Sam Weller Bookstores, a Utah bookseller since 1929, is one of the plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit filed this week against Barnes & Noble and Borders. The suit alleges the two national chains have used their buying clout with publishers to get secret and illegal deals, along with preferential treatment.
"Every independent bookseller is under duress because of the unfair competition from the big chains and the advantageous deals they get from publishers," said Tony Weller, who owns the Salt Lake business with his parents, Sam and Lila Weller."These practices have harmed bookselling, but it's also bad for consumers. History has shown that when you have too few sellers, what you end up with is a monopoly."
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco by the American Booksellers Association and 20 independent bookstores across the nation, including Sam Weller. The suit claims that the illegal deals have put independents "at a serious competitive disadvantage and pose a threat to their survival and to the diversity of American bookselling."
It also poses a threat to authors and, eventually, what people get to read, said Weller. He said two recent bestsellers, "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt and "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frasier, both were written by previously unknown authors who were nurtured to commercial success by independent booksellers.
"It's possible that books like these would never get published without a diverse market," said Weller. "We are fighting for people's right to read. It has already been announced that publishers are conferring with the big chains before making (publishing) decisions. If that isn't influence, what is?"
The suit contends that the illegal dealings come in many forms, including soliciting special discounts on both large and small orders, the granting of more favorable promotional advertising terms and threatening large returns of books to obtain extra discounts.
It also alleges the activities violate a federal antitrust statute passed in the 1930s, the Robinson-Patman Act, that was intended to protect small, independent retailers of all kinds from unfair competition by chain stores.
"Fair and legal competition is fine and benefits everyone," said Avin Mark Domnitz, executive director of the ABA. "But right now the independents are competing with one hand unjustly tied behind their backs . . . "
Weller contends the big chains' focus is strictly on profits, and their stores come and go according to market whims. But local, independent bookstores, he says, are there through the good times and the bad.
"We have an investment in the local community. My profits stay right here; they don't go to out-of-state shareholders."
Weller also believes a cultural issue as well as a legal one should be considered.
"We represent a vital cultural landscape. When I travel, I don't want to eat at McDonald's and visit a Barnes & Noble. I want to find places I don't see at home. The more we homogenize the national scene, the less appealing travel becomes."
Sam Weller currently has stores in downtown Salt Lake and in Sandy.
Barnes & Noble, which also owns B. Dalton Booksellers, issued a statement Wednesday saying it hasn't yet been served with formal documents, but the company said it follows accepted industry practices and that "programs that are available to us are made available to booksellers across America."
Borders said in a statement that a typical store carries more than 200,000 books, periodicals and other products, many of which come from small and independent presses. Additionally, the company said, it gives customers access to books that would not be available in many markets.
"Finally, the success of our stores would suggest that we are indeed meeting the needs and wants of customers throughout the country, just as we have since Borders was founded as an independent bookstore on the campus of the University of Michigan in 1971."
Both Barnes & Noble and Borders have stores in Salt Lake City.