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 (shop.getty.edu), 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 (store.metmuseum.org), 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.

"Every bricks-and-mortar retailer is looking at the synergies and cross-merchandise opportunities within their walls," she said. "We shifted children's to the main floor, and we're putting complementary stationery items next to the books area. One of the things that's unique within the Met is that we still have a focus on publishing. We're not going to do anything to jeopardize that." She takes the Met's mission— "to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art"—seriously when it comes to buying and displaying books. Right now that mission dovetails particularly well with the Met's publications, given that the catalogue to the Alexander McQueen show is blowing out of the Met store and has been hovering close to Amazon's top 100 for weeks.

"If you look title-by-title, our business is not going head-to-head with a major online retailer or bricks-and-mortar store deep into discounting. In the aggregate," said Troyansky, "we have the selection here and now, and you have an important cause keeping the art museum going." Nor is she concerned about e-books for the moment, even though D.A.P. just added an ARTBOOK/DIGITAL division and launched its first e-book versions of titles from client museums and publishers last month. "I'm convinced three years from now we'll be in a completely different place," she added.

Like the Met, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is also in the midst of contracting its retail footprint. After closing the store earlier this summer for renovations to the Linde Family Wing of Contemporary Art, it will reopen in September with half its square footage, but the same ratio of books to gifts. "Books, and postcards, are what everybody wants in a museum shop," said senior book buyer Sean Halpert. "In Boston we have an opportunity because there are so few bookstores left and none that specialize in illustrated books." He intends to use the store's new wall of art books as a show place and to turn it into a "salon" with a focus on art, design, architecture, and photography. "Books really add luster and foot traffic. We have a core customer who buys all of their books from us, not only to support the museum, but to support the bookstore," said Halpert.

The fact that museum stores are becoming more competitive retailers is not necessarily a bad thing. "It used to be okay that a museum focused on a few books about paintings and then had the mugs with Van Gogh's Starry Nights. That's over now," said Michael Riley, special sales manager for IPG. "The museum business is still a really vibrant sector. Like all retail, it has softened, but not as much as traditional sales. Part of the stability in museums is: they're not going out of business." And neither are their stores. But other changes could be on the horizon, beyond more Taschen branding. Event Network, which operates stores in history and children's museums, is rumored to be looking at expanding into art museum stores.