The David vs. Goliath Struggle
of an Independent Bookstore Owner
AN INTERVIEW WITH LARRY ROBIN OF ROBIN’S BOOKSTORE
Larry Robin sat in his large, borderline-chaotic office, chatting with book salespeople. This was the day for seeing book reps. This burly, white-bearded man concluded his discussion with a friendly smile and sent them on their way. He stepped out of his office, glanced at the browsers in the messy but pleasant second floor of his bookstore in Center City, and sighed.
Robin’s Bookstore is among a handful of independents still remaining in Center City Philadelphia, notable among them is Head House Books, 619 S. 2nd Street that “...serves a loyal community of folks residing in Society Hill, Queen Village, and Bella Vista.” He has become the David against Goliath, the mega-chain bookstores: Borders and Barnes and Noble. How does an independent survive the onslaught of these giants? What does it take to stay in business when you are being attacked economically on all sides?
“Own your own building and inherit money,” Robin says with a grin on his openly amiable face. “I don’t sell best sellers, and I don’t have a café in-store. I give service! Independents are service oriented. I ask what does the customer want? That’s what I sell. I get whatever book you have an interest in. The major chain stores get what’s dictated to themthose books that affect the bottom line. They have someone sitting in corporate headquarters who decides what books will go into the stores.”
Borders and Barnes and Noble each own one thousand stores. Throughout the U.S. there are approximately one thousand independent bookstores in total. Robin further explains that the concept among major publishers, by and large, is to publish only what the industry says will make money. “That is not democratic.”
The bookstore industry traditionally makes little money. There is a two percent profit margin on books. Where the chains make their money is with cafes, best sellers, and payments from publishers to have the most advantageously strategic spaces for their books in the stores. This gives publishers an edge over the competition since their books are seen first when customers walk into the store.
Independents are also up against mass-market books being sold in supermarkets, airports, gift stores, and superstores like Wal-Mart. The book business can be so difficult that Robin can buy books at Sam’s Club at a fifty percent discountthree dollars less than what he would have to pay the publisher.
To Robin, language and ideas are constantly changing and evolving. He uses the example of the book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach, published in 1970. It was a best seller. Very few people would buy it now. But if you go into computers it will tell you that seagull books sell. In his store Robin determines what the customer wants and those books get shipped to his store.
Independents are closer to the customer than someone sitting in an ivory tower trying to determine trends. With independents, customers reign supreme. That’s the stone that Larry throws at the Goliath’s forehead.
“What we’ve got here in the book world is censorship by economics. Publishers give society what they think will sell, pushing aside large numbers of quality authors.”
Robin is a very intelligent, sensitive, multi-faceted man. He goes beyond bookselling. He truly understands what it takes to be a writer.
“In the publishing world, the old model was to nurture and develop authors,” Robin says. “Editors used to work closely with writers, helping to polish and hone each new book.”
“Writing is something that has to develop and evolve slowly. Each book written is a step in a slow march toward excellence rather than each book an end unto itself. Publishers today want the books to meet their criteria of how many books will sell rather than concentrating on quality. They only want to know how many books will sell in the open market.”
“Accordingly, authors with potential go by the wayside as do authors who don’t write within the box. Today, it’s more of an assembly line. Formulaic books that have demonstrated success in the marketplace are the ones generally purchased. Then there are the subtle advertising manipulations to get people to buy.”
“Ten authors write half the books sold,” Robin says. “And half the books published are Romance.”
Reflecting on male vs. female reading habits, Robin says most of the fiction readers are women. “Men overall don’t read fiction. They think they want facts. What they don’t realize is that there is more truth in fiction. Truth resonates in fiction. We are brought face to face with real issues like relationships and concepts of an emotional nature. Textbooks have no soulthey are factual.”
But Robin is committed to books, authors, and his community which explains why he has garnered so much support from Center City dwellers and writers both regionally and internationally known.
Robin’s Bookstore is a forum for writers. Last year alone three hundred presenters made one hundred and eighty-four presentations to over four thousand attendees under the umbrella of its nonprofit arm, Moonstone. Through Moonstone Robin’s demonstrates a great interest in the underserved populations.
In addition, Robin’s will take most locally authored books on consignment. So, in response to that level of caring and energy, a large number of poets read their works at a benefit for the store and donated their poems to produce The Tenth Anniversary Anthology published by Moonstone, Inc., in January, 2006. This small press is a new division of Moonstone.
Robin always said he didn’t ever want to publish books; but to explain why he finally did, he related this fable.
“An ancient Chinese Emperor called together all his wise men and asked them to tell him something that would always be true. After months of consulting they came before the Emperor. ‘Do you have something that will always be true?’ The wise men answered in the affirmative, ‘And this too will change.’ ”
Moonstone is the umbrella organization that houses various concepts such as: Black Ink track that celebrates writers of the African Diaspora.
Philadelphia Ink track celebrates Philadelphia based authors.
Poetry Ink track resulted in the production of the Tenth Anniversary Poetry Ink program with one hundred and eighteen poets reading at Robin’s on April 2, 2006 for Poetry Monthsome were world famous, some emerging, and others included Philadelphians along with two poet laureates.
Red Ink track is most notable for the Radical Tradition in writing, both fiction and nonfiction. April 30, 2006 Robin’s featured world famous South African poet and activist, Dennis Brutus and a group of Philadelphia based writers/activists who use their voice to resist oppression of all kinds.
Women’s Ink trace is dedicated to Writing by Women with group events. On October 16, 2005 five contributors to Poetry from Sojourner: A Feminist Anthology read their works. In all there were fifty individual presentations.
In addition to the track presentations, Moonstone has also hosted many other public forums on current events and writers’ forums on developing writers’ skills.
Moonstone Preschool is the first project of Robin’s wife, Sandy. She will take a book, a story and through art explain what the words mean. She gets children involved in order to teach them abstract concepts. They learn to process information so that they may learn to think for themselves. The school has based its educational theory on various concepts such as Multiple Intelligence as well as elements of the Montessori Method and Dewey’s Holistic Learning approach.
The approach is unique and insightful. Today Moonstone preschool is a collaborative, arts intensive, and creatively expressive educational facility that provides enriching education.
Moonstone Special Projects Division functions as a producing organization. Much of the work has to do with literature, books, and writers. “Thomas Paine’s Legacy” is a series of talks about the revolutionary Paine. His rhetoric reflected the struggle for social and political equality and set a standard for future generations to seek expansion of rights.
It is clear how much Robin’s Bookstore gives back to the community!
When Robin first started in the business in 1960, he was in training to be a sculptor. The paperback revolution had just begun, and working in the evenings, he took charge of that division at the bookstore. His father and Uncle Morris ran the store.
He brought in books that had great interest to him authored by people like Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and journals on the civil rights movement. He premiered the Black Panther Party Newspaper known as Mao’s Little Red Book. Robin describes it as a “heady time.”
Robin’s also became a center for the women’s movement and experimental literature. They featured books that other stores refused to carry, books by African American authors, books by the Beat poets, erotica, books by Mao, small political and literary magazines, anti-war and rock posters. Names like Sartre and DeBeauvoir, Durrenmatt and Lessing, Fanon and Guevara, Levertov and others abounded in the store. Because the store stayed open fourteen hours a day, it became a forum where people could argue politics and literature.
Robin has definitive ideas on art. “Artists start with an idea of how they would like reality to be and then find materials to create this reality. However art takes on a life of its own, rarely turning out as the artist first conceived it. Art is process rather than product, a conversation, and a collaboration between the artist and the art. The journey is the destination.” And so, too, this seems to be the same concept Moonstone adheres to.
Obviously, Robin is a deep thinker, an observer of life and the arts, a person with understanding and compassion for the trials and tribulations of the authors he features. He and his wife have a deep understanding of how the mind works and what needs to be done to keep the learning process in place for life.
He is a student of literature, seems to be in constant motion, and open to change. The world at large is his playroom, his encyclopedia, and it receives his reverence. We need more of Larry Robin’s mentality and courage in the face of the Goliaths around him. Instead of stones, he hurls ideas at the giant who wants to devour him, and he tries to stave him off with thoughts and inspiration. So far, he’s kept him at bay.
It is easy to understand why the community of customers, artists, poets, and prose writers flock together to support him.