This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

July 15, 2002 — It was something I'd noted in my column before, so when I mentioned two weeks ago that books such as J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," and others by authors as varied as Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov and Paul Auster, were kept not out on the shelves but behind the counter in many Barnes & Noble stores, I didn't go into too much detail. I explained that I'd been given differing explanations as to why those books were back there — shoplifting, community sensitivity — and moved on to make a greater point about how American publishers and booksellers treat "subversive" books in general.

But it wasn't long before I got a couple of angry "gotcha" letters: one from a reader in California who wrote in to observe that he had friends in Birmingham, Alabama and Durham, North Carolina who told him "Catcher," at least, was on the shelves in B&Ns there, even though "those two cities would be the most likely to start a banning." Well, so much for what he thinks of the South; he didn't say what the situation was in California. Another reader from Manhattan wrote in to say that he'd gone into a mid–town B&N and immediately discovered a copy of "Catcher" on a front–of–store display table. What gives, both wanted to know?

Well, first let me iterate that I never said B&N "banned" anything. The books I mentioned are all available, but not where you'd think — say, in the fiction section. You have to ask for them.

As for what any given book might be doing on a front–of–store display table in a major chain, most likely it's there because the publisher paid for it to be there (following the standard industry practice known in other trades as payola). And it's a safe bet that whatever reason a bookseller might have for keeping a book out of sight is going to be trumped by the old greenback dollar. But that's another column.

In any event, in this instance I knew that what I'd written was accurate, as I'd just talked about the segregation policy to some B&N staffers a few weeks earlier. So what was up? I decided to look into things a bit more deeply.

I started by going back to the branch where my original source on the story worked — the B&N in Hoboken, New Jersey. Three years ago, the store's community relations coordinator, Elena Skye, had told me in an interview that a wide range of authors including Kerouac, Auster, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs and others were "all kept behind the register because they get stolen a lot."

"A young kid looking at [B&N's] lit section won't find any of them. That really breaks my heart," she said. What's more, Skye, a former independent bookstore owner herself, said she thought the policy was "strange" because "we never had that problem" at her independent. "Maybe it's easier to steal from [B&N] because it's not clear who you're stealing from," she speculated.

Three years later, I checked back last week in the Hoboken store, and "Catcher" was not on the shelf in the fiction section.

But what about other B&Ns?

I went to one of Manhattan's biggest, in Union Square, where, about a month before, I'd seen many works by the same authors, and many more, in a case behind the counter. Inquiring then as to why those books were back there, one employee had told me because they were profiled as "most–likely–to–be–shoplifted" candidates, while another told me it was because "they weren't good for kids."

This time, I went right to the fiction section to see if I could find Salinger, say. I could, as it turns out, but what I also found was this: A note taped to the shelf in the "A" section saying "PLEASE ASK FOR TITLES BY PAUL AUSTER AT 1st FLOOR CUSTOMER SERVICE DESK." None of his books were there. Nearby, another note said the same thing in reference to the books of Martin Amis. His complete ouvre was missing, too.

In fact, there were notes and missing books for a wide variety of authors, including, in addition to Amis and Auster: Michael Baisden, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Nick Hornby, E. Lynn Harris, Shannon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, Salmon Rusdie, Omar Tyree, Sister Souljah, Iceberg Slim, Teri Woods and Zane (a one–name soft porn author popular here in the city of light).

I asked an employee stocking a nearby shelf why Martin Amis, for instance, wasn't there. "He used to be pretty heavily shoplifted," she said. "Martin Amis gets heavily shoplifted?" I said. "Well, not so much anymore," she said, looking sheepish. "Now he's one of those writers they keep down there for other reasons I'm not so sure about."

At the giant B&N on Sixth Avenue and 21st, the tape in the fiction section said, "MARTIN AMIS TITLES, ASK EMPLOYEE." Missing from their fiction section was the work of Auster, Bukowski, Burroughs, Paulo Coelho, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Eric Jerome Dickey, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kerouac, Kundera, Chuck Palahnink, Tom Robbins, Iceberg Slim, Sister Souljah, Tyree, Kurt Vonnegut, and Zane.

I followed the "Ask Employee" dictum. He said "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but it's because of shoplifting." I asked another. "They're too risky or something," she said.

Uptown, however, I found a completely different scene — at the B&N at Fifth and 48th, as far as I could tell no books were kept off the shelves.

So, I called the managers of some of the stores I visited.

Greg Fiechter, the friendly manager of B&N's Union Square store, told me that sometimes he took books off the shelf because they were shoplifted. "There was a while there where Italo Calvino was getting shoplifted a lot, so I put him behind the counter," he told me.

But usually, the reason a book ended up off the shelf and behind the counter, he said, was popularity — and the fact that the fiction section was on the fourth floor. "There are people that don't want to go up to the second floor, let alone the fourth floor," he said. "You tell them there's an escaltor, and elevator, and they look at you." So bringing the most popular authors down to the first floor actually increased sales, he said.

Interestingly, he said this reflected a notable difference in the book business from when he'd started 30 years earlier. "Then," he said, "they would have put the bestsellers up in the farthest corner of the fourth floor, so people would have to walk through the whole store to get to them. But now, like a lot of businesses, our business is front list driven. Our goal is to try and move people in and out quickly. That's the experience they want."

Thus, he explained, getting books down off the fourth floor to be stocked behind the counter was similar to the reasoning behind having books on display tables: "Books on shelves are much more difficult to sell than books on tables."

Karen Catalanotti, manager of the B&N at Sixth and 21st, also cited popularity and making things easier for the customers as her reasons for keeping books behind the counter — although the fiction section in her store is on the first floor.

"If it's a heavily requested or popular author, like Jack Kerouac, we'll keep it behind the register for people so it's there when they ask for it," she said. But she added, "We try to always keep a copy in the section, because sometimes a customer will go to the section." When I visited, not a single book by any of the authors was on the shelves.

Finally, B&N spokeswoman Carolyn Brown reiterated to me what store managers had said — she didn't deny that the practice took place, but it was about popularity and customer convenience, she said.

It seems notable, of course, that B&N staffers — on both this occasion and others — never cited those reasons for why they were told to pull books, although they disagreed amongst themselves as to their own reasons.

And yet, from the thoughtful explanation of manager Greg Fiechter to the I–probably–shouldn't–be–telling–you–this revelations of the staffers, everyone's reasons seemed both frank and, well, reasonable in one way or another.

Unless, that is, you think about that shy, uncertain kid Elena Skye mentioned, wandering through the fiction section, wondering about that edgy writer he or she had heard about . . . who isn't there.

Last Week’s Column: THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY A new website called Verse Daily seems to be mimicking the most popular poetry website of them all, raising the question: can you have too many poetry websites?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.