as I'm writing this piece. I should disclose that I'm a frequent visitor at the Barnes & Noble at 41st Yale location -- the store's book and magazine inventory is excellent, the staff is courteous and competent, the place is clean, and the café operates adroitly with good coffees and related items.
It's a great place, but it seems the dynamics for Barnes & Noble, at least nationally, are changing rapidly. Even as they company invested itself heavily in e-books such as the chain's own Nook device, holiday sales were down more than 10 percent compared to the 2011 holiday season.
"They are not selling the devices, they are not selling books and traffic is down," Mike Shatzkin of Idea Logical, a consulting firm for publishers, told The New York Times. "I'm looking for an optimistic sign and not seeing one. It is concerning." As of last month, Barnes & Noble had closed down its device production unit -- closing an adventurous if daunting, incredibly expensive path.
Amazon: Savior for Book Nuts or A Monster?
Many readers will know that Amazon has dramatically reduced the price of many hardback, paperback and trade volumes -- although a jump in pricing with the resolution of a key court settlement is more and more evident. And Amazon's digital book pricing practices rule the roost online. We can look to massive transformation in other "keyhole" elements of our national economy for clues to what may visit us next on the book front: It's important to remember, to use one example, that at the beginning of last century, America had several dozen automotive producers -- small and medium-sized companies that produced steam cars, electric vehicles, cars that consumed waste grease and kerosene and all manner of fuels. But Henry Ford, and a handful of other huge industrial-scale producers brutally reshaped, standardized and consolidated the American automotive industry, and the variety of cars available to Americans. Something similar, decidedly more fundamental, may be afoot for the U.S. book industry -- will this be a good thing, a bad thing, an in-between thing, or something that we can't begin to understand? And are price reductions, or at least ones that will prevail for a few years of $2 to $3, maybe $4 dollars a book, the bargain we are willing to pay for a vastly different "knowledge" economy?
John Sargent is CEO of Macmillan Books and the principal figure in New Yorker writer Ken Auletta's late-2012 signature article on the U.S. Justice Department's strange 2011-2012 anti-collusion case against Apple and five books publishers, including Macmillan. The Justice Department action, which last month produced a stunning, first round decision against Apple, alleged that Apple and five of the country's biggest book publishing operations colluded to fix the price of online books using a new business model that Apple executive Eddy Cue called the "agency model." The specific charge: Apple and collaborators were trying to loosen Amazon's tenacious grip on electronic/physical book pricing: pricing that some keen economists claimed were below costs and would lead to the destruction of the book industry and author alienation in the U.S.
"What makes Amazon dangerous," Sargent said in the Aulleta piece is, "that there may come a day, if they get back up to 90 percent of the e-book market and if the e-book format becomes the dominant way that people read, we will be in a world where one company can decide what books get widely distributed."
Auletta, one of the New Yorker's prime writers on media, opines in the same piece that "if Barnes & Noble closes, Amazon will have an effective monopoly on all books, electronic and otherwise."
Bookplace: The Kid & Parent Nexus
One example of local adaptation to our new book age is the Book Place, a store in Broken Arrow -- a long-standing operation owned and managed by Janice Riker, who I spoke with some days ago. Riker's store is, in the main, a used bookstore: she told me that "about 95 percent of their transactions were used books with new books occupying the rest." She also talked about her store's aggressive outreach to new local writers. And this gambit reminded me of something that I've read elsewhere: Kristin Cast of the House of Night series and her mom/writer collaborator, P.C. Cast, have been quite close to her operation, and Kristen has worked at Riker's bookstore. Another Riker avenue: an intense effort to secure customers who are parents of young children: Book Place offers significant discounts on K-12 "school" and literary titles that are a big part of what kids are required to read in humanities and literature courses across the metropolitan area. Ms.Riker, like Jerry Whyte of Steve's, sees Amazon as their most important competition -- again because of bottom-of-the-barrel pricing.
I spoke at length some days ago to Joan Stephenson, the daughter-in-law of the late Steve Stephenson, who died in November of 2011, at 93. Mr. Stephenson started the store at another Tulsa location in 1947. Joan Stephenson is the current operator/owner of the store. She told me that the last two years have been marked by a strong resurgence of interest in hardcover books on the part of younger people: folks under 30 who want a connection with a real bookstore. She also said that many of these customers had a deep desire to support local businesses. With a staffing crew with a collective bookselling experience in excess of 150 years, Steve's is the oldest indie book shop in Tulsa. And Steve's periodical/magazine holdings tradition is a real marker: the store's night manager, Whyte, told me that Steve's has over 2,000 periodicals on offer during a typical month.
Part of the power of Steve's offerings is the tactile character of the store's traditional book holdings.
"They come in and buy books. Real books," Stephenson told me, "because they've been sitting in front of a computer screen all day long and want a warmer experience."
As it happens, many of the newer crop of customers Stephenson is seeing are tech-savvy and have tablet and e-book devices. These customers, she told me, simply want, again, a tangible experience -- a direct encounter with a physical volume. Steve's Sundry, like Tulsa's Book Place, goes to great lengths to organize local author book signing events -- events designed to sell books, of course, but also to celebrate local, especially new writers. In recent years, Steve's has managed over 100 of these author events on average, and Riker's Book Place has a similar history.
The Hussar is surely the most original bookstore venture in Tulsa. Mike Davidson, who founded Hussar in 1981, offers a hybrid book/physical model and art shop that specializes in selling military miniatures, historic and war paraphernalia, and American/world military books. And while you can find preprinted toy soldiers for collectors, model kits for building anything from aircraft to ancient war miniatures to Viking ships, books of almost every variety produce the bulk of Davidson's revenue.
Davidson's operation is part of a trend, as the Hussar, like Steve's Sundry and Book Place, has begun using secondary lines to offset revenue losses occasioned by Amazon's deep physical book discounting and the advent of digital books. Increasingly, it looks like a big part of the road ahead for book indies to aggressively augment printed books and digital materials with physical replicas of one kind or another, film and video offerings, and labor-rich staff tutorials/"navigating" sessions. It's a strategy used in educational circles, with younger children, in the so-called "constructivist movement." And it has long been a backbone of prime curriculum for design, engineering, art, and especially architectural students in higher education.
A Peek Around The Bend
In earlier pieces for Urban Tulsa Weekly, I've written about Tulsa's Fab Lab -- a "micro" production facility. The Fab Lab is equipped with a passel of laser fabricating devices, precision cutting tools, and a bevy of computer-aided design and software systems and is, in micro, a sentinel, key business observers believe, of the way forward for American industrial folk.
Some of these observers argue that the production of things, large and small, is undergoing a wrenching transformation in which things that required thousands of hands to produce -- like automotive products, consumer appliances, and even small homes will routinely be produced in much less formal, comparatively tiny operations. And the new commercial "fabs" will employ a crazy mix of highly skilled production crews, robotic helpers, and powerful artificial intelligence systems.
There's a variation on this model -- an emerging template for publishing and the book world: print on demand.
Riker at Book Place told me about one form: publishing operations are employing contract players to produce "trade volumes" -- that is, offsite, regionally disbursed crews use superior batch printing and their own distribution assets to make books that are fully authorized versions of titles that would normally come from huge, industrial grade hard cover production operations. But there's another variety, a highly localized one that looks a lot like the kind of micro production facility associated with Fab Lab-like operations -- and I saw one of these machines at a technology fair in Boston three years ago. The tiny crowd that surrounded the demonstration broke-out in applause as a little line of beautifully rendered books emerged from the machines and printer-like devices we were all obsessing over.
This piece wouldn't be complete without mentioning the tenacious, multisided effort our new Tulsa library chief, Gary Shaffer has undertaken to redefine the library and public access to books of every incarnation. His active exploration of novel "co work" spaces for Tulsa info workers, artists and entrepreneurs - an effort at the vey forefront of other library re thinks underway across the country and a fascinating, is a still under-defined but critical part of our book "future" in Tulsa: I'll write more about Shaffer's audacious gambit in a separate UTW piece.
Another thing that merits a attention is the flowering of coffeehouse culture in Tulsa: places like Cheri Asher's Coffee House On Cherry Street/on the Cherry Street corridor and Blake Ewing's new Phoenix just off 6th and Peoria; both feature small libraries and function as what UTW publisher Keith Skrzypczak calls "petri dishes" for writers and all manner of book spiced conversations. Maybe part of the way forward entails semiformal alliances between some of the remaining independent bookstores and this increasingly rich and varied ecology of coffee houses and "slow" eateries.
Navigation and advanced helper services are still incredibly important to professionals, knowledge workers, and a small-but-growing batch of artists and new age crafts people. This was certainly the message I garnered from a gathering late last year of rapid prototyping and 3-D tech enthusiasts sponsored by Tulsa's Fab Lab. But even in the age of the Google-assisted search, people still have great difficulty getting what they need. Arguably, Google and the other search tools are still primitive -- it was part of what I got from O'Reilly Media founder and publishing guru Tim O'Reilly in an informal meet up late last year.
A Boston store and its university allies are showing the road ahead with a subscription model, and indie bookstores with agile staffs might emulate the new venture. The project rigorously identified books, other media, anything needed by a client seeking an extraordinary competitive, academic or professional edge.
Bookstores might play a income-generating role in helping people read more effectively and to stay on task in our age of continual distraction and short attention spans. The idea of reader groups on steroids -- led by able book professionals -- is a notion that is not new, but may have revenue potential.
A Studs Terkel '70s-era volume, Hard Times: An Oral History of The Great Depression, helped me unearth the half-forgotten union readers/lectors. Lectors were well-educated, often theatrical figures who would be paid to come to industrial workplaces and other spots to read aloud to workers from classic lit, political and science works. These "readers" educated workers at the workplace, often as they toiled, so lectors are an idea with seasoning, with some whiskers.
A couple of keen observers of the bookstore landscape are suggesting that indie stores re-claim lector-like services for kids, parents, and others, again as a tightly connected, book-centric, secondary line.
Finally, there's the notion of employing the print-on-demand technologies in the service of Green Country readers. Independent bookstores are strapped for cash and have very little to put into the capital kitties required to secure $50,000-$150,000 print on demand devices. But striking up stout collaborative alliances with operations like our very good City County Library, players from our university community and ponying up with area peer stores might secure what's needed, transforming book availability and pricing and offering avenues for self-publishing folks.
Books will arguably be with us forever, and this is true for physical books as well as digital renditions. And it looks like the growing troubles of the last remaining big physical bookstore chains, stagnant growth in the advance of the digital book offerings that come from Amazon, Apple, other providers and Amazon's overly ambitious, arguably predatory book pricing practices have created a new space -- perhaps a fleeting one -- for independent bookstores.
And it looks like Tulsa indie bookers are part of the counteroffensive: one that we should all support with our dollars, our time and our attention.
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