There were two dueling posts in the Internetosphere about Amazon and independent bookstores yesterday that took vastly different approaches to the value of bookstores and Amazon to literary and reading life.
First, in a provocative broadside against bookstores called “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” Slate’s Farhad Manjoo tackles what he sees as misplaced nostalgia for bookstore culture, the economic efficiency of Amazon, and argues that selling boatloads of books (which Amazon does) is more important to literature culture than setting up folding chairs for book readings:
It’s not just that
bookstores are difficult to use. They’re economically inefficient, too…
I’m always astonished by how much they want me to pay
for books. 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
I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay
extra to shop there…
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
What rankles me, though, is the hectoring attitude of bookstore
cultists like [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… 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 want to
make lists of the reasons why Amazon sucks because I feel like I’m
handing them a blueprint for rehabilitation.
Many people want so, so badly to like Amazon, and many people already
do. (See: comments sections on any article talking about Amazon.) Any
effort they made towards making the world a better place would be
embraced wholeheartedly by consumers and publishers, who mostly, when it
comes right down to it, just want things to be convenient and cheap. If
Amazon started reversing any of their more unsavory decisions, they
might lose money in the short-term, but I think they’d end up making
more money in the long-term, by cementing the loyalty of an entirely new
set of consumers who always sort of want to buy things from Amazon, and
sometimes give in and do, but feel guilty about it.
We’re at a major turning point in the book world right now and the future is going to be decided by our collective decisions. Are bookstores going the way of record stores and will they fade into Bolivian or do they provide such a service to the community that people will be willing to pay extra to keep them around?
Whose side are you on, not just in terms of sentiment but in actual dollars and cents? Or is this really even an either/or debate?
I tend to be the type of person who thinks they can co-exist. I love the convenience that Amazon provides. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t have a bookstore, and I didn’t grow up with the same kind of nostalgia that many people have for dusty aisles of books. But I’ve fallen in love with enough bookstores since then and am thankful enough for their role in literary culture to think the great ones have to have a place somehow.
What do you think?
Art: “Knowledge Bursts the Chain of Enslavement” – Aleksej Radakov