On disappearing bookstores

One of my favorite telling details, in the ongoing story of the vanishing of New York’s bookstores, is from a 1926 review by Edmund Wilson of the then-new uptown location of the bookstore Brentano’s:

One finds in the new Brentano’s the same admirable features as in the old: the varied and enormous stock, the easily accessible galleries, the comprehensive foreign departments, with clerks who are at home in the languages of the literatures to which they are accredited, and the fascinating display, in the basement, of the tables of periodicals from all over the Western world.

Working in a bookstore will always be cool, but in Wilson’s day, it was apparently reasonable to expect the staff of a top-of-the-line bookstore to be conversant in multiple languages. No doubt there are a few such staff still in New York today—McNally Jackson has very smart-looking foreign-language sections—but I’m pretty sure that such standards long ago ceased to be de rigueur. An article in The Guardian today by Oliver Conroy charts the decline, more plainly, in numbers:

In 1950, Manhattan had 386 bookstores, according to Gothamist; by 2015, the number was down to 106. Now, according to a count by the city’s best-known bookstore, the Strand, there are fewer than 80.

“Why are New York’s bookstores disappearing?” Conroy wonders. As possible explanations he cites competition from Amazon, a secular decline in the habit of reading (which I’ve written about before), and spikes in retailers’ rents, which are sometimes caused by real estate speculators. All of these are likely contributing—indeed, McNally Jackson’s Soho store is seeing its rent hiked from $350,000 a year to $650,000—but there’s another cause that I suspect is more powerful.

The economist Steven E. Landsburg spells it out in Can You Outsmart an Economist, a new book that hides key economic ideas inside the Trojan horse of dad-friendly mind-benders. After challenging readers to explain such mysteries as why people stand still on escalators, Landsburg offers a puzzle relevant to bookstores: “Why doesn’t Sony wants its TVs sold at a discount?”

Sony is far from the only company that insists on what’s known as “resale price maintenance” or, less charitably, “vertical price-fixing.” Most big-ticket consumer electronics items in America can’t be bought cheaper from one retailer versus another. Want an Apple I-phone? Want a Fujifilm digital rangefinder? Try to shop around, and you’ll quickly discover that the prices offered by all retailers uncannily coincide. The practice is completely legal. Antitrust law won’t allow a manufacturer like Canon to coordinate its pricing decisions with a rival like Fujifilm, but Canon is free to dictate independently the prices of all its brand-new Canon goods. All it has to do is require retailers to sign pricing agreements and refuse to supply stock to any who fail to follow instructions.

As Landsburg points out, it isn’t obvious why a company like Sony should “care about the retail price of its TVs.” Sony, as a manufacturer, only gets paid the wholesale price of its TVs, after all. If a retailer is willing to lower the retail price, cutting into its own profit share, why should the manufacturer mind? In general, a manufacturer expects to sell more units when the retail price is lower, or so the simple math of the supply-and-demand curve predicts. Why then do so many of the most successful companies selling in America think different on this question?

Landsburg explains:

If retailers are free to set their own prices, you’ll walk into Best Buy, latch onto a salesperson, ask questions for an hour, spend another hour playing your favorite You Tube videos on all the different display models, ask a bunch more questions, and then go home and order from Amazon, where the price is lower. Best Buy will soon enough get tired of this and either stop carrying Sonys altogether or stop displaying them.

Or go out of business, one might add, though Landsburg doesn’t mention that alternative. If price is invariable, on the other hand, retailers, instead of competing on price, have to compete by offering better service. If, as a manufacturer, you take pride in the quality of what you make, you want customers to have a chance to become more knowledgeable. In the corporate world, in other words, it’s widely understood—it’s a commonplace—that the only way to create a network of pleasant, thriving retailers is to control pricing.

So if the economic principle is so obvious, you’re no doubt asking, then why haven’t the publishers of America instituted vertical price-fixing?

Maybe books are different? They don’t seem to be. For a quick proof, consider that “Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain allow the vertical price-fixing of books,” as I wrote in this 2012 blog post, reporting on a conference about the future of books and copyright, and bookstores in those countries are prospering. If you’re a reader and you’ve visited one of those countries recently, you’ve probably seen them and wept. Maybe, as I constantly worry, reading itself is in decline, but it seems that bookstores needn’t be in a decline quite as steep as that in America and the United Kingdom.

Note an important difference in the kind of argument used to justify the laws that allow (and in France, require) publishers to set retail prices. Laws are passed for the common good, not to ensure that the customers of a manufacturer have a pleasant retail experience. The rationale for laws allowing publishers to control their books’ prices, therefore, is public-spirited rather than hard-headed. As I wrote in 2012,

The nations that allow for “resale price maintenance” . . . in publishing justify the legal exception for three reasons. They believe that it brings a bookstore to every village, that it makes possible a wide selection of books in those bookstores, and that it enables less-popular books to be subsidized by more-popular ones. In other words, the argument for resale price maintenance rests largely on the contribution that local, independent bookstores make to cultural life.

Online bookstores like Amazon might seem to undermine these rationales, because an online bookstore can bring a wider variety of books to a broader geographic range of citizens than any network of brick-and-mortar bookstores can. There’s an objection to this objection, however—an asymmetry. If a combination of uncontrolled pricing and online bookselling drives a brick-and-mortar bookstore out of existence, the special benefit to consumer-citizens that was provided by that well-managed brick-and-mortar bookstore is destroyed. The reverse, however, is not true. That is, if publishers were to control control prices, thereby supporting brick-and-mortar stores, the market share of online booksellers might well shrink, but it’s improbable that all online booksellers would for that reason go out of business, and as long as even one reputable online bookseller remained, the boons of wide variety and wide geographic distribution would remain available. If you believe that these boons are worth preserving, you needn’t necessarily oppose allowing publishers to set the retail prices of their books. Amazon remains in business in France even though it’s against the law there for online booksellers to undersell their brick-and-mortar rivals.

It isn’t exactly a surprise that a number of social democratic European nations have held onto the belief that bookstores contribute to cultural life and deserve protection, while in America and the United Kingdom, where the legal and political elites tend to be more market-fundamentalist, the consensus seems to be that cheaper book prices are worth more than the affordances of a nice bookstore. None of these ideological preferences alters the underlying economics of price-setting, however. Publishers needn’t wait wait for politicians, or for abstract moral argumentation, if they believe that well-run brick-and-mortar stores are the most congenial environments for introducing their books to readers. And in my experience, especially if one is looking to discover new books of high literary quality, nothing surpasses handling, sniffing, and leafing through ink-on-paper volumes in a well-curated brick-and-mortar store.

If Penguin Random House (to name the mega-conglomerate that happens to be publishing me this August) wanted to adopt Sony’s corporate strategy on the pricing of its TVs, it could do so tomorrow. Alas, there would be enormous risks. Federal antitrust regulators would be watching skeptically, because American publishers did adopt that strategy with e-books, as a roundabout way of supporting the price of ink-on-paper books, and got caught colluding with one another, in violation of antitrust law, when they did so. In the end, the publishers did get their way in the pricing of e-books, as Mike Shatzkin and Robert Paris Riger explain in The Book Business, a new primer on the behind-the-scenes economics of publishing. The results were mixed. Amazon decided to “let the big publishers be hoisted with their own petard,” Shatzkin and Riger write. While publishers kept the retail price of their e-books high, Amazon cultivated an alternative supply of e-books that were in the public domain or by authors who were self-published or who had taken their copyrights back from their original publishers. “The big publisher share of the e-book market appears to have steadily diminished since agency pricing began,” Shatzkin and Riger report, but “publishers take some comfort in the fact that print book sales have stabilized.”

I’m skating perilously close to turning this into an endless blog post about economics and the future of literature, so I’ll cut it short: Brick-and-mortar bookstores remain invaluable for publishers hoping to reach consumers who discriminate for literary quality and are interested in new titles, and as best I can figure it, vertical price-fixing is the only way to support an ecosystem of brick-and-mortar bookstores in the long term. The first publisher to attempt vertical price-fixing, however, will risk being undersold by rivals who delay adopting the strategy and being attacked in some way by Amazon, who will see it as a threat to market share. There will also be a more general risk, if prices are set too high, of spurring consumers to defect to cheaper alternatives.

Bolton’s “Palinode,” glossed

Raphael Sadeler. Allegory of transitoriness. Landscape with two naked youths, one sitting on an urn and blowing a soap bubble, the other lying asleep with his arm on a skull near an hour-glass; after Maarten de Vos. British Museum 1937,0915.158

[After reading the poem, click on any verse to unroll an annotation. (Click again to hide it.)]

A Palinode

by Edmund Bolton

In a palinode, one takes a statement back. Literally, one sings it back—sings it away. The term combines the Greek words πάλιν (pálin), meaning “back” or “again,” and ᾠδή (ōdḗ), meaning “song.” This poem, first published in Englands Helicon, one of the greatest anthologies of lyric poetry in English, in 1600, seems to have been written by a man named Edmund Bolton; his initials appeared at the end. What might he have been trying to take back? Unfortunately, not much is known about him. He only left half a dozen poems in English, plus a few in Latin. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls him a philologist, that is, someone who likes to investigate the history of words. That’s evident in another of the poems he contributed to Englands Helicon, “Theorello,” where he riffs on the ability of the Greek word κόσμος (kósmos) to mean both “the world” (as in the English word cosmos) and “an ornament” (as in cosmetics). The Oxford DNB also says that Bolton was a Catholic, for which he was persecuted; that he was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge; that he never had much money; and that his great ambition was to write history. He published a book about heraldry in 1610 and a biography of Nero in 1624, and at his death left behind a manuscript, titled “Hypercritica,” about the need for historians to test the claims of chroniclers against surviving documents. In the year 1600, however, he probably hadn’t even conceived of these books, let alone written or published them. He was only twenty-five years old.
As withereth the primrose by the river,
As fadeth summer’s sun from gliding fountains,
As vanisheth the light-blown bubble ever,
As melteth snow upon the mossy mountains,
Maybe in Bolton’s palinode it’s beauty that’s being taken back? Bolton begins his poems with an epic simile, or rather with four epic similes, each of which makes a comparison to an emblem of beauty—a primrose, sunlight, a bubble, and snow—each of which, in turn, is subject to loss. A gentle loss, in each case, appropriate to the beauty in question and somehow almost a testament to it. Because a primrose blooms in spring, because the sun is named as summer’s, and because snow belongs to winter, the emblems, and their passing, call to mind the succession of the seasons. The fragility of beauty, in other words, is from the poem’s outset associated with the work of time. The number four, by the way, is key to the structure of Bolton’s poem, which has the form of a double sonnet.
So melts, so vanisheth, so fades, so withers
After four beauties in the first four lines, the fifth line insists four times on the loss of them, reversing the order of the verbs previously used to describe their loss. Bolton manages to stay in meter by taking advantage of his era’s open-mindedness about whether the third person singular of a verb ends in -s or -eth.
The rose, the shine, the bubble, and the snow
In line 6, the emblems of beauty return, in their original order, as if Bolton is briefly restoring what time had taken.
Of praise, pomp, glory, joy (which short life gathers)—
Only in line 7 does the reader finally discover that the four similes describe not one but four things. Because Bolton is so careful about order, it seems likely that he means to describe praise as like a primrose, pomp as like sunshine, glory as like a bubble, and joy as like mountain snow.
Fair praise, vain pomp, sweet glory, brittle joy.
Bolton repeats himself in line 8, perhaps to give the reader a moment to breathe—to recover from the complexity of his four-part conceit. But look at the adjectives he has added: fair and sweet have a positive valence, but vain and brittle a negative one. A small variation has been introduced into the symmetry of the poem.
The withered primrose by the mourning river,
The faded summer’s sun from weeping fountains,
The light-blown bubble, vanished forever,
The molten snow upon the naked mountains
Bolton now repeats all four similes, in preparation for making an argument about what they reveal about their objects. Note that he goes byond merely rhyming the third quatrain with the first. Instead he re-uses all four of the first quatrain’s rhyme-words, as if to emphasize, by these samenesses, a difference: previously he had described the emblems of beauty as going; now they are gone. The river is in mourning; the fountains are weeping.
Are emblems that the treasures we up-lay
Soon wither, vanish, fade, and melt away.
According to the orthodox Christian deprecation, the rewards of this world are worthless because they won’t last. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal,” counseled Jesus (Matthew 6:19 [KJV]). Thisworldly praise and glory, Bolton’s similes maintain, are as ephemeral as thisworldly beauty. Are they what Bolton is giving up? Bolton’s imagery is in tension with his ostensible moral here. People do sometimes hope that textiles and metals will last in storage, but Bolton hasn’t mentioned any such treasures, and I’m not sure anyone has that hope about flowers or summer light. Note that in line 14, the last line in the first stanza, Bolton has braided his verbs in a new order, signaling a complication, or at least an interest in complicating. Note also that Bolton hasn’t said anything about the brevity of beauty’s lifespan here below that is likely to make the beauty any less appealing.

The emblem that comes last in the first stanza of the poem comes first in the second.
For as the snow, whose lawn did overspread
Th’ambitious hills, which giant-like did threat
To pierce the heaven with their aspiring head,
Naked and bare doth leave their craggy seat;
The snow now appears in a new aspect. No longer merely an object to be lost, it is now an actor; the snow is leaving. There’s almost a hint, too, that it’s leaving after a relationship with its mountain that turned out to be difficult. The mountain, ambitious and aspiring, seems to have had an angry way of being in the world.
Whenas the bubble, which did empty fly
The dalliance of the undiscerned wind,
On whose calm rolling waves it did rely,
Hath shipwreck made, where it did dalliance find;
From snow, the element that came fourth in the first stanza, Bolton moves backward to the bubble, which came third there. The bubble, too, now seems to be acting rather than suffering its fate: it flies the wind (in which there seems, again, to be the suggestion of an unreliable partner, whose failing in this case is fickleness), and it makes its shipwreck. To construe these suggestions of active losing and of previous relationships, a reader has to bring to the poem her own sensibility and experience. I think I hear the possibility that the sensual beauty of this world, like the social rewards we find in it, doesn’t exist independent of our perceiving but is created, to some extent, by the need in us that calls for it, and isn’t lost merely in the forward motion of history, but is lived through—enjoyed through the same process that exhausts it.
And when the sunshine, which dissolved the snow,
Four: snow. Three: bubble. Two: sunshine. Next should come the primrose, but instead Bolton has jumped back to snow, his fourth element. And not only has the poem veered out of sequence. For the first time, the relation between the elements isn’t mere juxtaposition. There’s cause and effect. The sun melted the snow.
Colored the bubble with a pleasant vary,
And made the rathe and timely primrose grow,
It melted the snow, it colored the bubble, and it grew the primrose. A vary, by the way, is a variation, and rathe means “early” (another way of saying you would sooner do A than B is to say that you would rather do A than B). The beauties that exist in the world, it turns out, cause one other as well as give way to one other—the way seasons do.
Swarth clouds withdraw (which longer time do tarry);
I’ve made a small emendation to line 26. As originally printed in Englands Helicon, its beginning reads, “Swarth clowdes with-drawne.” I’ve emended with-drawne to withdraw. Instead of the subject-verb-object order usual in English sentences (the cat eats the mouse), Bolton has gone with the less-common but not unheard-of object-subject-verb order (the mouse the cat eats). I suspect that this confused the typesetter, who mistakenly tried to “correct” it. In other words, I think Bolton originally wrote, “And when the sunshine . . . / Swarth clouds withdraw,” meaning, roughly, And when swarthy clouds withdraw the sunshine . . .
The second stanza up to this point (lines 15 through 26) attempts to introduce a new epic simile, intended to answer the four similes of the first stanza. As snow leaves hills, as a bubble makes its shipwreck, and as sunshine, when clouds withdraw it . . . The clouds, by the way, having obscured the sunshine, tarry for a longer time than the sunshine did, the persona of Bolton’s poem observes parenthetically—
—and in the middle of his thought loses track of where he was in his own sentence. Bolton’s speaker breaks off—the term of art is aposiopesis, as the philologist Bolton no doubt knew—as if so frustrated by the difficulty of what he’s trying to say that he needs to give up and tackle it again from a less poetical angle.
Oh, what is praise, pomp, glory, joy, but so
As shine by fountains, bubbles, flowers, or snow?
After all, he seems to fall back to saying, there’s nothing to compare the rewards of this world to other than what he has already compared them to. It’s as if, having lived in his similes long enough, so long that he has discovered in them a new aspect of action and a new context of relationship, it no longer seems likely to Bolton that anyone will confuse perdurability with value. A thing isn’t less meaningful because it doesn’t last. How could we think so? Neither we, beauty, nor the relationships in which we find ourselves and beauty are going to survive. He recants recantation.

Sources: The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Bolton’s “Theorello,” Bolton’s “Hypercritica,”, the text of “A Palinode” as printed in Englands Helicon.