Harry Hoffman, the most powerful person in bookselling in the 1980s as the CEO of Waldenbooks, died on May 20 at age 92. The news of his death was first reported by the New York Times.
After an early career that included stints as an FBI agent as well as president of Demco, a library and school supply company, Hoffman was hired by Bronson Ingram in 1968 to run the Tennessee Book Depository. He moved to Waldenbooks in 1979, which had 500 bookstores at the time. When he announced his surprise retirement in 1991 (“in a move that came as a shock to the industry,” PW wrote in its March 22,1991, issue), Walden had 1,300 outlets and sales of more than $1 billion.
Hoffman was one of the first book retailers to employ aggressive marketing techniques in the service of creating mass market bookselling. Despite occasional criticism from authors and publishers that Walden emphasized the sales of commercial books over more literary ones, Hoffman never backed down on his belief that more books should be published with mass appeal. Hoffman constantly pushed for more industry change and he caught particular heat for suggesting at a Walden holiday party, which were huge events in the day, that what the industry really needed were shorter books that could be read before going to sleep.
In an interview with PW in 1990, the charismatic Hoffman recounted having cocktails with Larry McMurtry and Norman Mailer, “who were giving me all kinds of fits” about their belief that Walden’s stores did not stock enough literary and poetry books. He told the authors that many of those titles were available in a new toll-free telephone service the company had launched that January and which had as many as 100,000 titles in stock.
That same year, Hoffman launched the Preferred Reading Program, which gave members a 10% discount on all purchases and a $5 coupon for every $100 they spent at Walden stores for a $5 membership fee. At the time of his retirement, the program had 3.8 million members.
Hoffman,along with rival Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble/B. Dalton, was also criticized for temporarily pulling copies of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie following the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran against Rushdie. Hoffman explained to this young reporter that he pulled the books from Walden stores because he didn’t want to take the chance that a 20-year old clerk might get killed.
For much of his time at Walden, Hoffman lived with his wife on a yacht docked in the harbor of Stamford, Ct., the headquarters of Walden. Following his retirement, Hoffman sailed, and lived for several years in the U.S. Virgin Islands, cruising the Caribbean in a sailboat, according to the New York Times obituary. He moved to Florida in 1999 to live in a golf course community.