Discount nation 

Author Eric Schlosser on The Chinook Bookshop, Wal-Mart and the bookselling trade

In a 1998 Rolling Stone article, journalist Eric Schlosser called the Springs' Chinook Bookshop "as independent as they come... a literate and civilized book store. "

During his time researching his 2001 best-selling book Fast Food Nation and earlier in his life when visiting Colorado, Schlosser made a habit of dropping in at The Chinook.

Next Monday evening, following a gig as commencement speaker at The Colorado College's graduation, Schlosser will headline The Chinook's final book event, celebrating 45 years of feisty, informed, independent bookselling, and will discuss and sign his own books, Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. The Chinook will sell copies of both books at the event.

Schlosser has fast become one of the nation's experts on the impact of conglomerate and monopoly business practices that have resulted in a lopsided economy that supports mega-businesses while sacrificing small independents. Though he has focused largely on the meatpacking and fast-food industries, many of the same lessons apply when it comes to bookselling.

Schlosser warns that the real threat to bookselling and publishing comes from big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco, companies determined to dominate retail markets, with the clout and sales volume to undercut anyone else's retail prices -- including Barnes & Noble and Borders, the nation's two largest book retailers.

"It's those big-box retailers that are the threat to every independent retailer and to competitive business practices," said Schlosser in a telephone interview from Northern California where he is working on his latest book, a look at the prison-industrial complex in America.

"At least Barnes & Noble and Borders are committed to selling books."

Wal-Mart's market power is so great, says Schlosser, that it has the ability to not only undercut legitimate booksellers with heavily discounted books, but could also, should they gain a large enough foothold in the market, determine which books publishers are willing to publish.

"Wal-Mart has just surpassed Blockbuster as the largest retailer of DVDs and videos in the country, and they have already demonstrated their willingness to intervene in the content of music and videos," he said. "Books are not as sexy as videos and DVDs, but they want to own them as well. Will this practice continue in books?" Wal-Mart, says Schlosser, is already reportedly putting pressure on publishing houses to "change the split -- the share of revenue between publishers and retailers."

As for The Chinook and others like them, Schlosser says these independents are close to his heart for a number of reasons.

"Almost all the readings I do are in indy bookstores," he said. "Indies were crucial to the success of Fast Food Nation. I love and support them."

Moreover, says Schlosser, books are not hamburgers or Pepsis or shoes -- they are more than a commodity for sale.

"People are passionate about these things, these books that change the way they feel, the way they think, the way they see the world," he said. "Places like Chinook, where people actually read the books they are selling, have a different kind of link to [their] customers. They are people who care passionately about books and want to introduce people to books, to writers, artists and the life of the mind -- the line between a librarian and an independent bookseller is not that broad."

If you want to get rich, says Schlosser, opening an independent bookstore is probably not a very smart thing to do.

"But," he adds, "it's a great service to the community. Not exactly a public service, but it's close."

-- Kathryn Eastburn


Eric Schlosser will speak and will sign Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness at a farewell event in celebration of 45 years of independent bookselling at The Chinook Bookshop. Both books will be on sale at the event.

Monday, May 17, 7 p.m.

First Congregational Church, 20 E. St. Vrain St.

For more, call 635-1195


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