By Ben Joravsky

The unlikely leader of the guerrilla crusade against the big boys of the book biz is a North Shore woman who says she likes nothing better than to spend her afternoons curled up with a novel.

Don’t be fooled. In the last few months, Roberta Rubin has helped spearhead a surprisingly powerful counterattack against Barnes & Noble, Borders, and, engineering a public relations campaign, participating in a class-action lawsuit, and organizing a petition drive calling on the feds to file an antitrust suit against the big chains as they’ve done against Microsoft.

If the growth of big bookstores means the end of independents, Rubin’s going down fighting. “This is bigger than the fate of a few small bookstores,” says Rubin, who owns the Book Stall in downtown Winnetka. “There’s a great principle about marketplace fairness and equity. We’re also talking about economic issues involving the business districts of suburbs and neighborhoods.”

As successful as she’s been, Rubin’s not sure there’s still a place in today’s market for a woman like her, who spent most of her 20s and 30s raising her four children. She got her start in the 1970s, when she took a part-time job at a bookstore in Glencoe. By 1982 she owned her own store. “I’m not saying it was easy. It’s always been a fragile existence with stores going in and out of business, but the market was fairer when I started,” she says. “I didn’t know much about the business, but I loved books and I knew the community. When I look back, it seems like another era. It was almost quaint. God forbid you should be open on Sunday. Bookstore owners worked gentlemanly hours. In our case we were a carriage-trade bookstore, meaning we catered to lifestyle books, cookbooks, travel books, and lots of hardcover fiction. That was our niche.”

Over the years her business expanded. She started a book club for women (“before Oprah”), hired more employees (she now has 18), won the Charles S. Haslam Award for Excellence in Bookselling, and became a leader in the American Booksellers Association (a prominent trade group of independents). Her store became a favorite stopover for novelists looking to develop a following among serious readers. She moved to a bigger storefront and increased her sales. “You start with a love for books and you surprise yourself with your love for business,” she says. “I learned I loved to make it happen, to see that I could turn a profit, that I could learn all the aspects of developing a small business. Yes, I love books and I read books, but you can’t just love books. You have to have a bottom line that works.”

In 1992 Barnes & Noble opened a store in Evanston and a new struggle began. The independent bookseller’s existence became even more fragile as the chains moved in, using their enormous resources to cut the prices of best-sellers and build an inventory few independents could rival. “It was the newness of the chains–they were different at first,” says Rubin. “Our sales suffered. It took us a year to reinvent ourselves. We kept doing what we do best. We worked to our advantage, which is our staff. The people who work here know books. We can do more than look up a title on the computer. We can help you find something you want to read that you might not have heard about.”

Other bookstores were not so resilient, and more than a dozen, from Lincoln Park to Wilmette, have gone out of business in the last five years. Rubin wonders if even the successful ones can continue to survive. “It’s more than cutting the costs of best-sellers–the big chains bully the publishers,” says Rubin. “They make demands we can’t make. Two small publishers told me that for every dollar [in books] they sell to Barnes they realize 14 cents. That’s not fair. We don’t have nearly that kind of deal. I pay 60 cents. If I don’t pay publishers within 30 to 60 days I’m put on hold. But I’ve read that Barnes has much longer to pay.

“Sometimes we can’t get books–for instance, The Century by Peter Jennings. Independents couldn’t get it when we needed it for the Christmas rush. Through distributors we could get some here and some there. We had over 200 orders for it after we sold out our first 50. But Barnes & Noble had stacks of it before Christmas. How come it’s so easy for them and so hard for us?”

According to Rubin, the big chains can steer authors away from book signings at her store. And the chains have other advantages. “I had an arrangement with [north suburban public libraries] to sell books at their literary events featuring big-name authors. But this year I didn’t get a call. Finally I called the director of the series and said, ‘What’s happening?’ The director said, ‘I have to tell you, Roberta, Barnes & Noble came in and gave us a chunk of money, gave us 50 percent off the books.’ Now there’s no way Barnes can make money on that deal, but they’re making a statement–‘We’re taking over.'”

Last year the ABA filed a federal class-action suit against Barnes & Noble and Borders, arguing that the chains used their market dominance to bully publishers into giving them terms that put independent bookstores at a competitive disadvantage. The suit’s pending in California. “Our lawyers are gathering evidence,” says Rubin. “We think we have a good case.”

Since the suit, however, Barnes & Noble has grown even stronger. It recently sold half its Internet operation to Bertelsmann, a German media conglomerate. And in November Barnes & Noble announced its intent to buy the Ingram Book Group, the country’s largest distributor of books to independents.

“As threatening as the Bertelsmann deal is, the move to buy Ingram is worse for us,” says Rubin. “We order books from Ingram. We depend on them. We need them to get books overnight. This is a very precarious part of the business. I don’t want to wallpaper the store with books I don’t need, yet the number-one interest of consumers is selection. The book has to be there when they want it. And if it’s not there you have to know you can get it real soon. Right now we have good relations with Ingram. We have what we call ‘just-in-time inventory.’ If we want, say, five copies of Catcher in the Rye, we can get them overnight, so long as we get the order in before 10:30 AM. But what will happen if they’re owned by Barnes & Noble, our leading competitor? Is that fair? They could hold back on delivery. They could make us wait. They could force us to lose the sale. Barnes & Noble will know what we’re buying. Privacy is a big issue with other independents. It’s blatantly anticompetitive.”

In many ways, Barnes & Noble has been its own worst enemy in the public relations battle. For this article, employees at local stores directed questions to the central office in New York City, where a publicist named Dan said he would get back with a response. But he did not.

Nonetheless, not all book buyers are sympathetic to Rubin’s concerns. “I have never understood why I’m supposed to feel so sorry for the small independents,” says Freddy Kay, one of several Chicagoans interviewed for this article. “I used to get fund-raising letters from the Guild [a former bookstore on Lincoln Avenue]. What? If you can’t attract customers to stay in business, should you be in business?

“There’s a reason I like Barnes & Noble. I can go there and find books about every question representing every point of view. Everything I want to read about is there. We have greater access to more information than ever before, particularly with the Internet. So where’s the danger to the larger society? Who’s being hurt here? I’m supposed to feel sorry for a few small independents? Small businesses go out of business all the time. Why should I feel particularly sorry for book dealers?”

The booksellers’ antitrust suit also has been criticized from the right as unnecessary. According to this viewpoint, the market will adjust to protect consumers. If, for instance, Ingram gets too chummy with Barnes & Noble, another distributor looking to make money will arise to meet the small stores’ needs. And even if a store as well liked as the Book Stall goes out of business, so what? OK, it’s painful to Rubin and her employees. But some other store will take its place–maybe not a bookstore but a coffee shop or a boutique. Winnetka will thrive, as will Lincoln Park and Lakeview and Wilmette and all the other communities that are losing small bookstores to the chains.

Rubin says such critics miss the point. “There’s a long-term cost to driving us out of business,” she says. “We’re part of a community. We give a neighborhood feel. I don’t want to sound like I’m on the street with a violin, but you have to support your small businesses. The big stores are impersonal corporate entities–they won’t respond when you need them.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roberta Rubin photo by Bruce Powell.