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The corner bookstores take on the book chains

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In an age when publishing houses are bought and sold by conglomerates and best-sellers marketed like beachfront property, it's no surprise that big business is muscling America's corner bookstores into extinction.

What is most astonishing is the velocity of the takeover. A decade ago the four largest retail book companies in the United States controlled a meager 11 percent of the market. Only one of those retailers had over 100 stores. By last year, however, two bookstore chains alone, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Company, accounted for some 30 percent of the retail bookstore business.

Each does about $250 million a year in business, twice that of Bantam, the nation's largest mass-market paperback publisher. Together, Walden and Dalton control more than 1,300 stores nationwide. Over the next five years, each chain plans to open 90 to 100 new outlets annually.

Sounds like the story of the mom-and-pop grocery store battling the supermarket chains, this time in book form? Not quite, says a group of corner bibliophiles now quixotically jousting with the book chains: This fight is not over the price of turnips and fish sticks, but over the availability of ideas.

The rapid expansion of the chains influences not only where Americans buy their books but what they buy. Many independent booksellers fear that when books are ordered by computers and not by crotchety old literary gents in cardigans, Flaubert and Hemingway won't stand a chance against paperbacks on preppies and Rubik's Cubes.

Andy Ross, president of the Northern California Booksellers Association and owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley, is one bookman who finds the supermarket approach to literature not only distasteful but unlawful. He and the NCBA recently filed an anti-trust suit against Avon Books - and threatened to take the rest of the publishing industry to court - for giving what they call ''secret'' and ''illegal'' discounts to chain bookstores. The windfall profits generated by the publishers' preferential pricing are, he says, responsible for bankrolling the chains' elephantine growth. This, in turn, puts the squeeze on small owner-run stores, who weren't making much money to begin with.

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