where the tangent is the architecture

I'm an independent bookseller, so please forgive me if I chatter about books. They're almost all I have.

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Surprisingly, I am less sure than this guy on Slate that independent bookstores are killing literacy.

A gentleman named Farhad Manjoo just posted a proudly contrarian article on Slate explaining why independent bookstores are not only irrelevent but maybe even harmful. I work at an independent bookstore, so that’s an argument I’d be very very curious to see made well. Honestly, I know the failings of small booksellers as well as anyone, and it’d be good to see them articulated. But that’s not what this essay was. Let’s look at it. All of it. In detail.

I’ll be interjecting my thoughts into the text of the essay itself. I know that’s a pretty ungenerous way to go about it, but as you’ll see, Mr. Manjoo is kind of an asshat, so I’m not feeling generous.

Let’s begin. The Slate article, and this is it in its entirety, is inset.

Amazon just did a boneheaded thing,

Good tone. Funny how well a word like “boneheaded” can convey how bland and soon-to-be-retracted this opening admonishment is.

and it deserves all the scorn you want to heap on it.

Are you sure? Because it is a lot of scorn. Or, what’s the word, not scorn, frighteningly violent barf-rage maybe?

Last week, the company offered people cash in exchange for going into retail stores and scanning items using the company’s Price Check smartphone app. If you scanned a product and then purchased it from Amazon rather than the shop you were standing in, Amazon would give you a 5 percent discount on the sale. (Disclosure: Slate is an Amazon affiliate; when you click on an Amazon link from Slate, the magazine gets a cut of the proceeds from whatever you buy.)

I’m generally a fan of price comparison

That, sir, is a weird thing to be a fan of.

—like everyone else, I hate spending more than I should—but I can understand physical retailers’ fear of the practice becoming widespread.

Okay what? Everyone, I think understands that using our stores as a showroom is basically wrong. But booksellers don’t “fear” it. It happens all day every day. We mostly dislike it because we’ve worked to get you into the store, you clearly agree that you’d like to be here, and it’s irritating and not a little bit sad for you to take advantage of that to our detriment. But “fear” it ain’t. Let’s call this the first of many straw men Mr. Manjoo will be propping up.

When you walk into Best Buy and get a salesperson to spend 10 minutes showing you a television, then leave empty-handed so you can buy the TV for less on Amazon, you’ve just turned Best Buy into Jeff Bezos’ chump.

Again, great writing. Good tone. I’d like to reiterate that this makes You, the person walking out, really an unusual object of curiosity and disgust, but fine.

The Price Check promotion (which lasted only one day) was, like Amazon’s aggressive efforts to dodge the collection of sales tax, a brazen attempt to crush local retailers, and I (as did many others) found it distasteful. Sure, I’m a fan of Amazon and devote a substantial portion of my income to its coffers—but does it have to be so wantonly callous about destroying its competitors? 

Thanks Farhad. Again, weird to be a fan of a massive slobbering maw of a corporation, but okay.

All of which is to say that I was primed to nod in vigorous agreement when I saw novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed taking on Amazon’s thuggish ways. But as I waded into Russo’s piece—which was widely passed around on Tuesday—I realized that he’d made a critical and common mistake in his argument. Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents),

"Hires" may be correct here in ways that words like "support" "feed" or even "fully employ" might not. Labor practices at big box stores, not just wal-mart, are uniformly counter to the well-being of their employees.

Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores.

This is my favorite part.

Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish,

Farhad feels left out.


Farhad doesn’t like the way your books smell.

institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, “doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.”

I actually have a few problems with the Times Op-Ed myself, and the idea that bookstores might be necessary for a literary culture. But by and large Russo is right. 

That’s simply bogus. As much as I despise some of its recent tactics,

Try “its tactics since before the new millennium.”

no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books.

With his creepy laugh and Dr. Evil smile, Bezos is an easy guy to hate, and I’ve previously worried that he’d ruin the book industry. But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.

I don’t know which bookseller pissed in this guy’s coffee, but I’d like to shake her hand.

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection,

Ask us for what you need, we’ll order it and get it to you as quickly as Amazon.

no customer reviews,

Ask us about the books. It’s my job to know which book is best for whom, and I am good at my job.

no reliable way to find what you’re looking for,

Ask me. I know where the books are.

and a dubious recommendations engine.

Again, just … it’s like you’re not even listening. Are you incredibly shy? Or, maybe you don’t know how bookstores work? 

Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like.

You know what I just liked? A book of stories about Cthulhu. Also a book about light and scents and changing seasons and lust and memory, set in a small south-eastern Polish town. You know what I’m recommending you read, sir? No, me either, because I haven’t asked you what you like yet. Probably something fucking awful. Just because you’ve never used something correctly Farhad, doesn’t mean it’s broken. “Fresh oranges are cultish compared to frozen orange juice because I have to eat the bitter outside to get to the sweet inside.” No, you don’t. You are doing it wrong.

If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?

I’m going to do that next time. I bet they’d have great advice.

In the past, bookstores did have one clear advantage over online retailers—you could read any book before you purchased it. But in the e-book age

Definitely what archaeologists will be calling this span a few millennia from now.

that advantage has slipped away. Amazon and Barnes & Noble let you sample the first chapter of every digital title they carry, and you can do so without leaving your couch.

This guy. Okay first, publishers do that as well, and Google. We would, too if competing with Amazon didn’t mean we couldn’t afford a better website. But more importantly, IS THAT THE STANDARD BY WHICH YOU WISH TO JUDGE A SUCCESSFUL IMPLEMENTATION SIR? Because do I have a chamber pot to sell you.

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,

maybe a nice couch!

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.

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