It’s not just that bookstores are difficult to use.
How do these doors work?
They’re economically inefficient, too.
I don’t know. We’ve turned a profit some years. That’s quite honestly more than Amazon has ever been able to say.
[Ed. It’s been pointed out I was wrong here, for which, thanks. Amazon is indeed, and has always been profitable. I guess I confused unprofitable with “fosters abhorrent and just-shy-of-illegal working conditions.”
Rent, utilities, and a brigade of book-reading workers aren’t cheap,
Let me assure you that, at least on the last item, you are very very incorrect.
so the only way for bookstores to stay afloat is to sell items at a huge markup.
It is not a markup. We charge what the publishers ask for the books. We simply can’t strongarm the publishers into giving us better discounts like B&N or discount every title deeply enough that we lose money on all of them in an effort to cut out our competitors, an effort alleviated somewhat by the money we make selling goddamned refrigerators out back.
A few times a year, my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist—
I’d like to meet her. She sounds nice. We could chat over some Kool-Aid.
drags me into one of our supposedly sacrosanct neighborhood booksellers, and I’m always astonished by how much they want me to pay for books.
I’m imagining his astonished face. So funny.
At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent. In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.
This is, sadly, true. Amazon does have very good prices. So do used bookstores. Ah, but the moldering problem. And those pesky doors.
I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there. They find browsing through physical books to be a meditative experience, and they enjoy some of the ancillary benefits of physicality (authors’ readings, unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day).
Just an aside (yes these are all asides, I know) but if you sit in a chair in our store and it is in any way WARM then maybe don’t sit in that chair.
And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.
An editor was asleep at the wheel for this sentence. But anyhow bookstores are not Whole Foods, Farhad, they are the fruit stands, upon nostalgia for which Whole Foods has capitalized.
What rankles me, though, is
All that moldering? having to stand?
the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo, especially when they argue that readers who spurn indies are abandoning some kind of “local” literary culture. There is little that’s “local” about most local bookstores. Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house, an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community. Sure, every local bookstore promotes local authors, but its bread and butter is the same stuff that Amazon sells—mass-manufactured goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan. It doesn’t make a difference whether you buy Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs at City Lights, Powell’s, Politics & Prose, or Amazon—it’s the same book everywhere.
Okay, I left that paragraph largely whole because rather than being simply cranky or, “rankled” like most of this essay, here he displays another vast misunderstanding. It is true that we don’t produce the books we sell in our store. Or, well, we do sell books written by our booksellers. Two of our bestsellers this year are by our staff. And many of our booksellers also do freelance work for publishers and so shape books that way. And I and others in the store have helped create many small books and magazines—with our hands—that we sell. And our Espresso machine quite literally prints books on the premises.
But Mr. Manjoo is saying that because we are retailers, we have no greater moral claim than Amazon, and certainly no hold on the word “local”. The thing is, unless your measure of a successful day is having limited your couch-less moments to that brief second needed to slide on a clean diaper, you may be the sort of person who values having a vibrant local community, or at least one that has more to offer than a parade of bodegas and t-shirt stores or whatever the hell is going on in midtown. Bookstores don’t simply sell books, they shape a neighborhood. They are exactly specifically “local”, at least indies are, and if there is one point in this essay in which Mr. Manjoo is most mistaken, it is here. Local independent bookstores pay sales tax, first off, so as far as I’m concerned that should be an end to the argument there. But more than that, fully forty cents of every dollar you spend at a local bookstore goes back into the community where it is located. Considering that in most cases almost sixty cents of what you spend is going back to pay for the books themselves, that’s a staggering figure. We live and eat and pay rent and support schools and are, we very much are, your community.
Wait, but what about the bookstores’ owners and employees—aren’t they benefitting from your decision to buy local?
Far far less than you’d believe, trust me.
Sure, but insofar as they’re doing it inefficiently (and their prices suggest they are),
That doesn’t even make sense. In order to “benefit” most “efficiently” I guess we’d have to find the point at which we reap the most profit from the fewest books? That is not, granted, how we go about things. But then, neither does Amazon.
you could argue that they’re benefiting at the expense of someone else in the economy. After all, if you’re spending extra on books at your local indie, you’ve got less money to spend on everything else—including on authentically local cultural experiences. With the money you saved by buying books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few productions at your local theater company, visited your city’s museum, purchased some locally crafted furniture,
or spent more money at your farmers’ market. Each of these is a cultural experience that’s created in your community. Buying Steve Jobs at a store down the street isn’t.
See the above. But yes, spending money on books means less money for other things. I promise you that I and my empty empty wallet understand that. But a bookstore is only less authentic a local experience than a local theater show if all you care about is the books themselves. And if your reading tastes are boring. I sell, for instance, books that you will never ever find on Amazon.
But say you don’t care about local cultural experiences. Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read.
If only that were true. And this is anything but easy. You cannot say that availability is the only thing needed for a culture of literacy. Or, you can say it but you would sound like an ass.
This is the biggest flaw in Russo’s rant. He points to several allegedly important functions that local booksellers play in fostering “literary culture”—they serve as a “gathering place” for the community,
This is, and don’t take my word for it—ask the entirety of the social sciences, an important thing.
they “optimistically set up … folding chairs” at readings,
Those chairs can be heavy, and yes, I have filled an audience. But more often, we bring in enormous rooms full of people to hear and talk to and celebrate their favorite authors.
they happily guide people toward books they’ll love. I’m sure all of that is important, but it’s strange that a novelist omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.
Nope. No. Wrong. Buying books is one avenue, and the one we’re talking about today, but well-run libraries can play an even more important role. Access to books, owning them or even having them available in a library is important. But it is not enough for a “culture”. Supporting authors, too, is of vital importance, and buying their book remains the best way to do that, but the whole idea of a culture is that it be shared, if not communal, and the act of bringing people together in ways that make the books, and a shared enjoyment of the books, available, even if it doesn’t necessitate buying the books, could only be mocked by someone with a very sad and tenuous point to make.
And that’s where Amazon is unbeatable. Again, Bezos will sell you two hardcover books for the price you’d pay for one at your local store.
He will also sell you some shoes. And a ceiling fan. And pepper spray. Because the man just cares about literacy so much. Indeed his yen for supporting literacy is such that he has on occasion changed the price he charges for authors’ work to essentially nothing, unilaterally, which if they are protected by usual contract structures and publishing houses can grant them more exposure, but if they have bought into the myth of Amazon as a cure-all publishing solution often means they see no money for their work. Bezos cares quite a lot about literacy, or will I’m sure just as soon as he gets around to stomping every imaginable competitor into the dust. Access alone is not a culture.
And then there’s the Kindle, which turns the whole world into a bookstore,
No. It turns the whole world (by which we mean those places with broadband access, so the whole privileged world) into a place where you can buy books. It turns the whole world into an airport bookstore. It turns the whole world into that strange rack in the grocery store.
and which has already been proven to turn ordinary readers in monster book-buyers. Amazon has said that after people buy a Kindle reader, they begin purchasing e-books at twice the rate they’d previously purchased print titles. (And they keep buying print titles.)
I believe it. First, because they have to justify having spent money on the damned Kindle. And second. because the books are cheap and easy to get, Nobody has ever disputed that that would lead to more sales, I think? And it’s true that Kindle buyers buy books. Or rather, book buyers often buy Kindles. Even the cultish ones. This is a good place to point out that most independent bookstores are not against e-books. They have their place. We sell them ourselves. We are against that monster Amazon. Here, as everywhere, that distinction tends to grow lost. If you are looking for an e-reader, may I recommend the Kobo, which unlike the Kindle can read ebooks in a variety of formats, including those purchased form most indie bookstores.
Amazon has also been instrumental in helping authors create more books. With the Kindle, it launched a self-publishing system that allows anyone to sell a Kindle book. There’s also its Kindle Singles program, which transforms stuff that the book industry wouldn’t otherwise be able to sell—shorter-than-book-length magazine articles, essays, and fiction—into material that can be sold for money.
So, sure, Amazon doesn’t host readings and it doesn’t give you a poofy
Anyone who doesn’t think Farhad sees “poofy” as a derogatory comment raise their hand.
couch to sit on while you peruse the latest best-sellers. But what it does do—allow people to buy books anytime they want—is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it.
My favorite part of a really rigorous essay is when the last sentence bears little relation to and is wholly unsupported by everything that came before.
Whew. Even I barely made it to the end of this thing and I’m the one writing it. But if you take anything away from this, it is that if you ever see Farhad Manjoo reading to a few rows of empty chairs in a store somewhere, please don’t sit down. First because he is confused and full of “rankle” and might not be very entertaining, but more importantly, because it would kill literacy. No, I don’t know if I’m being sarcastic there either.