A Kinder, Gentler Bookseller 

Wal-Mart's buying -- and censoring -- power affects us all.

Regular customers of the world's largest retailer may have noticed some recent changes in its magazine department. Gone altogether are the girlie mags Maxim, Stuff, and FHM. Clad in little more than silence are the curvaceous beauties on the covers of the Gurley mags from which they cribbed their shtick: Cosmo, Redbook, Marie Claire, and Glamour. These changes are but the two latest cases of Wal-Mart striving to keep its media products from offending the sensibilities of its vast middle-American customer base.

Book-lovers probably aren't too depressed. Consider the case of Maxim, which targets a readership of adolescent horndogs with advanced Attention Deficit Disorder. Truth be told, the republic will endure even if we are all permanently deprived of Maxim's infantile blend of chicks, jokes, jocks, pranks, perks, and sex. Dudes who wandered into Wal-Mart searching fruitlessly for August's Anna Kournikova issue wouldn't have found much more nourishing than "PANTIES AWAY! Teach your gal the joy of stripping"; "Hometown Hotties: AMERICA'S SEXIEST GIRLS-NEXT-DOOR!"; and a brief article about the actor Gary Busey (with the admittedly awesome headline "I SNORTED COKE OFF MY DOG!").

Meanwhile, Cosmo and its sisters weren't quite banned at the chain, but they will henceforth be clothed behind U-shaped plastic covers that let checkout-aisle browsers ogle the cover girls' plunging necklines but not the Day-Glo headlines that nuzzle their hips. In August's annual Cosmo Hot Issue, Wal-Mart denied browsers the joys of these headlines in the proud tradition of legendary editor Helen Gurley Brown: "SEX SURVEY: 15,000+ Men Tell What They're Aching For. Girl, the Power's in Your Hands Now"; "Get Naked! Does Stripping Down Stress You Out? How to Feel Sooo Sexy in the Buff"; and "Busted in Bed: Horrifying but Hysterical Stories of Couples Who Got Nailed During Nooky." Although thematically there's little difference between the concerns of Cosmo girls and Maxim lads, the better-established women's magazines probably got to stick around because they are less visually risqué than their masculine imitators.

Policies such as these should concern even those of you without a clue about where Wal-Mart's seven East Bay stores are located. (FYI, they're in Antioch, Livermore, Martinez, Pittsburg, Pleasanton, San Leandro, and Union City.) The giant discounter is now the nation's number-one media vendor; fifteen percent of all single-copy magazine sales occur at Wal-Mart. Along these lines, big-box discounters now sell more than 40 percent of the copies of a typical best-selling book, 50 percent of a best-selling album, and 60 percent of a best-selling DVD, according to a May New York Times article.

As much as we all disapprove of censorship, it's hard to argue that Wal-Mart dare not advance its own ethical standards. So too is it hard to argue that Wal-Mart's tastes have actually harmed the magazine industry, which boasts about three and a half times as many titles as it did just 25 years ago. But can we be far from the days in which magazine or book publishers feel the need to self-censor their products to get them onto Wal-Mart's shelves? Major record companies now rewrite lyrics, change album covers, and omit whole songs just to dance to Wal-Mart's tune. And let's not even talk about the gyrations of the major film studios, most of which won't release a movie that can't at least garner an R rating. Wal-Mart's buying power affects us all, even if we shop for readables and listenables exclusively at De Lauer's newsstand, Diesel bookstore, or Amoeba Music.

Still, the greater impact of Wal-Mart's clout is in what it promotes, not what it prohibits. The success of country music, conservative books, and all things Christian have grown by leaps and bounds since Wal-Mart began dominating the media trade. The latest example of its ability to grow a market niche is American Magazine, a new bimonthly that evidently pines for the days when nothing in America was open on Sundays except churches -- not even Wal-Mart.

Formally launched this summer, American Magazine is a women's magazine, though definitely not one for Cosmo girls. You'll find nothing remotely racy or topical here; its concerns are everyday heroes, small-town America, and family life ... especially family life. Ever so annoyingly, the magazine's marketing strategy evokes 9/11 as it attempts to conjure up a vision of a kinder and gentler nation that was dominated by such publications as The Saturday Evening Post -- from which American Magazine's premiere issue reprints a 1974 article, just to make sure everyone understands its aspirations.

When done well, there's certainly a market for such stuff, as demonstrated by Reader's Digest, still the nation's most popular free-standing magazine. Sadly, American Magazine is not done well at all. Many stories are appallingly bad, such as the unctuous ode to "What Is America?" or the painfully embarrassing profile of a fifteen-year-old with braces on her teeth who aspires to country-music stardom. Then there's the recurring feature "State of Mind," which will apparently focus on a different state from the heartland in every issue, and makes the error in July's issue of mistaking the Bruce Springsteen song "Nebraska," about the mass murderer Charlie Starkweather, for a celebration of the Cornhusker State.

American Magazine aspires to fill its pages with ads from the likes of Roman Meal bread and State Farm Insurance, and seems ready and willing to do almost anything to make this happen. Jones Soda Co. appears not only in a full-page ad on page 15 but also in a feature layout on page 80 and even in the cover photo. A History Channel ad on page 18 promotes a show about America's eleven most imperiled historical sites, and so does a four-page article on page 56. Sausages, Ford cars, mental_floss magazine, and the TLC cable network all pull similar double duty in ads and editorial spreads. And a small story about the flinty resilience of one proud American merchant ends up being a paean to none other than Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart.

Clearly, American Magazine has what it takes to secure nationwide distribution. Tits are out and tots are in. Spread the word.


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