Sunday, July 12, 2009


I was reading Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print and came across a passage where he writes, “This discovery helps to explain the motivation behind the aggressive campaign by Waldenbooks in the late 1980s to bring its warehouses and 1,000 plus retail stores online…” (100).

Working, as I was, at a Waldenbooks (Summer and Fall 1988 in San Antonio), it made me reflect on the changes I was seeing in our little mall store at the time. This was the year between my undergraduate degree and starting grad school, when I was actually shopping for grad schools. I had just been to ICA in New Orleans to meet Larry (and James and a number of other folks) to talk about Illinois (and to talk about Wisconsin with Fiske). Anyway, I worked full time at a Waldenbooks in a mall in San Antonio. I liked the store because the manager had customized the stock a bit—we actually had copies of Foucault and other critical theorists on our shelves, and other more esoteric volumes tucked in with the usual wares. We were not computerized in those days. We hand entered ISBN’s, I think, into the register. Then we actually got our first scanner so that we could scan bar codes (and spent too much time playing with it). To look up something for a customer meant pulling out microfiches from Ingram or Baker and Taylor to see if they had things.

At some point in my six-month tenure at the bookstore (around Thanksgiving I quit and went to work for a small mail order company, Haverstick and Ballyk, selling classical CDs) we started getting inventory lists from the main office. These were lists of what we were to have on our shelves and we had to go through and pull anything not on it (bye bye Foucault). I got the sense that our store manager was getting increasingly frustrated by the controlling nature of the corporation (trying to rebel at one point by shelving an entire display of a new bestseller, dictated by the corporation, upside down--the Assistant Managers put them right). Anyway, the store became much less interesting after the purge.

One of the things that Waldenbooks did was run a deep discount of all New York Times bestsellers. What surprised me is that the company seemed to know what a bestseller was before a book was even released. So that the new Ludlum (for example) was discounted right out of the box even though, technically, it hadn’t been sold and couldn’t therefore be a bestseller.

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