(let’s call this a lesson in business focus).
No, I don’t know the future of the book business, (or the restaurant business, or the car business — or any business, for that matter.). I don’t know if physical books will survive in the e-books era. I don’t know if people will be able to read anything much longer than a Tweet or a text message in years to come.
But in reading about the fall of Border’s (it may be nearing the end…), I was reminded of a story told by David Halberstam years ago.
First, Borders. In What Went Wrong at Borders by Peter Osnos at the Atlantic site (read it here), Mr. Osnos closes with this:
Len Riggio, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and the successful independent proprietors, whatever their other business virtues and flaws, really have a deep attachment to books and the people who read them. But when Borders expanded, they brought in executives from supermarkets and department stores (all of whom insisted they were readers), and the result was a shuffle of titles and more downsizing against a backdrop of financial engineering, which only seemed to make matters worse. Ultimately, a successful bookstore, on any scale, depends on a specific understanding of how to make the most of the outpouring of books and the digital transformation that will attract readers. Whatever else Borders does in the months ahead, it needs to recover its belief that real book-selling is an art (with all the peculiarities that entails), as well as a viable business.
It’s such a subtle point, yet so clear – it simply seems like really obvious common sense. If you want to succeed in the book business, it might help if you love books. A supermarket and department store expert may know a lot about a lot of other stuff, including management and sales – but he/she may not love books.
I confess — I think I would love working in a book store. I would walk the aisles during my breaks, and always spend every available dollar buying as many books as I could afford (and probably quite a few I could not afford). Walking up and down the aisles of supermarkets or department stores just does not have the same allure to this book lover (although, I might like to sample a whole lot of Häagen-Dazs – better keep me away from there!)
Now to the Halberstam story (Told from memory – I heard it in an interview from somewhere long forgotten). Years ago, he told of a time when Walter Mondale, while Ambassador to Japan, toured the largest steel plant in Japan. After a while, he asked his host’s opinion of (now dissolved) Bethlehem Steel. After 30 minutes of very careful Japanese politeness (“father of the industry; great company; great legacy…”), his host finally asked “why is Bethlehem Steel buying banks?’ It was then that Mondale realized that the steel makers in Japan loved steel. Whereas in America, the steel makers loved money. And in the steel business, the steel lover has a definite advantage over the money lover.
I don’t know who the last physical book seller will be. But I think I know this – whoever it is will love such books to the end, and he or she will hate to see the books go every bit as much as he/she hates to see the job end.
I hope you love what you do.