Wednesday, April 15, 2009


I don't usually comment on the news of the day cause so many others are doin it. Well. Mine'd be just another superfluous voice addin to the din. But this latest Amazon flap got me thinkin.

Back in the late 70s Princeton University Press published a book called Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare. It's a terrific piece of popular science, a must read for anyone interested in the natural world and the foundations of ecology. Though it sounds like it's just about predation, and indeed there's a good deal about T-Rex, tigers, and the like, it really covers the whole chain of being.

Now I figger someone needs to write a book called Why Big Fierce Retailers Are Rare. Take the holistic approach -- make it about the whole ecology of the retailing scene, the slash-and-burn of it, the unsecured debt of it, the needless mark-up of it. The history of it, from John Wanamaker to The North Face. A survey, from B. Altman to Dollar Bill's.

The book'd be filled with sad black-and-white photos of the retailers of my youth: Woolworth's (they had a nice 100-year-plus run), Sears Roebuck & Co., E. J. Korvettes (great record department, low prices), Klein's on the Square, Abraham & Strauss, Times Square Stores, S. S. Kresge, Montgomery Ward (we called it Monkey Ward), and Macy's. Later on came the cheesy discounters Caldor (a publisher's best punch-line), Bradlees and Ames. Except for Macy's and Sears, they're all extinct, and Sears is doin the Totentanz with K-Mart these days. In wealthy neighborhoods like Garden City and Manhasset (nobody said "upscale" back then) you'd find Bloomingdales and Saks.

Remember the Miracle Mile? The Brentano's in Manhasset was one of the best bookstores on the Island. That's where I bought Pound's Personae. $7.50, cloth. I'm holding it in my hand right now. A mimeographed church bulletin stickin out from between the pages. Now I remember. Father Trimboli and I read the Greek words on page 199 together. He translated and pronounced them for me. TO AGATHON. It took me outta Tackytown.

Or maybe it should be Why Big Fierce Book Retailers Are Rare. It'll cover dead retailers like Womrath's, Scribner, Doubleday, Bookstop, Kroch's and Brentano's, Crown, Lauriats, hell the graveyard is full. Make way for Waldenbooks and B. Dalton. And now Borders is lookin green around the gills, staggerin about, suckin on their stationery margins like an asthmatic. CDs anyone? Barnes & Noble? The superstores have been around twenty years -- that's two full lifetimes in retail. They gotta get a makeover, quick.

Which brings us to Amazon. Keystroke, keystroke, keystroke. You bought a book. Whoopee! What did we learn about consumer behavior from the MBA savants, poot? It's all about price and convenience, so right now these guys are in the saddle. Ain't much you can do about it either, except visit the graveyard of dead book retailers and place your flowers just so. Arrange 'em nice.

Yup, Amazon is T-Rex, the tiger in the brush, the croc in the Nile, the Great White off the coast. The Big Fierce Book Retailer. Wal-Mart's out there in the jungle roarin like a lion, but books are just fleas in its mane.

You want comfort? Big Fierce Retailers don't last long. They get too big and start to stiffen up. They get corporate and cautious. They make bad decisions cause they got too many buck-passers and too few deciders. They start analyzin instead of actin. They keep talkin about the customer but eventually they turn inward and think only of themselves. They do what all big companies do. Like all big animals they need lots of food, and food gets scarce. Without competition they get fat and dozy and fall off their chair. They do start doin dumb things. Not because they're bad, but because they're big. You want comfort? The cycle's gettin shorter - birth, ascendancy, kingship, decline, death. Thing's'll change.

You want comfort? Or you wanna do something about it? It's all those critters that live off the Big Fierce Animal symbiotically that interest me these days...

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