The corner bookstores take on the book chains
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The NCBA's legal counsel is William Petrocelli, a San Francisco attorney who, with his wife Elaine, owns Lark Creek Books in Larkspur, Calif. He says he hopes to persuade the judge that the standard ''meeting the competition'' defense may work for interchangeable products like bread and gasoline, but that it doesn't apply to books - first, because they are ''unique products,'' and second, because bookstores ''carry all lines of all publishers.''Skip to next paragraph
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''Our case is very different,'' says Petrocelli, ''from that of two gasoline suppliers like Mobil and Texaco fighting to get their products into the same gas station.'' Adds Ross: ''If you're selling steel ingots, and your competition offers the product for less, you are allowed to meet that price. But books can't be treated like steel ingots. 'Gorky Park' is not interchangeable with 'A Hundred Years of Solitude.'
''Recently, Crown Books, one of the fastest-growing book chains in the country, opened an outlet on Telegraph Avenue, just a block away from Cody's.
The Berkeley store is unlike any other bookstore on the avenue. In contrast to Shakespeare & Company Books across the street, where well-thumbed volumes are crammed higgledy-piggledy into unreachable nooks and crannies, Crown's books are not so much shelved as showcased. Fluorescent panel lights and a lowered ceiling give it the feel of a cross between an airport lounge and a discount drugstore. Flashy placards beside the cash register announce the month's best-selling paperbacks: ''Tron,'' ''Blade Runner,'' and ''White Hotel.'' Near a display of remaindered art books dotted with day-glo orange discount price tags, hangs a plastic sign proclaiming: ''If you paid full price you didn't buy it at Crown.''
Behind the counter stands a mop-haired young man in blue jeans. He introduced himself as the store manager, and stated straight off: ''I'll talk to you, but you can't use my name. This is a chain.'' He said he had worked for a year in one of Crown's stores in Los Angeles, and had just come north to open the Berkeley outlet. ''Yup, Crown is moving up,'' he said. ''The company is run by a guy who's 29 years old and full of energy. We just went into Chicago and Houston , and have plans for 10 more stores in the Bay Area. We do mostly high-turnover books. When they're on the New York Times bestseller list, we give 35 percent off hardbacks, 25 percent off paperback.''
The issue of the NCBA suit comes up.
''I don't know what Andy Ross is complaining about,'' continued the store manager. ''Nobody goes to Cody's to buy bestsellers anyway. They come to a place like Crown. . . .
''We don't force people to buy our books. They come in here because they save money. The publishers and booksellers may be mad at us, but the customers love us.'' His sidekick adds, ''The remainder houses love us too, because we take all the garbage off their hands.''
''Ross says the people working in the chain stores are all just clerks,'' the manager continues. ''But we have degrees. We're not morons. Sure, they've got some pretty sharp guys in Cody's. But they're the kind of people that, if you ask them for 'Gone with the Wind,' they'll laugh at you.''
Vital to the chains' success formula is the no-frills service. ''I've been in the book business for nine years, and this is the easiest job I've had. The customers are happier because they're getting a deal; we have fewer returns, don't do any special ordering or gift wrappings. We are permitted to do some book ordering.''
Vital to Andy Ross is his vocation: ''When books are no longer treated as ideas to be read and valued,'' he said, ''but merely objects to be consumed; when bookselling ceases to be a vocation, but is only a business; when the range and quality of books is subordinated to abstract ratios of turnover and return on investment; then is when our culture will be threatened with censorship of the marketplace, then is when our pool of ideas will be reduced to the lowest common denominator of the public's taste, then is when we are in serious trouble. And I suspect we are already there.''