It's a big subject that warrants a big book: Among Friends: An Illustrated Oral History of American Book Publishing & Bookselling in the 20th Century is an in-depth illustrated history of book publishing and bookselling in the U.S. from World War II through 2000. Besides offering more than 500 striking and sometimes amusing photographs, the book features essays and remembrances from more than 100 influential people in the business, a kind of pantheon of the era.
Among Friends was edited by Buz Teacher, founder of Running Press Book Publishers, and Janet Bukovinsky Teacher, and published by Two Trees Press, distributed by Ingram Content Group.
The 576-page book weighs about nine pounds, and is a kind of object of art: it's packaged in a decorative, die-cut clamshell box. Only 1,600 copies have been printed, and they're numbered by hand. The retail price: $200.
Among the many bookseller contributors are Richard Howorth and Lisa Howorth, Linda Bubon, Ann Christophersen, Tom Borders, Michael Tucker, Matthew Miller, Barbara Morrow, Becky Anderson, Matty Goldberg, Philip Turner, William Rickman, John Evans, Frank Kramer, Carole Horne, Robert Haft, Danny Gurr, Clyde Anderson, and Terry Finley.
Among the publishers, distributors, wholesalers, and others with fascinating histories and takes on the business are Mike Shatzkin, John Sargent, Chip Gibson, Pennie Clark Ianniciello, Peter Osnos, Bob Miller, and many more.
Their stories and recollections add a personal touch to the major shifts of the time, which in bookselling included the huge growth of chain mall stores Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Bookseller, then the growth of chain superstores, primarily Borders and Barnes & Noble, the founding of Amazon--and throughout the period, the challenges faced by independent bookstores whose future was repeatedly questioned but who in so many cases met the challenges and found ways of surviving, adapting, and even thriving.
Here's a taste of some of the essay-remembrances:
Sally Richardson, longtime head of St. Martin's Press: "One thing that hasn't changed is that independent bookstores still have a lot of influence, and their outlook is so different from that of the chains. In the end, it's still pretty simple. Authors bring us ideas, and we make books. The books are preeminent. And then it's all about getting the books to the people who want to read them."
Steve Bercu, former head of BookPeople, Austin, Tex.: "BookPeople has adapted and thrived. Competition from the Internet and eight new chain bookstores compelled us to rethink our inventory and work at setting ourselves apart from the cookie cutter chain stores.... The store established the Austin Independent Business Alliance, commissioned the economic impact analysis that quantified the value of independent business, and practically invented our fanciful 'Keep Austin Weird' movement."
Chuck Robinson, co-founder and longtime co-owner of Village Books, Bellingham and Lynden, Wash.: "Our store has managed to survive and grow because we have always been open to change. In fact, one of the belief statements at the beginning of our store manual is 'Change is necessary, desirable and can be enjoyable.' "
Roxanne J. Coady, founder and owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn.: "Bookstores are uniquely situated to provide moments and days of utter satisfaction. Listening to customers, placing the book in their hand that fills the need of the moment, that cheers them up, that gives them courage or comfort, watching authors connect with readers in moments of intimacy and understanding, and creating a place for our community to gather."
Betsy Burton, co-founder and former co-owner of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah: "Perhaps the most important [lesson we learned] was our discovery that there is an art to the occupation we'd chosen, and it involved far more than rhapsodizing about one's latest literary coup de foudre. Handselling required listening rather than talking, discerning the tastes of customers based on what books they loved. There was ample opportunity for us to enthuse over titles we loved, but those recommendations were only for people whose tastes were similar to our own, or broad enough to encompass all manner of books--something that can be said of many readers, long may they live and breathe (and read)."
Hut Landon, former co-owner of Landon Books and former head of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association: "By the mid-'90s, NCIBA had taken steps to distinguish independents from other sellers, but we needed to show why that differentiation mattered, both to publishers and to consumers. In 1997, the association raised $125,000 to create a marketing plan to promote the best of independent bookselling. We worked with a local advertising firm to produce a campaign and in 1998 launched Book Sense, a regional identity for independents. Book Sense featured five elements that embodied independent booksellers--knowledge, passion, personality, character and commitment to the community."
Gayle Shanks, co-founder and co-owner of Changing Hands, Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz.: "Changing Hands stayed alive thanks to determination and creativity. We expanded our gift selection, increased our remainder inventory, added more events to our calendar, and continuously schooled the staff in customer service. They were told that what we had that Amazon didn't was passionate booksellers who read and recommended books, could carry bags out to people's cars and who would go the extra mile to deliver an extraordinary experience."
Oren Teicher, former CEO of the American Booksellers Association: "The 1990s also saw multiple skirmishes over First Amendment and free expression issues. With strong allies in the publishing and library communities, booksellers became fierce opponents of any effort to suppress constitutionally protected speech. Most notably, the fatwa imposed on Salman Rushdie by Iran in 1989, which led to the bombings of bookstores in the U.S. and around the world, galvanized bookseller support for free expression."
Among Friends is the kind of book anyone with an interest in the recent history of the book world can get lost in for hours--and find all kinds of gems that illuminate where the book business is today and show how much and how little has changed.