The Inefficiencies of Local Bookstores

We should not hold Amazon in contempt for pressuring local¬†independent¬†bookstores to the brink of closure and instead should embrace the company for taking advantage of inefficiencies, furthering a reading culture, and–believe it or not–helping us ‘buy local’ more effectively.

In response to Richard Russo‘s recent New York Times article¬†berating a recent not-so-well-considered Amazon promotion, Farhad Manjoo takes a different perspective on the Amazon vs.¬†independent¬†bookstores debate, this time coming down firmly in the Amazon camp.

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). 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.What rankles me, though, is the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists [‚Ķ] 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‚ÄĒmass-manufactured goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan.¬†[‚Ķ]

Wait, but what about the bookstores’ owners and employees‚ÄĒaren’t they benefitting from your decision to buy local? Sure, but insofar as they’re doing it inefficiently (and their prices suggest they are), 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‚ÄĒincluding 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.

That said, occasionally I like to pay a ‘premium’ and buy books from local stores, but not for any of the reasons mentioned above. Rather, I hope for that¬†bit of literary serendipity and haphazard discovery that only seems to happen in local independents.