Walking the aisles of my neighborhood Safeway at Church and Market streets, I turned the corner from the frozen orange juice and found an enormous book section. I knew that most supermarkets and drugstores carry a small rack of books, but the Safeway Reading Center in Aisle 13, stuck between the packing tape and the Oral Care zone, is 21 feet long and seven rows high. In all, there are more than 400 individual titles. Who knew?
When I worked for a book publisher in the early '90s, bookstore chains were just becoming a threat to independent bookstores. Not only were superstores like Crown and Barnes & Noble discounting smaller stores out of existence, but books were moving rapidly into nontraditional venues. Despite a hue and cry over the “commodification” of books, by the end of the decade we'd all grown accustomed to seeing books everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. Need a tank of gas and a book? Sure. Could you use a manual to go with that dildo? Yep.
San Francisco dogma says chains are bad, corporations are bad, big is bad, but here we have an example of a big, corporate chain — one that has gotten a lot of bad press for automaton clerks, compulsory smiles, and club-card privacy violations — doing something good. When Oprah Winfrey first started promoting books on her show, there was fear that she'd dumb down the highbrow publishing industry. Turns out she saved it from its backward self, along the way getting thousands of people who otherwise would never have picked up a book to read, and read regularly. Safeway's doing something similar here: bringing decent books to the masses, right where they live.
The people who shop at Safeway are not looking for the warm and friendly help of their local independent bookstore. They want convenience — and anything that makes it easier for a nonreader to buy a book is, in my opinion, positive. Mark Ezarik, the owner of the independent bookstore Cover to Cover in Noe Valley, got worried when his local grocery store chain, Bell Market, started stocking books. “I told them that I'd start carrying cabbages if they were going to carry books,” he laughs. “They said, “Go ahead.'” After all, the profit margin for selling cabbages is as low as that for selling books.
Books get into weird places in many ways, and I wondered how Safeway gets its reading material. Do publishers sell direct, or is there a buyer sitting in the back amidst the boxes of lettuce, picking titles? And who buys books at Safeway anyway? After all, there's a Books Inc. with more than 14,000 titles two blocks from this store. These seemed like simple questions. They are, but getting someone at Safeway to answer them is not.
No one in the company wanted to talk — “I could get fired if I talk to you,” said one employee — and a worker at the company's book distributor stated, “If I gave you more info, Safeway would hang me out to dry.” After much hounding, I finally got a message from David Bowlby, the director of the Northern California division of public affairs. “Our selection of products in our store [is] based on customer needs,” he said. “Whether it's our produce, whether it's our meats, whether it's our bakery goods, whether it's books, what have you, we determine what goes into our store based on the communities that we're in and the customer needs and wants within that area.” In other words, books are just another product.
This fact isn't surprising, but the thorough selection is. The store has the top 20 New York Times best sellers, close to 40 new releases, more than 20 “featured authors” (among them Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King, and Louis L'Amour, who's apparently making a comeback), a thorough genre selection from romance to sci-fi, and even a small San Francisco-focused assortment. When I've visited, the store has had no gay or lesbian books, even though it's just three blocks from Castro Street. (A Safeway buyer responded, “They've been there. I've seen them.”) There is, however, a full range of Chicken Soup for the [your demographic — country, teenage, golfer's, single's, etc. — here] Soul books. Almost all the books are mass-market paperbacks — small books printed on cheap paper, with glossy, occasionally lurid covers — but the range is impressive. Who's the tastemaker?
Independent grocery stores usually let the book distributor pick the books, according to Ron Nichols, vice president and general manager of Milligan News, a book distributor that does not work with Safeway, but Safeway picks its own. Michelle Fisher, the book buyer for the company in Northern California, wouldn't detail exactly how she goes about her work, but she acknowledged that filling the Safeway book section involves keeping a sharp eye on the book industry (publishers' catalogs, local and national book reviews, and best seller lists) and on sales, both in certain regions and at particular stores. Once she creates a list of books to include on the shelves, she sends it to the local book buyer at News Group, the distributor for Safeway, who maps where the books should go on shelves and sends the layout to the store's book merchandiser.
Why does Safeway bother having such an extensive book selection? Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Bookseller's Association, believes that supermarkets carry books because they're easy to stock. “It's just one more impulse item, one that doesn't take up a lot of room. And they let [the distributor] do all the work.” It's also a big business. According to the Book Industry Study Group, sales of mass-market paperbacks were more than $2.6 billion in 2000, about 8 percent of the entire year's book sales of $32 billion. And the Safeway at Church and Market is the biggest in the city, selling $1.4 million worth of products a week. (Safeway employees declined to provide the book sales figure.)
Back at my local Safeway, Erika Wilborn, News Group's merchandiser for books and magazines at the store, was the first helpful Safeway person I encountered. A small, blond spitfire with enough energy to light the entire store, Wilborn probably wasn't supposed to talk to me, but she was proud of her book section. She explained her job to me, all the while restocking magazines, helping customers, and fretting about the next day's corporate “walk-through.”
Still, I wondered who buys books at Safeway. In an hour of talking to Wilborn — during prime shopping time — only three people looked at the stacks. One picked up a thriller and put it back. One picked up a book about the Dalai Lama and put it back. And one bought a romance.
Clearly, Aisle 13 is not the prime motivator for trips to Safeway. Books are an impulse buy: Shoppers wander the store, maybe get a little lost, and notice the shiny titles. Many Safeway book buyers, Wilborn explains, are travelers who want to stock up for long trips. Wilborn's not one of them. “I can't even get through a book,” she says, and it sounds almost like an apology. Maybe she should start watching Oprah.