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Bookstore No Cure for What Ails Croton

August 12, 2009

To the editor:

NOTE: The following is the text of my letter to The Gazette dated July 23, 2009.

Why are would-be planners with no grasp of reality or commerce so quick to prescribe ways to get Harmon’s business district to pull up its socks when it is all retail areas in Croton that are facing problems? Among other suggestions to remedy Croton’s deep-seated woes, we are being told, “What this village needs is a bookstore in Harmon.” Perhaps the members of the Harmon Committee will chip in the half-million to a million dollars and the business acumen such a venture would require.

Independent booksellers are a dying breed whose numbers continue to diminish. It is impossible for independent booksellers to match the buying power and low prices of the megachain bookstores, discounters like Walmart or Sam’s Club, and A comparatively small number of independents have survived by adding extra services. These include gift items, used books, magazines, comfortable tub chairs, piped-in music, wi-fi access, and an adjunct café selling food, latte or wine and beer. A few newcomers have gained a foothold by specializing in narrow fields, such as crime and mystery.

Every successful bookstore needs employees who are readers and who know and love the product they are selling. Today the bookstore is not only a place to buy books. It has become a place to relax and talk about them. Allow me to deflate the bookstore myth once and for all with facts and statistics:

  1. A recent survey revealed that 27 percent of American adults admitted they had not read a single book for pleasure in the past year.
  2. Although it represented a 3.2% decline, an astronomical 275,232 individual new titles were published in 2008. That’s 5,293 new titles every week. Imagine being a bookseller and trying to keep up with that flood of books.
  3. The average new book has a shelf life somewhere between milk and yogurt. Unlike any other article of commerce, books are sold to booksellers with generous return privileges. After a fixed period, booksellers can return unsold books for full credit.
  4. About 40 percent of new books—largely unsold bestsellers—are returned to publishers. Eventually, many of these are shredded and shipped to China on empty container ships. Not to worry. They will come back as recycled cardboard packaging for products formerly made by American workers.
  5. Instituted during the Great Depression to encourage dealers to stock books, the indefensible practice of printing excessive quantities and then accepting returns is sheer madness, making book publishing one of the biggest wasters of energy and resources. Except for smaller press runs of books printed for libraries and academic use, the future of books seems destined to lie with electronic books and “print-on-demand” versions.

For some, myself included, books are almost like air, water and food—essential to life. But I am neither overly sanguine nor foolish enough to think that Croton, now a backwater community bypassed by the limited-access Expressway and offering a narrow customer base of less than 8,000 souls, is an appropriate location for an independent bookstore. A village in crisis can hardly take seriously such desperate clutching at straws.

— Robert Scott, Croton-on-Hudson

On September 16, 2009 10:23 AM, Barryz said:

What Croton obviously needs is more nail salons.

On August 15, 2009 11:06 AM, Micheal G. said:

You’re onto something. Planners who don’t involve the community will never get it right. If it was about numbers most small businesses would never start in the first place. Has there been a poll in the community? What does the community want? What do they think they need? Small businesses are the key to a successful and stable community. They provide a place for the public to interact, building a sense of community. But no matter what comes of that insight, the biggest hump will be convincing someone who would have the ability to open such a business to do it. The ideal situation is that the community works to get incentives in place, and people within the community invest in such new ventures.

The factors you sight about Croton were brought about by the disconnection of the community that opened up more organized (and paid) influence of developers. Now anything that’s done is going to be an uphill battle by community volunteers fighting against the paid operators of the developers.

On August 12, 2009 8:08 AM, MIchael Grant said:

Bob…you write very well it’s obvious. How about taking a crack at something with a positive spin instead of the doom and gloom all the time. As a local resident/retailer I personally think that a nice cosy book store would do very well in Croton. It won’t make someone a ton of money but the community would support it and maybe the proprietor would walk to work with a smile on their face each day. People will pay a little more to support something different, the local farmers markets are a perfect example of that. I have a pretty good pulse of what the community wants and small specialty shops are it. We just need creative people that want to work hard, for not alot of money but know that they are doing a good thing and making a contribution to a really good community. Creative entrepreneurial ventures start from the gut and heart and go from there. If you put all the negatives first you would never take the chance.

On August 16, 2009 2:31 PM, Robert Scott said:

I am grateful to Michael Grant for his comment and his heartfelt wish that an old-fashioned independent bookstore would blossom and flourish in Croton. The latter is a wish that I have long shared—although I now recognize it as an impossible dream.

I take exception, however, to his characterization of my recital of the cold, hard facts of book publishing and bookselling today as “gloom and doom.” I am an investigative reporter and report facts as I find them. My piece explaining with statistics why a traditional bookstore would have little chance of survival is long on facts and short on personal opinion. Would Mr. Grant use the term “gloom and doom” about a reporter’s factual story on the continuing rise in home foreclosures despite attempts to stanch the outflow or on the frightening national debt we are bequeathing to our children? I think not.

I suggest that Mr. Grant ask our estimable mayor, Leo Wiegman, for his opinion of my screed on the chances of bookstore survival in Croton. Until comparatively recently, Mr. Wiegman was actively employed in book publishing and is even more familiar with current conditions than I am.

As for my own expertise, after the war, I bucketed around in the far corners of the Middle East, Africa and Europe as an exploration geologist in the oil business. When children’s education became a problem, I decided to return to the States and pursue my love of books. I took a job briefly as a clerk in a bookstore (at a salary of one dollar an hour) to learn about the bookselling end of the book business. Following that, I was successively an associate editor of a hardcover magazine for automobile buffs and a book editor. Starting as a lowly copywriter for the Macmillan book clubs, I worked my way up to become editorial director. Finally. I became a book publisher in my own right. (One of my books, the “Shooter’s Bible,” sold hundreds of thousands of copies yet never made the bestseller lists.)

For too long a time, book publishing and bookselling have been mired in archaic practices going back to the 1920s. In my day, all booksellers sold books at list prices and a retailer could order books from publishers at discounts ranging from 42% to 50%—even more if they were bought on a non-returnable basis. Booksellers thrived under such an arrangement until the advent of deep discounting drastically changed the picture.

Allow me to cite as an example one of my recent book purchases. Alfred A. Knopf published a book entitled “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” at a cover price of $37.50. I bought it from Amazon for $24.75, a discount of 34%. But Amazon would have happily sold me an electronic version of the book, complete with footnotes, illustrations and index, for $9.99—a whopping discount of 73%. Moreover, for that low price they would have delivered it to me electronically in a matter of seconds. I ask Mr. Grant how long he thinks an independent bookseller could survive faced with numbers like that.

Out of loyalty, for a long time my family and I patronized Books ‘n Things, the prototypical independent bookstore operated by Charles and Diane Newman in Briarcliff Manor, although we could have paid much less at one of the chain bookstores. Well, the chains drove the Newmans out and won that contest. Now Internet super-discounters and electronic delivery of books to devices like Amazon’s Kindle threaten the chains.

Because Croton lacks a single concentrated shopping area, perhaps Mr. Grant will disclose in which of Croton’s five marketing nodes he would locate his idealized “cosy bookstore.” The very word “cosy” implies the ability of a customer to make a leisurely choice of a book to buy or merely to peruse in the comfort of the bookstore. Mr. Grant knows only too well the problems of running a cozy café like the Black Cow when the Village has imposed ridiculously short parking restrictions and harasses overtime parkers.


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