I’ve been stalking bookstores for the last few months. While on business travel, from Long Beach to Atlanta, from Phoenix to Toronto, I’ve been stealing time to zip into Borderses and Barnes and Nobleses simply to make a list of what literary magazines each store stocks.
The results? On one hand, I’ve been impressed. The Rittenhouse Square Barnes and Noble in Philadelphia stocks a ton of lit mags, more even than my local Harvard Bookstore (often considered the country’s best independent). The Presse Internationale in Toronto’s Greektown not only sold a fantastic number of Canandian titles but also included many lesser known American ones, such as Atlanta’s Five Points.
On the other hand, the physical placement of literary magazines is dispiriting. Harvard Bookstore keeps them in a bizarre little shin-level shelf opposite their Christianity section. A Borders in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood keeps its (impressive number of out-of-date) lit mags in the oddest place—in an end-cap shelf, fifteen feet away from literary glossies like Publishers Weekly and Bookforum, faced away from the rest of the room, and adjacent to a freight elevator. I couldn’t even find the shelf until my girlfriend phoned and I searched for the most out-of-the-way spot in the store to take the call. In fact, the only store I’ve ever seen that makes a point of highlighting its lit mag offerings is Trident Bookseller in Boston’s Back Bay, which sports a shelf at the end of the aisle created by the magazine racks and the long cafe bar.
So to the question I opened with. Why aren’t lit mags placed more prominently? Yes, they’re not best-sellers and they don’t earn kind of margins that blank journals, hardbacks, and remainders do. But don’t literary magazines dovetail with the Barnes and Noble ethos of creating the “literary environment”? Sure, some people go in to Barnes and Noble, sit and read, and leave without buying anything—but by virtue of sitting and reading, doesn’t that make Barnes and Noble the place you think of when you do want to buy a book? So shouldn’t the most purely bookish, most book-community-driven product in the world—the literary magazine—get to take its place at the front of the store? Moreover, isn’t it good business sense to sacrifice the sale of a few remainders if it means creating another generation of obsessive readers? It certainly worked for Starbucks, which decided long ago to sacrifice customer turnover in favor of customer zeal, and now we have a nationwide cafe culture, where none had existed before. That’s very good business!
Altogether, it makes me think of my favorite pizza place, a family-run joint in my first neighborhood in Cambridge. The owner, Armando Paolo, was asked by a reporter if business had lagged since a gourmet pizza place had opened up around the corner. “No,” he said and laughed. “We’ve had more people here than ever.” When asked why that was, Armando said, “The fancy place got people thinking even more about pizza. And when people around here think pizza, they think Armando’s.”
Bookstores, take that tip from Armando. Promote literary magazines because they promote the best of reading and writing. Shelve them front and center. It gets people excited about books—so be in on it. People want to associate that book-zeal with a particular place, a particular store. So when people think of books, make sure they think of you.