If you look at the About Us page on this website you will see a photograph of the original Barbara's Bookstore on Wells Street in Chicago, circa 1963. I was quite familiar with that store, not only because when it opened my wife and I lived a short block away from it but also because it became part of my professional life. No, I was not one of those knowledgeable staff members who was familiar with every title in the store (as the caption states); instead, I was a rookie publisher's sales rep calling on the owner/buyer in hopes of selling her a decent representation of my company's offerings.
The year was 1963, and I was newly employed by Oxford University Press to cover the Midwestern states for the trade division of that august and ancient publisher, with its list of relatively scholarly nonfiction titles and a broadly respected list of reference books and literary classics. I had no background in sales, and in fact had moved to Chicago a couple of years earlier as an editor; for whatever reason, the sales manager at Oxford saw in me the potential to be a book sales rep (or, in the parlance of the times, "book traveler"). He came to Chicago to accompany me to the larger and more important accounts - more on those later - but I was on my own with stores like Barbara's.
Proper sales etiquette generally required that a rep phone for an appointment, but since the store was nearby I took the liberty of dropping in to make the appointment in person. The owner's name was, not surprisingly, Barbara, and she was the daughter of one Max Siegel, a flamboyant Chicago-based literary agent with enough celebrity panache to show up regularly in Kup's column in the Chicago Sun-Times. It was there that I had read that Barbara, who had been working with her father in the agency, had decided to open a book store in the Old Town area.
So we agreed on a time to meet, and I trudged over to the store with my brand new sample case - the rookie sales rep and the brand new bookseller and the Oxford Spring Catalog - and an hour later I walked out with an order for maybe 15 books, mostly 1's with a few 2's, and with a somewhat bruised ego but also with an important building block added to my education as a book rep. Even though every title on the list had sounded important and thus commercially viable when the editors presented them at the sales conference, each bookseller I was calling on would have different ideas of what suited their customer base and their needs, and it was going to be my job to pare down my presentations to just those titles that did so.
Such wisdom takes a bit of time to acquire; a most important piece of my education as a book peddler occurred a couple of years later when I (and the rest of the Oxford sales force) was presented with the opportunity to present a list with bestseller potential, an unusual prospect to put it mildly. The noted historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, who had produced some bestselling titles for Little Brown, had completed his Oxford History of the American People, and we all believed that - in spite of its high price (for the time) of $12.50 - it was destined to be the right book at the right time.
As it happened, a fairly significant share of producing large enough advance orders to give Morrison's opus a shot at bestsellerdom fell to me. Those large Chicago-area accounts that warranted my boss's accompanying me on my early calls were Kroch's & Brentano's, at that time the largest retail account in the country with a huge downtown store and more than a dozen branches in metro Chicago, and A. C. McClurg, the largest trade book wholesaler in the heartland.
The crusty, somewhat porcine buyer at Kroch's was widely known in publishing circles as already a "legend in his own time," as the cliche goes. It was he who was largely responsible for the fact that books, unlike most commodities before or since, are sold on a fully returnable basis to retailers and wholesalers alike. And his opinion was often sought by some publishers before they even signed on to an author or a project. Nevertheless, for a Chicago area book rep the store was a joy to call on, since it would stock almost every title we offered - it was a superstore before anyone came up with that description.
But the Kroch's buyer decided that the Oxford History of the American People, distinguished publishing project as it might be, was not a candidate to be a bestseller although he felt it would sell steadily as a solid reference title over the years. Instead of the 500 copies we had hoped for, he ordered 50. However, the quite venerable buyer at A. C. McClurg more than made up for the shortfall by ordering 2,500 copies; I could only hope that this was not a product of senility, spurred by my enthusiastic sales pitch.
When the publication date arrived, reviews were universally enthusiastic, including the front pages of the New York Times Book Review and the Chicago book review sections as well. The title was soon high on the TBR bestseller list and went to the #2 slot for much of the spring and summer. (The #1 title was impossible to dislodge - it was Markings, the posthumous collection from the diaries of Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations who had recently died in a plane crash; it was inspirational, and it retailed for $4; (these are hardcover prices, by the way.) Kroch's reordered immediately and soon stacks appeared in prominent places in all of the stores. At this point, something happened which truly contributed to my education as a sales rep.
I decided to take in the "action" of having a bestseller, and spent the better part of a day on the floor of the main Kroch's store watching over the piles of Morrison's book. The floor was crowded with customers and the cash registers were ringing, but no one was buying my bestseller. I resisted the impulse to physically push people towards it, and finally left the store after three hours without witnessing a purchase. But when the sales report came in at the end of the week, a hundred or so had indeed sold, second only to Markings (which I had also not noticed being bought during my vigil).
The lesson for me was one that people who sell books for a living find out sooner or later: however sexy it may seem for a book to get on bestseller lists, the meat and potatoes for booksellers is the large number of other books that the store carries, many of which have been around for years. The term for these is "backlist," and no store survives without them being tended to and nurtured - their total sales overwhelm those of the more transitory bestsellers. There were many other lessons I had to learn as I continued my career as a publisher's rep, but this was the most important.
Flash forward to the present: Kroch's & Brentano's and A. C. McClurg no longer exist, Barbara's does. Barbara Siegel sold the store a few years after she opened it, but the people she sold it to still operate the various Barbara's stores (not the one in the picture, though; it was demolished to make way for a new condominium building). Larger chains have come and gone, as well as many an independent store. Almost every store, large and small, now conducts its business with the essential aid of computers; but, after all these years, the process of selling books remains basically unchanged.
A few months ago I retired. Another lesson I have learned, though, is that in this business - and perhaps in life as well - the more things change, the more they stay the same. I hope to expand on that thought in future blogs.