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Once insulated from retail trends, in recent years art museum bookstores have been affected by the same ups and downs as other bricks-and-mortar stores—a softening of the overall retail market and competition from online discounters—and been forced to change accordingly. It's not just that silk-screened scarves with Monet reproductions or glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly now have pride of place. But the amount of space allocated to books is also being cut. At the same time, stores are being pressured to add faster-selling titles, like Go the F**k to Sleep at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. In fact the similarities between museum stores and independents have become so pronounced that the American Booksellers Association is in talks with the Museum Store Association to offer joint memberships.

"The tug of war between museum retail on the one hand and curatorial, publishing, and education departments on the other is not new," said ARTBOOK/D.A.P. president Sharon Helgason Gallagher. "What has changed is aggressive online discounting that makes the old member discounts of 10% far less attractive." Bernard Bonnet, book buyer for the 12-year-old bookstore at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, agreed. "A lot of people come, browse, discover, congratulate us on our ‘wonderful selection' and go back home to buy online from Amazon and [from] publishers who don't hesitate to sell directly from their Web site offering discounts from 30% to 50%," he said. Still, Bonnet continues to stock 8,000 titles, including books in foreign languages that he purchases abroad and even out-of-print books to complete collections of show-related titles. He also collaborates on offsite events. "We try to offer a service similar to the one offered in the best independent bookstores," he said.


Nothing has come to symbolize the struggle between the need to address budgetary gaps and still maintain a book department that extends the museum experience more than last month's announcement from the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) that it has begun partnering with Taschen on a branded "shop within a shop." It is also in discussions for a second Taschen store in its two-year-old Modern Wing. "We thought, why not put our top vendor into hyperdrive," said AIC divisional merchandise manager for books, Brent Riley. "We had to buckle down and contribute to the budget. When we promise a certain amount, we have to deliver it." In order to make those numbers, Riley is devoting 30% of the store to Taschen, which now has two branded display walls, two tables, and a spinner rack. He also purged one-third of the stores' titles to make space for Taschen and now carries 4,000 active skus.

"My personal reason for picking Taschen is, of all the publishers that are left, they're the only one with a commitment to keeping basic art books in print," said Riley, adding, "it's not very different from what we had before. I only added 20 {Taschen} titles." But the fact that AIC added a branded section and chose Taschen over Yale University Press, which distributes the books that AIC publishes, has been controversial in the art world. "It has caused a lot of sleepless nights on our part when we have a partner who wants more revenue and doesn't look to its own publishing program," said Patricia Fidler, publisher of art and architecture at Yale. She finds it puzzling, especially because AIC's own educational mission gets lost.

This year's winner of the PW Rep Award, John Eklund, who sells Harvard, MIT, and Yale titles to two dozen museum stores, observed, "Over the past decade there really has been a deterioration in terms of inventory and sales. I think a lot of museums used to think of their bookstores as an extension of the museum mission, part of exposing people to art. And they were mainly bookstores, not souvenir shops with fairly deep backlist in art history, monographs, and surveys. But for so many of our shops the pressure to become profit centers has taken hold, at the expense of a broad inventory."

That's not true at all museum stores. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is one of the few not to report a noticeable Amazon effect. "The impulse to get a discount at Amazon is mitigated by the environment and the experience," said museum store buyer Annie Conde, whose 5,500-sq.-ft. store devotes 35% of its space to books. "It's always a struggle to defend the book business in museum stores. The margins are lower than many other merchandise departments. But a savvy buyer can maximize margins by choosing nonreturnable terms and taking advantage of every discount special. Books are a valuable anchor for the rest of the store's merchandise and support the institution's educational mission in ways that objects cannot."

At the Getty Center in Los Angeles and Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, books relate to the sites and their collections and account for 34% and 26%, respectively, of total store sales, according to museum store manager Chloe Simon, acting head of retail and merchandise development. The Getty does stock Taschen titles at affordable price points. along with Daedalus bargain books, which it markets as "special values." But rather than cut back on mission-related titles, the museum is looking for other ways to grow sales, including e-books. In addition the Getty is focusing on its online store (, which it redesigned less than a year ago. "Prior to this," said Simon, "only Getty Publications and a small selection of posters were available online. We have seen a 48% increase in sales since our offerings have expanded."

Cutting Back

One museum that has pruned its book selection successfully is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which increased its retail results by $4.6 million by closing its satellite stores in shopping malls, decreasing headcount, redesigning its e-commerce site (, and reconfiguring its catalogue, according to the 2010 annual report. It now has seven stores in the U.S. and 12 international stores. "The business changed and we wanted to concentrate on visitors to the museum," said Valerie Troyansky, general manager merchandising administration at the Met.

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