Thursday, December 15, 2011

Die, Bookstores, Die

Yes, Occupy Amazon. Because no one is original any more.

Here’s a little follow-up to a little news item I placed on my Facebook page earlier this week, in which Slate’s Farhad Manjoo righteously slams the illogic of supporting independent bookstores over buying books from Internet behemoth and serial tax-dodger

First, my little list of caveats:

I buy lots of books. Way too many books. And what books I don’t buy get sent to me by friends and family, or are somehow baked inside loaves of bread and smuggled into my house. But here’s the deal: Buying a new book is a rarity for me.

I’ll tell you why: Expense. New books are flat out expensive.

I am an aspiring author. I want to write books that people want to read. I am also a realist who knows that the chances of me getting rich off the books I write is slim. So if I had the opportunity, say, to publish an ebook (I’m looking forward to learning over my wife’s shoulders this next year as she takes a masters class on ebooks from Utah State University in which the class itself will write and publish an ebook) I’d do it in a heartbeat, not worrying about making scads of money.

So where do I get most of my books?

Not from Nor from the local brick-and-mortar bookstores, independent or not.

I get them from thrift stores. I can go into Deseret Industries, say, and buy a bag of books for less than $10, and add them to the furiously-growing piles of unread reading matter I have at home.

I find no romance in physical book stores. They are, in fact, a hindrance, not a help, in adding to my collection of books. Manjoo illustrates a bit of why here:
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, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. 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?
He adds:
What rankles me, though, is the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like [novelist Richard] 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.
I don’t buy a book because it’s sold at a twee little shop around the corner, or at a discounted, mailed-to-me-free price from Amazon. I buy a book because it interests me. And I’ve grown so accustomed to sorting through the eclectic detritus of books discarded by local readers (who tend to read a lot of romance novels and Rush Limbaugh and Jan Karon and whatever the latest book was from the community-we’ll-read-a-boring-book month. Sorting through the shelves of the DI looking for a hidden treasure (I’ve got an autographed copy of Ivy Ruckman’s “Melba the Brain,” for which I paid $1; try getting it for that anywhere else) that visiting a bricks-and-mortar store or trolling Amazon just doesn’t attract me.

And the indie bookstore tirades against Amazon’s efforts to publish a mobile phone app to help them comparison shop? Please. Get a new hobby. Typical is this screed from Betsy Burton, indie book seller writing in the Salt Lake Tribune:
Urging our community members to spy on us? Paying them to do so? Isn’t it bad enough that in addition to supporting a bricks-and-mortar establishment and being active and actively contributing members of the community, we have trouble competing against Amazon because they don’t have to collect sales tax and we do? This gives them a grossly unfair 10 percent advantage off the top (a practice that we hope our legislators address). Add to this insult the injury of corporate spying and it seems our task is insurmountable.

But here’s where community comes into play. Have our customers come into our store and clicked pictures of our inventory? No. Have strangers? No. Happily, thankfully, we haven’t seen a single person engaged in corporate espionage in The King’s English.

Why? Because of community. Because everyone understands that we all live here together, all contribute together to this city we all love. They understand that engaging in shady corporate tactics to save a buck or two in the long run hurts the place they live.
Betsy, people have comparison-price shopped before Amazon put their app out. Other stores have price-matched before Amazon came up with the idea. If I can find a book for a less expensive price at The King’s English, you bet your boots I’ll buy it from you. But you know what? I never will. Because you can’t beat the DI’s prices. Or selection, for that matter.

And community? Barf bag. You’ve obviously never shopped the Rexburg, Idaho, Deseret Industries, where I can see the same people perusing the bookshelves on a weekly basis. And you want community? I found a copy of C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength” while chatting with a fellow book-browser about the thrill of the hunt as we picked through a gigantic crate of books at an army surplus warehouse in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The book cost me a paltry 50 cents – available by itself for $16 at your store, Betsy, or in the Space Trilogy collection (not on shelves, available for special order) for $15.75. Tell me, which one should I buy?

Glad I bought the one at the surplus warehouse. I got a great read, met an interesting fellow buying lots of used textbooks, and didn’t have to step foot in yer snooty little store.

So, Ivy Ruckman’s Melba the Brain at The Kings English? No.

John Christopher’s The Guardians? No.

Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb? Yes. For $21. Special order. I got mine for $2 at a Catholic thrift store in Jackson, Wyoming.

I don’t dislike bookstores. Or, for that matter. What I do enjoy is the thrill of the book hunt – and knowing if I carry a stack of books to the register, I’m out less than $10 for a good pile o’ readin’, not $50 or more because I indulged in the “community” of the shop around the corner while enjoying the community of used-book scroungers I can find just about anywhere.

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