February 21, 2011 § 8 Comments

One of the strangest developments in the culture of retail bookselling is the devaluation of books by museums shops, a class of stores considered by publishers to be an essential part of the retail picture. The very non-profit institutions whose raison d’etre is the preservation of knowledge about art, anthropology, zoology, botany –a vast range of subjects- have decided that, while books are a necessary evil, they are an unprofitable and embarrassing holdover from a time when the economic life of museums was less complicated. Book buyers, like spendthrift government agencies, must be carefully controlled, and inventory beyond exhibit catalogues limited to the most commercial choices. Attention all employees in the book department, you may be given notice with very little notice!

There are many examples of museums that have adopted this attitude, including the great Temples of Art in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Minneapolis.

The Chicago Botanical Garden, The Chicago History Museum, and The Museum of Science and Industry have out-sourced bookstore operations. Elizabeth Hubbartt, the long-time buyer at the History Museum, was pushed out the door last year.

You might very well ask the question, “Why should anyone outside of the book business care how the bookstore is run or who buys the books?” The answer is simple.  A bookstore run by museum employees will be better than one administered by absentee managers who buy a limited number of titles and only those they can purchase at the highest discount. The in-house bookstore is truly a part of the museum, and its staff has a stake in carrying out the mission of the parent institution.

The vending of books in a bookstore is a tangible example of human beings doing their best. The printed matter between covers may inspire, charm or disgust, but it is the bookseller who allows readers a free and easy evaluation of this material. The countless negotiations between human beings involved in ordering, shipping, displaying, and selling (or returning) books, helps create a participatory marketplace with a human face.

Museums are supposed to be in the business of education, showing us the strength and inventiveness of the human spirit, or the surprising qualities of the natural world. They feature the work of people who did not spend all their time on earth making money, but who created work or amassed knowledge that might benefit the museum-going public. If a museum turns its back on books because the profit margin is better on jewelry, if a museum kills the job of a trusted and dedicated employee to save a few pennies, that museum is also showing contempt for its public.

You might object that it is unfair in an age of radical change to pick on the museum stores. Haven’t many university and college bookstores done exactly the same sorts of things? Yes, they have, and some universities ought to be taken to task as well, but to raise this question you would have to fundamentally misunderstand my point. I am not criticizing anyone for trying to adapt to the marketplace. Cost-cutting measures have been introduced everywhere in brick-and-mortar retailing. I do not expect museum shops to behave like libraries. All I ask is that museum bigwigs view their bookstore operation as part of the fulfillment of the mission that gives them their non-profit status. If there is plenty of room for tote bags and calendars, then there is room for scholarly books as well.

Treating books and booksellers with respect is good business, and everyone involved with the museum—visitors, donors, curators, volunteers—will be happier for it.



  • Sarah L. Welsch says:

    Hi Bruce!

    how great to read about your blog–and your trenchant article–in yesterday’s (2/22/2011) SHELF AWARENESS! I’m pleased to see you are still making waves in the book industry!

    Do send me an email if you want to talk?

    All the best,

    Sarah Welsch
    Welsch Associates
    Lebanon, New Hampshire

  • tina curtis` says:

    As a local author, historian, and museum professional, I agree that it is necessary to keep books available to those who visit the local museum. Especially those local authors who have done hours of research on topics that are vital to learning about the area or a topic that the museum is featuring. Regardless of the technological age, books are important to the educator as well as the student. I also believe that the best way to find documented material for research or genealogy is to check out the local books offered in museum archives or in their bookstores. Though we definitely need to keep up with the technology available and utilize it to enhance museum education and efficiency, we also need to keep those books where they can be used, bought and kep where the information inside can continue to enlighten the educational experience.

  • Great to hear from you. Thanks.

  • Excellent! Very well put. Museum shops have a responsibility to enhance the visitor’s experience and if the institution has any interest in informing and educating its audience then the retail operation should be making its contribution.

  • In today’s world, especially with the current economy, we have had to accept that our museum shop is not a revenue stream but a service we offer to our audience, hoping we can break even. Despite the mission-driven approach, it is frustrating to observe our visitors jotting down the titles of books in order to go home & order them online at discounted prices.One wishes that museum attendees valued our services enough to forgo saving that $3 to $5, giving it instead to us to help ensure our continued existence.

  • Dear Connie Barlow-
    Thanks for reading my post. Now you have really gotten to the root of it! The reason selling books is so much less profitable for stores is because of the Big A, the Might River that would engulf us all. As I said in the final paragraph of my blogpost about e-books:

    “Finally, the e-reading trend is not only part of the larger digital revolution, but a chapter in the ongoing story of the internet’s destruction of American brick-and-mortar retail. Empty storefronts are coming to a theater near you.”

    So, all retail stores are threatened by the giants of e-taling. In Chicago for example, you see many empty storefronts. I’ve spoken with the owners of gift shops, clothing stores, all sorts of places that find people come in and look and say, “I’ll get that online.”

    Of course, Amazon uses book sales as a “loss leader” to get people to their site, so we in the book business have been hit especially hard (not to mention how cheap used books are). I’ve even heard of people using their phones to scan in bibliographic info, comparing prices as they stand in a store! One bookseller told me of a person who brought a kindle to a book club meeting, a club sponsored and run by the bookstore!

    So, given all this, and how shameless some people are, I believe we need a document that spells out what customers can and cannot do. It is only fair.

  • Stuart Gerstein says:

    Hello Bruce-
    A simple fix…Book Publishers/Distributors should stop selling titles to internet book discounters or make the titles available 6 months after the book is published. This disaster was created and continues to be fuelled by Book Publishers who will eventually be out of business or only able to publish popular titles.

    • You raise an excellent point. I’ve suggested to the ABA that they force an answer to the question of whether preferential discounts are being given to internet retailers. It is short-sighted for the publishers not to support the independent stores. The publishers need them whether they know it or not!

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