Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, wants to give you money. It sounds like a trick at first — all you have to do is take the smartphone you most likely already own and scan a product barcode while inside a bricks-and-mortar store. It can be a small business or a Best Buy: Bezos doesn’t care. What he wants is their price points, and once you send them to Amazon, he’ll toss you five bucks or five percent off your order for your easy effort.
What’s so bad about making a little side money while you shop? I’ll admit it — I’ve used the Amazon scanner to see how I fared price-wise at a Barnes and Noble in the past (and I wrote about it here back in 2010, in a short blog post called “David and Goliath and Goliath”). In my past post, I considered the benefits and shortfalls of the Amazon scanner as it existed before this cash incentive, and what I failed to acknowledge in this previous examination — what I didn’t know (much about) then, and know more about now — is what it means to give Amazon your business. I assumed that all Goliaths were created equal (Barnes and Noble and Amazon each standing in for the biblical giant). One was more expensive than the other, so I felt no guilt about receiving my 35% off. I know more now about the human and literary costs are that Bezos and Amazon build into my “savings” when I buy books from them — and despite (or because of) what you may have read recently about Amazon, I want to make an argument for supporting the “Davids” of physical bookstores, even if a Goliath or two may live among them.
I became a “fiscal adult,” that is, I started buying all my own crap for myself: my groceries, my books, my cardigans, my toilet paper, during the ascent of Amazon and the heyday of Walmart. Like many Americans, I’ve become used to the pricing model of these behemoth companies: make the crap they sell cheaper than the same crap that other companies (small businesses and big-box stores alike) sell. Like Farhad Manjoo, the Slate writer who proclaimed last week that “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 [Bezos and Amazon] for crushing that precious indie on the corner,” I have found myself pulled to Amazon’s prices over those of other companies, especially when it came time to purchase my textbooks back in college and graduate school. Manjoo, who is surely feeling the same price-skewing sensation that I feel, describes Amazon not only as a good deal, but as a noble one as well when faced with the “steep” pocket cost of shopping independent: “Rent, utilities, and a brigade of book-reading workers aren’t cheap, so the only way for bookstores to stay afloat is to sell items at a huge markup.”
Here’s where the Amazon model gets insidious: what Manjoo calls "markup" is actually "list price", which is set by a publishing house and remains the same, largely, from bookstore to bookstore, barring a special promotion or a coupon. In order for Amazon to undersell list price (not the reverse as Manjoo suggests it, a scenario where indie stores are adding marked-up value to list price) as vastly as they do, certain things about their business must take a hit: for example, the care and treatment of that “brigade of book-reading workers,” some of whom are already being replaced with robots on the assembly line and others of whom are subjected to inhumane work conditions (2) and not allowed to unionize.
Amazon presents other risks in particular to the literary community, especially to those poets and writers who publish with small and university presses (a body of writers that includes most of the poets I know). Manjoo diminishes the importance of a physical bookstore, describing the experience of shopping at one as “a frustrating consumer experience” (so many walls! so many employees who actually read the books they sell!). However, a bookstore — especially in cities without many free spaces and, in contrast, in smaller towns without many public cultural institutions — provides a place for people to collect, to share ideas, and (perhaps most important for literature) to hear writers read their works, oftentimes for free or for the cost of the writer’s new book. Without these physical spaces, writers must retreat fully, if they want to read, to universities and libraries — there will be no other public, accessible place for them to share their poetry or prose, and unlike bookstores, which sell the writer’s book, universities and libraries cannot assist the livelihood of a writer in the same way.
We saw Borders, for various reasons, shutter its doors earlier this year; Barnes and Noble, while still appearing to thrive on the surface, has declared bankruptcy. Without these stores, many American consumers will be left at the mercy of the “Walmart of the Internet,” with writers and editors controversially next on the quality-control chopping block as Amazon develops their own publishing imprints (2). “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now,” said Amazon exec Russell Grandini in the New York Times link above, “are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” Editors and publishers (especially small and university press publishers, who are keeping the poetry world alive), those folks “in the way,” are as necessary to the business of writing as they are to its art and curation. Without them, we have an imperfect and disenfranchising process, one that ultimately disempowers the new writer (unless, of course, she wants to sign some of her profits over to Amazon).
Where to shop, if not Amazon, for your literature? (I know folks who buy their toilet paper on Amazon; you’ve got options aplenty; you don’t need my help.) I have a few possibilities here below, some Davids, some Goliaths of various shades. All, to differing degrees, promise a healthier, more sustainable, and more ethical retail option than Amazon.
If you don’t live in Portland, OR, you can’t visit them in person, but Powell’s has arguably the vastest selection of new and used books online of any independent bookseller in America. Check them out (first) here: www.powells.com.
Actually Going Inside Your Local Indie Bookstore and Buying Something
Harvard Book Store and Brookline Booksmith (among many, many others) in my onetime home of Boston. Politics and Prose in DC. Strand, McNally Jackson, and St. Mark’s in NYC. The Big Idea and (may it rest in peace) Joseph-Beth Booksellers, once upon a time, in Pittsburgh. If you live in a sizable college town, a big city, or a well-populated suburban community, chances are you have lots of options for independent bookstores—and you don’t have to (always) pay list price at these places, either. Brookline Booksmith, for example, has a vast used books basement and remainders and hardcovers for sale at steep, steep discount (and they’re not all romance novels or weird dusty cookbooks, either). Many bookstores will give you a book for the cost of a ticket to see an author read. And, trust me, authors want to read to you. They want to put their book in your hands, and sign it, and thank you for coming to see them.
Barnes and Noble
They’re no David, that’s for sure, but Barnes and Noble makes a convenient and viable alternative to Amazon for folks without access to other options. In towns where no indie bookstores live — like State College, PA, where I lived for three years — B&N serves as a similarly important collecting place for writers, readers, families, students, and community members. B&N also sells e-books that you can read on an iPad and has a vast network of books and used books available on their website. And many of their employees know their shit, too. I worked at my hometown B&N for two years and at a Boston store for a third alongside people passionate about reading and writing. They’re good for book recommendations; they’re also not robots.