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Old 05-14-2020, 09:20 AM
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Lamenting the Loss of Museum Bookstores


I know it's an old topic, but I really do miss bookstores. We currently have Barnes and Noble and a few Books A Million/BAM stores, and a handful of independents and used bookstores (often the same thing), but it's a far cry from what we had even ten tears ago, let alone twenty.

But, in particular, I miss the bookshops that were in museums.

It didn't used to always be that way. The American Museum of Natural History had a tiny gift shop for many years near the 77th St. Foyer that had a few books in it. The Boston Museum of Science Giftshop back in the 70s was anemic.

But around thirty years ago the gift shops got much, much bigger, and the book sections in some cases became enormous. The Book Store at the Smithsonian , Washington, DC was damned near cavernous, running several rooms. The American Museum of Natural History built an entirely new, two-level bookstore, with stair railings made to resemble dinosaur vertebrae. The Boston Museum of Science developed a pretty hefty book section, subdivided into categories, and with surprisingly technical books in it. I actually bought a copy of Gradshteyn and Ryzhik's Table of Integrals and Series there. And they had a "Beyond Science" section filled with weird pro- and anti- pseudoscience. I loved it.


Now that's all gone. The Boston Museum of Science doesn't even have a real book section any more, and only offers a handful of titles. The Smithsonian gift shop is minuscule compared to its former glory, with only a corner devoted to books.

Aside from the American Museum of Natural History, which still had its grand bookstore the last time I visited, the only museums with appreciable bookstores are Art museums -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city still had a huge one when last I was there, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts devotes most of its gift store space to a wide and diverse selection of books.

Most museums I've been to have relatively small gift stores these days, it seems, and only a tiny portion given over to books in the Age of Amazon. You're more likely to find plush stuffed animals, keychains, and the like.
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Old 05-14-2020, 11:23 AM
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CalMeacham, you are aware that the Smithsonian consists of 23 locations, aren't you? Even if we don't count the Gardens and the two buildings in New York City, that's 20 locations in the Washington area with buildings. I've been to a few of them and bought stuff in their bookstores, but I can't say how many have bookstores. Why then do you talk about the Smithsonian gift shop, as if there is only one of them?

https://www.si.edu/museums
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Old 05-14-2020, 11:35 AM
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Museum bookstores when they have them are great, agreed!

Sadly, in these quarantine times, even in the museums where they have good ones, even when those museums reopen, my colleagues in the museum world all tell me that the bookstores and cafes will be the very last things to reopen. Some museums may reopen in a limited way this fall. The bookstores won't reopen until mid-2021, most likely.
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Old 05-14-2020, 12:37 PM
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I wonder if the decrease in the number and size of museum bookstores has some relation to a nested set of changes in shopping. Is this decrease just part of the decrease in the number and size of bookstores of all kinds? That decrease seems to be partly because it's now so easy to buy books online. Is that decrease just part of the decrease in the number of stores of all kinds? That decrease seems to be partly because it's now so easy to buy most things online. Is that decrease just part of the decrease in the amount of time that people use to go away from their house to do things with other people in all sorts of activities? This is less obvious to people as old as me, but I'm told that younger people socialize physically with other people less than they used to, since it's now possible to do many kinds of socializing online. It's useful to look at things in a larger context. The idea of no one ever having to leave their own room goes back as least as far as "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster in 1909.
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Old 05-14-2020, 12:44 PM
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National archives sells books in their gift shop.
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Old 05-14-2020, 02:21 PM
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Is this really true? I’ve been inside many art and history museums within the past year (previous to the Trump Plague) in NYC, Chicago, Berlin, Dresden, and Prague, and dumped tons of hard-earned money in the gift shops on wonderful books.

The Neue Galerie in Manhattan, devoted to German and Austrian art, has one of the best. Not only art books but books on Teutonic culture, cinema, history, architecture, folklore. Plus a great selection of literature. I bought my entire library of Arthur Schnitzler there.

I used to laugh at people who bought postcards of paintings in those shops. Then I realized they make GREAT bookmarks that you can pair to appropriate fiction. Right now I have Von Stuck’s Sin in my copy of Maurice Level’s Tales of the Grand Guignol and Max Klinger’s The New Salome in a collection of Woolcott Gibbs’s best essays from The New Yorker.
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Old 05-14-2020, 02:56 PM
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I bought a T shirt with the picture of Elvis and Nixon at the national archives. They said it was their most requested picture. Here it is:

https://thumbs-prod.si-cdn.com/W-lun...-Elvis-631.jpg
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Old 05-14-2020, 03:34 PM
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The New York Public Library has a nice one. You can sign up for a tour, so I kind of count it as a museum. The Tenement Museum does also. Their books are specialized, and there are fewer categories than the Museum of Natural History store, so they are smaller.
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Old 05-14-2020, 04:49 PM
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The New York Public Library has a nice one. You can sign up for a tour, so I kind of count it as a museum. The Tenement Museum does also. Their books are specialized, and there are fewer categories than the Museum of Natural History store, so they are smaller.
I stumbled across the bookshop in the Library only a couple years ago, and was surprised that a library would have a bookshop. Itís a great one, though. Got a history of the US Army printing cheap books for the edification and entertainment of troops during WWII.

I found the Tenement Museum a kind of dreary, as one of my first apartments in the city was only a couple blocks away, so it was uncomfortably familiar. Good bookstore, anyway. Considered buying one of the immigrant cookbooks, but I already have enough of that sort of thing.
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Old 05-14-2020, 06:17 PM
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Is this really true? Iíve been inside many art and history museums within the past year (previous to the Trump Plague) in NYC, Chicago, Berlin, Dresden, and Prague, and dumped tons of hard-earned money in the gift shops on wonderful books.
Here's an anecdote.

The Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester used to have half a long wall dedicated to a phenomenal selection of art books, mostly on art history because it's a teaching museum. In the past couple of years that's been eliminated and replaced by a few books on display.

I make a point of visiting museum bookstores because, well, because they have books in them. (Put me down anywhere and I'll find the nearest shelf of books.) But also because they had books that I would never see anywhere else. I haven't been finding them as interesting lately. I don't doubt for a moment that what Cal says is a general occurrence.
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Old 05-14-2020, 06:37 PM
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I would like to see some numbers though. I want to know facts like (in the U.S.) the number of museum bookstores in year N as opposed to the number of museum bookstores as of the beginning of the year 2020. I want to know facts like (in the U.S.) the total number of books in those bookstores in year N as opposed to the total number of books in those bookstores at the beginning of the year 2020. Yes, I know that this would be hard to determine. Still, that's what we do here on the SDMb - we determine the hard facts about things that otherwise there's only anecdotes about. Incidentally, there's a group called the American Alliance of Museums:

https://www.aam-us.org/
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Old 05-14-2020, 06:43 PM
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The Art Institute of Chicago has a huge one. The National Gallery (London) has a huge main bookstore with a few small satellite ones throughout the building.

It’s been a couple years since I’ve been at the bookstore at the Field museum, but they had a very good general bookstore along with a couple of satellites which were more souvenir shops than bookstore.

Not doubting the OP, but they’re not extinct yet and probably a good money maker, I can see a correlation between museum goer and reader.
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Old 05-14-2020, 06:52 PM
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Haven't been to MOMA since the remodeling, but it had a pretty good bookshop before.
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Old 05-14-2020, 06:57 PM
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Originally Posted by Exapno Mapcase View Post
Here's an anecdote.... I don't doubt for a moment that what Cal says is a general occurrence.
My anecdote challenges your anecdote! Pistols at dawn!

In other words...yeah, what WW said.

Itís possible that fine museums in smaller cities have cut back on the book selection, but I doubt it in Paris or Vienna or London.
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Old 05-15-2020, 07:29 AM
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I notice that the museums that people say have lots of books are Art Museums, which pretty much confirms what I'd written in the OP -- I've observed that big Art Museums still seem to have big bookstores. But it's the other museums that scaled back very significantly. The only exception I'm personally aware of is the AMNH. (Exapno -- sorry to hear about the Rochester String Memorial Art Gallery cutting back. Although, when I lived there, they didn't have much of a bookstore. )

And, Uke -- I certainly know that the Smithsonian is a complex. The cavernous bookstore I recall from the early 90s was the History museum. On recent visits the same museum has only a couple of racks of books, a far cry from its earlier status. Do any of the other museums (aside, possibly, from the art museums) still have bookstores of any size?


I haven't been to a lot of the other museums in large cities recently -- the Carnegie in Pittsburgh, the Field in Chicago, the LA Science Museums, and so on. But the ones I've visited have been pretty anemic in their bookstore offerings:

Boston Museum of SCience
The McAuliffe-Carpenter Planetarium in Concord NH
The NY Science CEnter (in New Jersey)
The National Park Visitors CEnter in Salem MA
The National Park Vistors CEnter at the Old State House Boston
The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia
The Smithsonian (National History) Museum
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum




Other museums had bookstores that never were that big. A very few have actually increased, but they were really small (The Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem MA)
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Old 05-15-2020, 07:59 AM
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I'm not the only one noticing this, apparently:

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/...t-picture.html

Quote:
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 article is from 2011. And I notice that they're concentrating on art museums, not the science and history museum bookstore that I have seen as particularly devastated.
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:15 AM
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Here's an anecdote.

The Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester used to have half a long wall dedicated to a phenomenal selection of art books, mostly on art history because it's a teaching museum. In the past couple of years that's been eliminated and replaced by a few books on display.
I can't compare because the only time I was there was a couple years ago but I indeed don't even remember seeing the gift shop let alone any books in it.

The Museum of Science, on the other hand, does have a physically-small yet variety-filled gift shop, but I don't remember how many books there were as I was looking for a gift for my 2-year-old nieces.
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Old 05-15-2020, 09:11 AM
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Museum bookstores when they have them are great, agreed!

Sadly, in these quarantine times, even in the museums where they have good ones, even when those museums reopen, my colleagues in the museum world all tell me that the bookstores and cafes will be the very last things to reopen. Some museums may reopen in a limited way this fall. The bookstores won't reopen until mid-2021, most likely.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science reopens today(with distancing, face masks, etc.) - don't know about the gift shop. But I can't see why not. They won't have bus loads of kids on field trips so there's no way they would be crowded, and buying a gewgaw at a gift shop is no more dangerous than getting a gallon of milk at Kroger.

In the late 90s they had a decent book aisle, though almost half were kids books about dinosaurs. When I went back two or three years ago they had just a few books on one table and everything else was T-shirts and trinkets.
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Old 05-15-2020, 09:47 AM
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Art vs. History.

The Imperial War Museum in London has a spectacular bookshop. Bought a bunch of fascinating Great War histories there in 2018, the Armistice centennial.

Didja know the British Army imported millions of fierce Cossacks so quickly that they still had snow on their boots when they entered the English trains? Didja know the German Army actually believed that bullshit?

https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war...-cossacks.html
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Old 05-15-2020, 10:24 AM
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National Gallery of Art in DC has a big gift shop with lots of books.
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Old 05-15-2020, 10:59 AM
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CalMeacham, here's one picture from inside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History:

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Mu...!4d-77.0297056

Is this the museum shop you're talking about? Or was it another one within the same building? Some of the buildings have several shops within them. Also, you described it as being the "History museum", as though there was only one Smithsonian building with the word "history" in its name. All of the following buildings in D.C. are parts of the Smithsonian and have the word "history" in their name, and several of the others have a lot of historical material in them although the word "history" isn't in their name:

National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of American History
National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian is such a huge institution that I would be reluctant to make any general statement about what's in all of its buildings without spending a lot of time searching through all its museum shops in all its buildings, including checking whether there are several shops in a building.
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Old 05-15-2020, 11:43 AM
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CalMeacham, here's one picture from inside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History:

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Mu...!4d-77.0297056

Is this the museum shop you're talking about? Or was it another one within the same building? Some of the buildings have several shops within them. Also, you described it as being the "History museum", as though there was only one Smithsonian building with the word "history" in its name. All of the following buildings in D.C. are parts of the Smithsonian and have the word "history" in their name, and several of the others have a lot of historical material in them although the word "history" isn't in their name:

National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of American History
National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian is such a huge institution that I would be reluctant to make any general statement about what's in all of its buildings without spending a lot of time searching through all its museum shops in all its buildings, including checking whether there are several shops in a building.

Don't be obtuse. There's one big Smithsonian Museum of American History right smack in the middle of the Mall, next to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. That's the one I meant, and that;'s the one in your picture.

It is a woefully tiny fraction of what it was back in the 1990s, when the bookstore portion alone took up several rooms.

When I visited two years ago, my goal was to obtain a copy -- if I could -- on the Jefferson edit of the New Testament. I did indeed find a copy*, but there really wasn't a huge collection of books there.





*It's a beauty, too -- it's a page-by-page photoreproduction of Jefferson's original, with glued-in notes, even. Even the cover is a reproduction of Jefferson's personal volume. I'd have been satisfied with a simple copy of the contents in print.
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Old 05-15-2020, 11:44 AM
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The Museum of Science, on the other hand, does have a physically-small yet variety-filled gift shop, but I don't remember how many books there were as I was looking for a gift for my 2-year-old nieces.
It has a small section of books for kids. The entire museum shifted its emphasis from adult-oriented exhibits to kid-friendly ones many years ago. The gift store followed; it is virtually all literally kid stuff.

The International Museum of Photography's gift store had a corner with books. I've never been in a comparable museum so I can't rate it, but at the time it was about the size of the book area in the Art Gallery before they downsized it. I should check it out when and if it ever reopens.
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Old 05-15-2020, 11:46 AM
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National Gallery of Art in DC has a big gift shop with lots of books.
Art, again.
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Old 05-16-2020, 04:49 AM
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I have the impression than many museum gift shops have more geegaws for entertaining kids than they used to. The transport museum near us has models, postcards and chocolate (we are in Switzerland), and not much else. Their on-line website lists quite a few books, but I couldn't even tell you if they have any in the shop, and we are normally there about once every 2-3 months, for the last 20 years.

Dagnabit. They sell marzipan-filled dates, covered with dark chocolate, at the museum. They aren't even sold in the normal Lindt stores. And the museum is open again.
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Old 05-16-2020, 05:47 AM
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The Imperial War Museum in London has a spectacular bookshop. Bought a bunch of fascinating Great War histories there in 2018, the Armistice centennial.
As a contrary opinion, the IWM shops have seemed increasingly anemic every time I've been in in the last decade.

Then there's the case of the British Museum. When they launched the Great Court redevelopment at the turn of the millennium, it included a spectacular bookshop. Instantly the best archaeology bookshop in town. Which had the effect of running all the specialist similar bookshops that had previously clustered in the neighbourhood out of business. Then the BM just gradually dumbed down their shops. Net loss.
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