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Keeping it indy
December 12, 2008 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Book sales are down. Powells, the largest independant bookseller in the US, is asking staff to scale back hours or take sabbaticals. Will you buy a book from an independent bookstore this Christmas?
posted by Artw (193 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm going to the library, sorry.
posted by DenOfSizer at 12:47 PM on December 12, 2008 [7 favorites]


Although I do like to go on Amazon, I have spent literally hundreds of dollars at the local used/independent bookstores this year. Plus, I've traded in lots of stuff, so the money just stays within their coffers. And whenever possible, I buy from the used sellers on Amazon.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:50 PM on December 12, 2008


Already did. Anathem is one thousand pages of pure awesome.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:51 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I did a paper on them back in like 2000, when the Seattle Times was digging into the them-vs-Amazon angle pretty good and providing them with a few of the quotes on their press page. At least they're still in business.
posted by cashman at 12:53 PM on December 12, 2008


Nooooooooooooo!!!!!!!! I bought books at Powell's yesterday! I buy all my books from Powell's! Best bookstore ever. Grrr.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:54 PM on December 12, 2008


Are there any left?

No stores were found.
posted by caddis at 12:57 PM on December 12, 2008


Yes. In this country (Canada) the Coleschaptersindigo collective has the overwhelming share of the market. Enough people are buying there already, so I buy my books at Nicholas Hoare and Different Drummer and Bryan Prince and Duthie and Frog Hollow and Perfect Books and Book City.

Yeah, I get around a bit.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:57 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


what, ricochet biscuit, no love for Pages?
posted by limon at 1:01 PM on December 12, 2008



Already did. Anathem is one thousand pages of pure awesome.
posted by backseatpilot at 3:51 PM on December 12


Anathem @ Powells: $21.00
Anathem @ Amazon: $14.98 new, $12.30 new/used from affiliated sellers

$21 -$14.98 = $6.02 = lunch or a paperback

I'm shopping at Amazon.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:05 PM on December 12, 2008 [14 favorites]


With all the wonderful readings put on by Elliot Bay Book Company, it's a shame to think of book stores like this disappearing. I don't think I could ever buy a book without browsing the aisles, picking one up randomly and flipping through it.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:06 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Are other companies not doing this?
posted by redsparkler at 1:06 PM on December 12, 2008


Probably not.
posted by grouse at 1:07 PM on December 12, 2008


Ah, this gives me another chance to gloat about Borders' impending doom. Stock price at close today: 71 cents. And that's an improvement.
posted by malaprohibita at 1:09 PM on December 12, 2008


Will you buy a book from an independent bookstore this Christmas?

Like it or not, electronic books are around the corner. Book selling will probably get even tougher, with or without a bad economy.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:12 PM on December 12, 2008


Yes. Yes I will.
posted by Caduceus at 1:13 PM on December 12, 2008


The book industry has been in a state of panic since about 1832. I've stopped worrying.
posted by mattbucher at 1:14 PM on December 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Electronic books have been around the corner for ten years. I'm not saying they're not going to have a significant market share in the near future, because they probably will, but the book as we know it is not going to disappear anytime soon.
posted by Caduceus at 1:15 PM on December 12, 2008


I already did. Bought my mom a used copy of Plan B by Anne Lamott at Derby Square Books in Salem.
posted by pxe2000 at 1:15 PM on December 12, 2008


I once visited a bookstore from which I had made purchases via abebooks, and was shocked by how small and dumpy the place was. I asked the clerk what the story was, and he told me that with e-sales the business had really taken off; and now the books are kept in a warehouse, the owners retired to a country estate and the store is kept just for show.
posted by No Robots at 1:17 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I live in a French town in Quebec, where the nearest English bookstore is 45 minutes away by bus. This allows me to shop Amazon without guilt, which is good because supporting my local games store, local comic store, independent grocer, farmer's market, non-chain restaurants, local tailor, independent cleaner and small-scale co-op is fucking killing me.
posted by Shepherd at 1:18 PM on December 12, 2008 [7 favorites]


For new list-price books, why would anyone buy anywhere else but Amazon? With the unlimited 2-day shipping it's crack. The only complaint is I can't go into a bookstore and in good fiscal conscious buy on impulse since I know I can go home and get it that night for 30% cheaper (for the price of waiting 48hrs). I don't see how bookstores stay in business except for the non-regular book buyer, or a hard core group of loyalists willing to pay more for no rational reason. It does not surprise me at all that bookstores are going out of business.
posted by stbalbach at 1:19 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Probably not, though I did buy several from used book stores affiliated to Amazon this year. The price differential is too much for me to really justify it and honestly I really like being able to find any book I want without much effort. Plus I'm pretty busy reading stuff published before the 1930s on my Kindle.
posted by peacheater at 1:20 PM on December 12, 2008


For instance, I just downloaded a pdf of Big Eyes Small Mouth 3rd Edition (a roleplaying rule book), and there's nothing I'd like more than to be able to find a hardcover copy somewhere instead. Reading short articles or blog entries or massive MeFi threads screen is one thing, but something I really want to read extensively and reference to and use for things is different.

Of course, roleplaying is one of the markets that pdf ebooks have made the greatest inroads, so maybe I'm an exception.
posted by Caduceus at 1:21 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Caduceus: "Electronic books have been around the corner for ten years."

As holiday season closes in, e-books exploding in popularity
The Kindle, Amazon's surprisingly well-received e-content reader, has apparently completely sold out for the rest of the holiday season already, despite the fact that US Thanksgiving has yet to hit. The company confirmed to Silicon Alley Insider yesterday that the current Kindle is on backorder for at least another 11 to 13 weeks, and Amazon definitely won't be able to ship any before December 24. Amazon has since placed a notice on its site saying, "Due to heavy customer demand, Kindle is sold out."
posted by stbalbach at 1:22 PM on December 12, 2008


Ah, this gives me another chance to gloat about Borders' impending doom.

I've not been in there for a while, but glancing through the windows my local one seems to have turned into one of those cut-price bookstores with lots of big hard back books that are plastered with discount stickers.
posted by Artw at 1:22 PM on December 12, 2008


I don't like buying books for people because I feel like I am presenting them with a chore rather than a gift, even if I know they like to read. Maybe that's silly.

When I buy books for myself, I use Amazon or go to Half Price Books.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 1:23 PM on December 12, 2008


For instance, I just downloaded a pdf of Big Eyes Small Mouth 3rd Edition (a roleplaying rule book), and there's nothing I'd like more than to be able to find a hardcover copy somewhere instead. Reading short articles or blog entries or massive MeFi threads screen is one thing, but something I really want to read extensively and reference to and use for things is different.

Well, reading a book on an e-book reader like the Kindle or Sony Reader is a vastly different experience from reading a pdf on a back-lit screen and is much closer to the print book experience. Not saying it's perfect, but it's definitely worth a shot.
posted by peacheater at 1:25 PM on December 12, 2008


A week ago I was in Borders, waiting for my wife and tax exemption (my daughter) who were (of course) shopping in the mall. My therapist tells me I should avoid the mall stores because of my anger and rage problems. I noticed a book I had just read, opened the cover and found that it costs 30 bucks. I could not recall what I spent for the same book at Amazon but I knew it was not 30, so I checked when I got home and, sure enough via amazon, 12 bucks cheaper. since I always buy more than one book at a time so I can get free shipping, I also saved on the rather steep sales tax in my state. I have however decided to get books from local library and cut way way back on buying. If my library does not have what I want, they get it inter-library loan or will order it for me. Times getting tough and so I worry about spending if I can avoid it.
posted by Postroad at 1:25 PM on December 12, 2008


Of course, roleplaying is one of the markets that pdf ebooks have made the greatest inroads, so maybe I'm an exception.

Roleplaying books are a vanishingly tiny market, smaller even than comics, the future for them is probably in unusual revenue schemes.
posted by Artw at 1:26 PM on December 12, 2008


Roleplaying books are a vanishingly tiny market, smaller even than comics, the future for them is probably in unusual revenue schemes.

If cosplay is involved, I don't want to hear about it.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:28 PM on December 12, 2008


As a matter of fact, I'm probably doing most of my holiday shopping at Powell's this year!
posted by OverlappingElvis at 1:29 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't see how bookstores stay in business except for the non-regular book buyer, or a hard core group of loyalists willing to pay more for no rational reason.

You've never been to Powell's, have you?
posted by dersins at 1:38 PM on December 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


I can't rationalize purchasing the Kindle. I was tempted to get a micro laptop for about half that price, so I could see in color, too. I'd really be sold when an ebook reader emits that pleasant old-book smell.1

The last really local bookshop here recently got a bunch of fantastic-looking Oz books2 and I was thoroughly tempted. They weren't priced yet, but they would be somewhere around $100 USD per book. I haven't gone back to see the final price, for fear of buying my wife gifts for me. But I did buy a few odd books, because I always feel sad when leaving the shop without buying anything. Sad for myself, having not gained another few interesting things, and sad for the shop, struggling to survive.

1 weird site I found upon googling "old book smell" - I'm not hawking the site
2 sweet baby james, there are FOURTY canonical Oz books?
posted by filthy light thief at 1:39 PM on December 12, 2008


At Powells, you could have gotten a signed copy of Anathem. For an extra $5, you could have seen Mr.Stephenson speak and enjoyed a choral performance of music created from the book, all at the historic Bagdad theater.

But yes, you saved a couple of dollars on Amazon. And that's cool, too.
posted by redsparkler at 1:39 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


But yes, you saved a couple of dollars on Amazon. And that's cool, too.

In-person book promotion provides Powell's and other physical booksellers the ability to set themselves apart from Amazon, which cannot do those things, or at least not as easily.

However, not all readers are interested in those extras — they just want to read. So for those folks, why should they pay for the promotion tour?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:45 PM on December 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


I've only been to Powells once, but it was awesome, if not *totally* overwhelming. I think they're smart to sell souvenirs and non-book gifts, as they must be more profitable than books. I have an awesome giant coffee mug from them that was only six bucks.
posted by cucumberfresh at 1:46 PM on December 12, 2008


No. Last time I bought 2 books at the local independent, it was almost $40, and both were paperbacks. It's either the library or Amazon. Time to evolve, bookstores.
posted by yoga at 1:46 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Book publication schedules differ by country, so when a new title comes out in an addictive series, I go online to have it shipped from UK / AUS. There isn't an Oz Amazon yet, is there? I've been emailing a nice man at Book City for years.

There's no beating a real book store, though. You know that excitement you'd get as a kid walking through the aisles of a toy store, reverently trying to decide what you wanted most? That's me. The bookstore is my toy shop.
posted by woodway at 1:48 PM on December 12, 2008


I don't know that it's book sales being down so much as *everything* being down right now.

Anyway, I live three and a half blocks from their main store, so, yeah, I will probably buy more there. :-) I already spent $32 on a couple of music production magazines at their technical book store recently.
posted by wastelands at 1:50 PM on December 12, 2008


Ah, this gives me another chance to gloat about Borders' impending doom.

Fuck Borders. They sealed their fate when they laid me off.

If anyone wants cheap books, specifically a masters degree's worth of mid-80's to early-90's era graphic/web design/human-computer interaction books or the 342 table at Borders/B&N, check the dumpster behind the Beverly Hills PL today. I throw away about 300 books/day here, and that's only a tiny slice of what comes into the FotL store. Speaking of, most libraries have a Friends bookstore, and most of those have awesome $1 carts.
posted by carsonb at 1:50 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


How about this for a business model. You have a bookstore/coffeeshop that charges admission, but operates like a library/coffeeshop. So you either pay two or three dollars to get in the door for the day, or you buy a monthly or annual membership, and that in turn allows you to go in for the day/week/month and drink as much coffee as you want (mocha and stuff is a little extra, but discounted), and read books all day and even check them out, but checking them out is extra, too, like a dollar per book. Of course you can purchase the books, as well, if you want, at a super discount rate, if you're a member. Hmmm.
posted by billysumday at 1:51 PM on December 12, 2008


It's interesting - as a librarian, one of the things I've noticed is that librarians either buy a lot of books, or buy almost no books. I fall into the latter category - unless it's brand new and I'm 15th on the hold list, I get things from the public library rather than buy them. When I've checked out a book more than 5 separate times, I'm allowed to buy it. Which means my collection is 90% comfort reading in very worn covers with pages falling out, since those are the ones I go back to time and time again, and I tend to buy used (I did buy Anathem new, I admit).

One of my coworkers falls into the "buy every book I want to read" category, and he likes to buy them brand new, untouched by the unwashed masses. He also keeps all the books he buys, even if he didn't like them. I find this deeply weird.

I'd be interested to see a breakdown of book purchase habits by profession, actually.
posted by marginaliana at 1:53 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I LOVE my Kindle and can second peacheater's assessment of the device. Before I bought it I was worried that it wouldn't be able to replace the weighted feel of a book in my hand and I wouldn't be able to adjust. It really hasn't replaced the feeling of a good solid book, but the experience of reading on the Kindle is very good. (Plus, as long as MeFi's own jscalzi and cstross and non-mefite Alastair Reynolds have publishers that sell Kindle copies, I'll be working my way through all of those. (And add to that my new love Many Books.))

However, there are things I want that aren't available on the Kindle or the free sites and I'm going to hit up Powell's right now and see if they can fill those gaps.
posted by eyeballkid at 1:53 PM on December 12, 2008


I almost always buy used (usually from BMV). For the regular price of one book you can usually get two to four depending. I have to wonder if books were reasonably price would volume of sales increase and therefore revenue. Not being intimately familiar with all the numbers one can only speculate.
posted by juiceCake at 1:54 PM on December 12, 2008


I throw away about 300 books/day here, and that's only a tiny slice of what comes into the FotL store.

I don't get this. Is there no recycling program at Borders?
posted by quadog at 1:54 PM on December 12, 2008


Can we please stop pretending the experience at Powell's is at all representative of independent book stores in general?
posted by Gary at 1:57 PM on December 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


So for those folks, why should they pay for the promotion tour?

When was the last time you met someone attractive browsing on amazon.com?
posted by dersins at 1:58 PM on December 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


The flippant and dismissive answers not only reveal how so many of you have been suckered in by base, soul-destroying free market values that have preyed upon the eclectic possibilities of books in this country, but display the continued failure to understand the role of the independent bookstore in the United States. Sure, you could spend that $6.02 on lunch. But it will be at the expense of a valuable community center that often stocks specific titles that you won't find in the big box stores and that sometimes goes out of its way to stock those titles even when they don't always sell. Sure, you can throw that money at Amazon. But did you know that Amazon offers the bigger publishers a better percentage than some of the smaller and independent presses? (You know, the presses that take a gamble once in a while and publish books that are dangerous or that challenge our perceptions of what a book should be?) And did you know that the independent bookstore, despite the draconian conditions imposed by book distribution, often offers a better revenue rate than Amazon? That many of the independent books offered on Amazon can't always make the publisher money?

"Well, the publishing industry has the obligation to be profitable," you might argue. But then such a simplistic conclusion worthy of Thomas Friedman misses the point of publishing. Historically, the publishing industry has offered a few blockbusters that have supported more literary titles that don't sell nearly as well. Yes, this is a wacky approach to business. But it has, at least, sustained some degree of variety. And everyone stands to win under this model. But thanks to Amazon and the big box stores, those times are now coming to an end. Or hadn't you noticed the 30,000 media jobs lost in 2008? Or the layoffs announced at nearly every publishing house over the past month?

At an independent bookstore, you'll engage with people behind the counter who are knowledgeable and passionate about books, who will remember your name, and who will probably suggest a few pivotal titles that you may not have remembered. At Amazon, you will get collaborative filtering that uses a fallible algorithm without that pivotal face-to-face contact.

To give you a sense of the economics at stake, a bookstore typically operates at a 3% profit every year. And that's if the bookstore's lucky. While independent bookstores don't wish to announce that they are essentially cultural philanthropists, with revenue even in prosperous times never being particularly lucrative, the truth of the matter is that independent bookstores, and books in general, are in a severe financial crunch right now.

But of course, you don't really care about any of this. Because it's all about you. Just the way it's always been. Amazon has learned a number of lessons from the discount warehouse stores that opened up in the 1980s and preyed upon the indies, catering so skillfully into your unthinking consumerist instincts that it has never occurred to you that there might be consequences for your conveniences.

Why would anyone buy somewhere else but Amazon? Well, maybe it's because I like the option of ensuring that there remains some forum in my city that attempts to keep literary culture alive. Maybe it's because I want to see a store in which Gilbert Sorrentino is stacked in the same section as John Grisham. Maybe it's because I want to divest myself of dollars because unthinking dipshits would rather go across the street, save a few bucks, and give into a monolithic culture that runs counter the great and eclectic possibilities of ideas. (And don't get me started on the thoughtless assholes who talk directly to a clerk at an independent bookstore, get excited about a book, and then proudly announce how they're going to buy the book at Amazon. What a testament you are to the preservation of culture!)
posted by ed at 1:59 PM on December 12, 2008 [49 favorites]


As an employee at Powell's who wants to keep his job, I encourage you all to shop there immediately and repeatedly.

Thanks in advance, kbye!
posted by mrnutty at 2:01 PM on December 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


unless it's brand new and I'm 15th on the hold list, I get things from the public library rather than buy them

Me too. I hate owning books; I already have enough clutter. If my local library closed and my future in-laws' house burned down, I'd really be screwed.
posted by uncleozzy at 2:02 PM on December 12, 2008


How broad is the definition of "independent" bookseller? Joseph-Beth is on the site above, but it has locations in several cities.
posted by dilettante at 2:03 PM on December 12, 2008


Will you buy a book from an independent bookstore this Christmas?

No.

There are things I care about in a bookstore. These are selection and price. Nothing else matters. I do not care in the slightest what, if any, relationship the store I am standing in has to other stores, or to some other higher-level business. The idea that I should care is baffling to me.

If there were an Ideal Bookstore, it would just be a shop bolted on to an Amazon warehouse. You go in, futz with their web system, place an order, and in a few minutes your bin of books gets shat from the wall.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:04 PM on December 12, 2008 [13 favorites]


As someone who gets her paycheck from a book publisher and hopes to continue to do so for at least a few more years:

1. E-books have definitely reached some sort of tipping point, where the sales have exploded relative to previous years. That still accounts for a teeny tiny portion of the book business. E-book popularity is good.

2. Borders closing would NOT be good. (Neither would Powell's closing, obviously).

3. Don't know if it was brought up or discussed elsewhere on mefi, but this is what happened to book publishing last week.
posted by lampoil at 2:07 PM on December 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


what, ricochet biscuit, no love for Pages?

Limon, I am reminded of the capsule description of Pages that I once encountered (Toronto guidebook? Now's annual readers' survey? I dunno) to the effect that "Pages on Queen West is Toronto's leading source of books on the recontextualization of hierarchical paradigms viewed through the narrative of postcultural discourse. Also has books for normal people."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:08 PM on December 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


While I like to support local businesses whenever possible, I also support my needs and wants as a consumer. Bottom line price is seldom my main motivator for choosing who to do business with. For book and record stores that usually means a combination of selection and service. I'll pay a few more dollars to support a business that is committed to creating a pleasant and stimulating shopping experience. That means not only carrying the type of things I'm already looking for, but also calling my attention to something that I didn't previously know was something I wanted. In fact, that might be more important to me than having what I actually came in for.

In the suburbs where I live there's not an independent bookstore nearby that's reliable enough to be my go-to book store (there are a few indie bookstores, but they just don't seem to cater to MY wants in a bookstore), so Borders gets most of my book dollars. When I travel I make it a point to hit local book retailers (Strand in New York and City Lights in SF are two of my favorites ever) and when I do get into Chicago I try to hit Unabridged and Quimbys.

I always think of Powells as a brick and mortar store that I hope to some day visit in person, but not as a place mailorder books from. I'll check them out next time I'm heading towards to Amazon and give them a try. I've heard nothing but good things, so I should support the cause, or at least try it out and see if the cause is worth supporting.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 2:09 PM on December 12, 2008


ed, the independent bookstores are just as guilty of "catering so skillfully into your unthinking consumerist instincts" as Amazon. C'mon. Your making a fantasy here trying to portray a David and Goliath scenario. The model for bookstores needs to change. Look at billysumday's post above about a new business model idea. That's the real kind of difference that is needed, not some ideological difference.
posted by stbalbach at 2:10 PM on December 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


You are my hero, ed.
posted by Caduceus at 2:12 PM on December 12, 2008


If I may risk a self-link, I'm doing a thing with my local indie bookstore where if people buy my books from them through the holidays, I'll come in and sign and personalize the books. It's good for me, because it gives people incentive to buy my books, it's good for reader, since it gets them something they can't in fact get from Amazon, and it's good for the bookstore, since they've gotten lots of orders, which makes a small but noticeable affect on their bottom line, and right now, every little bit helps.

Clearly I don't have a problem with people buying my books via Amazon or via Kindle/other book readers. If you want them, get them however you like. But helping out local businesses when you can is a good thing. I buy stuff online, but before I do I try to buy it locally first.
posted by jscalzi at 2:12 PM on December 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


But of course, you don't really care about any of this. Because it's all about you. Just the way it's always been.

Well, maybe it's because I like the option of ensuring that there remains some forum in my city that attempts to keep literary culture alive. Maybe it's because I want to see a store in which Gilbert Sorrentino is stacked in the same section as John Grisham.

Isn't that particular value statement "just about you" as much as Amazon shoppers go there for convenience and cost? And aren't indie booksellers of your stripe simply catering to your desires?

I've been to many bookstores, online, chain and independent, and in my limited experience, unless the indie store specializes in a field — like Powell's massive math and science building — the online and chain outfits simply offer more variety. The indie store will happily place a special order, but that only drives away business.

Booksellers of all stripes are middlemen running a storage facilty. They take a cut for moving books, period. The ones that can move books can pay rent. For the others, it will be harder.

But that's been the case for any commodity where a middleman is involved, since time immemorial: You have to continually justify your existence to the seller and buyer.

Amazon justifies their existence through fast and cheap. Physical booksellers justify their existence through less tangible and more emotional characteristics. Either way, you're buying into a "customer experience", as you've admitted.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:13 PM on December 12, 2008 [7 favorites]


But it will be at the expense of a valuable community center that often stocks specific titles that you won't find in the big box stores and that sometimes goes out of its way to stock those titles even when they don't always sell

No. No no no no. This may be true at a very few good independent bookstores. Those should be supported. But the dirty little secret here is that most independent bookstores sucked. They were awful. Their selection was awful, their owners were awful (and crazy), and their prices are awful.

Borders has made missteps recently but the advent of Borders&Barnes and Nobles was a fuckin' golden age for book lovers. Before those evil big box stores much of the country didn't have a bookstore anywhere near them. If they did, it was probably a Waldenbooks. Do you remember how awful Waldenbooks was? I sure do. Borders is like heaven compared to Waldenbooks.

These great selection, knowledgeable book-loving salespeople independent bookstores have mostly been a myth. Yes, they exist. No, they were not the norm. For 95% of the country, Borders and now Amazon is a godsend.
posted by Justinian at 2:18 PM on December 12, 2008 [24 favorites]


Yup. Bought two children's books from our local indy bookseller for my 4-year-old nephew on my lunch break. I feel that balances out the odd Barnes and Borders purchases we make. Maybe.
posted by fijiwriter at 2:18 PM on December 12, 2008


How about this for a business model. You have a bookstore/coffeeshop that charges admission, but operates like a library/coffeeshop. So you either pay two or three dollars to get in the door for the day, or you buy a monthly or annual membership, and that in turn allows you to go in for the day/week/month and drink as much coffee as you want (mocha and stuff is a little extra, but discounted), and read books all day and even check them out, but checking them out is extra, too, like a dollar per book. Of course you can purchase the books, as well, if you want, at a super discount rate, if you're a member. Hmmm.

They've had those in Japan for years, mainly manga orientated... you can surf the web/play games too. People even sleep in there.

My local independent is rubbish and I'm constantly surprised it stays open. Then (as it's the UK) Smiths, which is equally bad. And that's it in my small town. So I get 'em all from Amazon.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:18 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


For new list-price books, why would anyone buy anywhere else but Amazon?

Ed answered this pretty well, but I would just add serendipity. Some of the most amazing finds of my life were books shelved alonsgide the book I thought I was looking for.

And yes, shopping at local independent booksellers costs more, but the money is going into the pockets of local businesses, staffed by, as mentioned above, knowledgeable and passionate booksellers.

I cannot imagine why anyone would shop at an online retailer save for a book that simply cannot be acquired locally. If I find myself living in rural Chile, then I will start ordering books from Amazon.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:19 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


ed - the thing is, I think you're making an argument that's fundamentally based on an outdated understanding of literary culture.

At an independent bookstore, you'll engage with people behind the counter who are knowledgeable and passionate about books, who will remember your name, and who will probably suggest a few pivotal titles that you may not have remembered.

You know where else I can get that? Why, right here on Metafilter. I don't even have enough hours in the day to read all the books that are recommended here, with thoughtful reviews and commentary about their relationship to other books and details about why I might like them. Seriously, my "to read" list is huge, and I read faster and more than anyone else I know. I can come here (or to lots of other places on the internet) and get recommendations for things I've never heard of, let alone things I've forgotten.

Not to be inflammatory, but it drives me absolutely nuts when someone starts ranting about the amazing culture of independent bookstores over Amazon, because it almost always comes across as the same old tired snobbery. "I like books that are so obscure that you can't get them on Amazon. Nothing but the most rare culture for me!" And then announcing that independent bookstores "are essentially cultural philanthropists" - it all seems a bit like you're selling me something I don't need, and then telling me what an uncultured loser I am when I don't buy. A total turn-off.

If independent bookstores want to stay in business, they need to offer something that's worth money to their customers, and they need to make clear that they're offering it and why it's worth money. Author signings and book groups and $100 editions bound in leather aren't worth it to me.
posted by marginaliana at 2:19 PM on December 12, 2008 [21 favorites]


He also keeps all the books he buys, even if he didn't like them. I find this deeply weird.

I keep it if I've bought it. My house looks more like a very small town's library than a home. It smells of elderly books. It soothes me to sit surrounded by the collective intelligence of so many people. The only book I have actually returned in the past five years was a piece of filthy misogynistic trash from John Ringo, and I didn't want any of my money to contribute to his welfare.

It has saved me many times over the past several years in school, too. I can't tell you how many times I was given a syllabus and have owned half of the books already. You never know when a book about the cultural underpinnings of Socialist Realist art that you bought because the cover was pretty will come in handy!

Moving is a nightmare, though.
posted by winna at 2:23 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just like all indie movies aren't worth seeing, all independent retailers aren't worth supporting. I've been to many shitty indie bookstores and record stores over the years and had no problem leaving with all of my money still burning a hole in my pocket. While I believe strongly in the independent aesthetic, "indie at any cost" is a pretty foolish way to shop. But if you do find an independent retailer that is good at what they do and caters to your likes (especially if your interests are off the mainstream grid), then you should feel compelled to support that business that has made a commitment and investment to your needs. I'm not going to worry about a dollar or two for something as important to me as culture, community, and books.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 2:26 PM on December 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


I only buy books at one bookstore in the city I live in, Ada Books in Providence, Rhode Island. It's a tiny used bookstore but it's filled with treasure at ridiculously low prices (A Humument for $15, for instance). And the guy who owns it and is the only person who works there is a really friendly guy. He used to work for a used bookstore in New Orleans but moved out after Katrina.

I have a personal hierarchy of the kinds of establishments where I will spend my money in and if I can possibly help I won't buy anything online. I want the little money I can spend to circulate as much as possible in my local community, helping it to remain the city I know and love. Not that I buy crap from shitty stores just because they're local.
posted by Kattullus at 2:33 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ed answered this pretty well

No he didn't, he just went on an insulting tirade. What it amounts to is a plea that we should all go against our own best interests to try to keep a bunch of inefficient and often unpleasant mom-and-pop operations in business. Justinian is absolutely right: most independent bookstores sucked. Amazon and Barnes & Noble between them have made it possible for far more people to buy far more books then ever before; I used to ritually abuse B&N (as a smug resident of NYC, with its many quaint little bookstores) until I visited a friend in a remote area of Pennsylvania where there had been literally noplace to buy books until B&N opened a store there, which changed her life. And you know what? The big B&Ns have far more selection than any independent, and Amazon has a bigger selection yet, and that's a good thing. If Powell's can survive on its value-added, that's great, but don't go around insulting people who choose to buy from cheaper vendors for perfectly good reasons.
posted by languagehat at 2:33 PM on December 12, 2008 [37 favorites]


stbalbach: I actually agree with you to some degree. At the heart of any business is the need to attract a consumer base. And if the bookstore does not listen, it will fail. One saw this with Cody's, which opened up a bookstore in San Francisco and failed. Kepler's, on the other hand, redesigned its store, began to educate its regular customer base, and offered non-books sidelines stock that permitted them to survive. For now, Kepler's holds on, but just barely. Powell's, incidentally, was one of the first independent bookstores to seize upon the online retail business. And if you want to keep them alive and help their employees, you may want to consider buying something online from them.

(Complete side point and risk of self-link: If you want to get an in-depth look at why supporting independent bookstores is important, you can check out the interesting documentary, Paperback Dreams, which is now showing on various PBS stations. Failing that, I interviewed the director and you can listen to the podcast here, in which several questions do indeed consider this idea of what the consumer wants and how much the independent bookstore can give to her.)

I am merely suggesting that, on the whole, most independent bookstores do a better job than big box stores at (a) maintaining a direct personal relationship with a customer, (b) providing an interesting selection, and (c) keeping what's left of the eclectic nature of the publishing industry alive.
posted by ed at 2:33 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Right around the corner from where I live, there's a small indy bookstore. Just recently, I was walking by, and saw a Johnathan Winters autobiography in the window. I stepped into the store, and asked the rather grumpy owner how much the book cost. He snarled "what's the price on the inside cover?", and when I read it off to him, he said, "well, that's how much the book costs". I asked him if that was the best he could do, and he literally just glared at me. I've never been back inside since then, and I ordered the book on Amazon that same day. I'm happy to support my local vendors, but if they're not willing to meet me somewhere between list and Amazon, they're outta luck. It's called doing business.
posted by dbiedny at 2:36 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Ed answered this pretty well, but I would just add serendipity. Some of the most amazing finds of my life were books shelved alonsgide the book I thought I was looking for.

But it's not as though serendipitous experiences can only occur in brick and mortar stores. Serendipity happens all the time on the internet. I'm always realizing that some book that someone recommended to me once is actually by this author I know and love, or Amazon suggests a book to me that looks really interesting, or I type a random book into LibraryThing and get a great recommendation. This happens much more often than it it did in bookstores.

Btw, something that really makes you appreciate Amazon: living for years in India and always hearing about some book that is not available anywhere and having to pester bookstores to get it for you (which is not to say that bookstores were bad there; I thought our local one had an amazing selection). Amazon did ship there, but it took a few months and shipping charges were exorbitant. One of the first things I did upon coming to the US was setting up an Amazon Prime account and exulting in that wonderful free two-day shipping.
posted by peacheater at 2:37 PM on December 12, 2008


Powell's is great - their technical bookstore blew me away when I got a chance to visit it a few years ago. The last indie bookstore I went into, however, had several cats. Which is fine, as they seemed friendly enough.

What wasn't so great was browsing down one aisle and smelling fresh, hot, catshit the entire time. I sort of left after that.
posted by jquinby at 2:37 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I feel like most bookstores, especially the big Borders/B&N chains, should be converted into member-based or pay-by-the-hour social clubs. Cut down inventory to about 20% of current levels, keep the magazine rack, keep/install wifi, expand the cafe and put in a ton more tables, chairs and couches. Maybe get Amazon to install a couple kiosks for impulse orders.

There isn't a ton of book-buying going on at places like Borders, but at many locations you can hardly find a place to sit during evening and weekend hours.
posted by mullacc at 2:38 PM on December 12, 2008


I'm part of a small population, but independent bookstores usually don't carry the books I need as a graduate student nor do I have the time or inclination to visit every bookstore in town until I find one that does. Amazon it is! (Plus, it's "local!")
posted by proj at 2:38 PM on December 12, 2008


Let me add... I like Borders and Barnes & Noble. I've spent quite a bit of moolah on the privilege of sitting in their cafés with stacks of magazines and a beverage and a piece of pastry. Hell, I've certainly bought my share of books from them. But I don't have much money to spend on books (most of my books come from the local library) and I want what little I have to support something I cherish rather than something I like. There are a lot of sucky independent bookstores but the good ones... man... just the fact they exist fills me with joy.
posted by Kattullus at 2:39 PM on December 12, 2008


I bridle at anyone telling me I should "suppport" any element of culture. I work in book publishing and I live in one of the most literate and literary metropolitan areas in the U.S., but my nearest independent bookstore is an embarassment and I can buy more books (thereby "supporting" more authors) when I shop at Amazon.
posted by twsf at 2:39 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Roy Blount, Jr., the current president of the Authors Guild, sent this letter to members:
I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards.

We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see...we're the Authors Guild."
I was mulling over this plea before Artw's post, in part because I've long wondered how an industry can support itself through only the purchasing power of aficionados. (The proverbial common readers are dwindling at only a slightly slower rate than classical music concert-goers in this country.) Although I don't have a preferred indie bookstore in this town yet - thank you for the link to Indiebound - I'd like to put as much of my discretionary income as possible into my local economy. For all Amazon's convenience and discounting, I've never found a new favorite author through them the way I have so often when browsing a physical bookseller's shelves.

Blount's right about the big-ticket electronics, though.
posted by Doktor Zed at 2:43 PM on December 12, 2008


What are "independent" bookstores independent from?
posted by DU at 2:47 PM on December 12, 2008


I am merely suggesting that, on the whole, most independent bookstores do a better job than big box stores at (a) maintaining a direct personal relationship with a customer, (b) providing an interesting selection, and (c) keeping what's left of the eclectic nature of the publishing industry alive.

(a) Some people are introverts and don't care to strike up a personal relationship; they just want to read
(b) Anecdotal, and, I suspect, probably not true
(c) Eclectic is vague and your valuation of its importance may not necessarily be shared by all

I would argue that the Amazons, B+Ns, Borders and Powell's have done more by sheer scale of volume to help get people interested in reading again. They may not be reading Proust, but who, other than a handful of snobby English professors, really cares?

If the value judgment is about supporting the local community, in terms of concrete ROI, dollars are probably better spent on donations to the public library, than in a small bookstore. Books that can be shared will benefit young and old, many times over.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:48 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


If you're in NYC this weekend and want to go book shopping, that great independent store Book Culture is having a sale (no I don't work there).
posted by ornate insect at 2:51 PM on December 12, 2008


I doubt I could count the hours I have spent browsing in brick-and-mortar bookstores when waiting for a movie to start, a friend to show up, dinner reservations, and dozens of other things- I never bought a book, but they provided a service to me nonetheless. Bookstores can play a big role in vibrant, walkable neighborhoods. That's something online retailers can't touch.

I am also one of those people who enjoys combing through other people's bookshelves. Browsing someone else's Kindle isn't the same sensory experience at all (besides, it sound a bit raunchy). There's just a lot of great memories and sensual experiences I associate with books and bookstores, and life without them seems less fun.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:00 PM on December 12, 2008


I throw away about 300 books/day here, and that's only a tiny slice of what comes into the FotL store.

I don't get this. Is there no recycling program at Borders?

Sorry I wasn't very clear. I no longer work at Borders. But generally, no, there is not a recycling program associated with Borders. Unless the facility (mall, shopping center, etc.) has one in place that costs no extra to use, all the cardboard boxes, stripped mass market paperbacks (pocket books with the cover/barcode torn off for publisher credit), specialty/bargain/holiday stuff, and food from the cafe gets thrown out into the trash compactor on a regular basis. It is ridiculous, and just another way the warehouse bookselling style crushes the soul.

Here at the library where I currently work, there's a small Friends of the Library bookstore that handles the metric tonnes of book donations we get on a daily basis. Many of the donated titles are sold in the store. Many more are sent along to an international book donation program where they're either sold to support various benefits or donated further on down the chain. What's left is given to me to truck out to the dumpster. It is this to which I was referring before.

How about this for a business model.

Anything is good. Any alternative to what we already have is worth pursuing. The cafe/bookstore was a good first step in the direction I believe bookselling needs to take. Library/bookstore is another good merging. There's value above and beyond convenience in associating literary consumption with other forms of capitalism. I would happily ring your register should you open this store.
posted by carsonb at 3:05 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm a voracious reader, and own hundreds of books. I buy almost all of them via Amazon. Work trades me money for hours of my life; I am not willing to give many hours of my life to "support" a business.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:07 PM on December 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


Powells is a lot of fun.
When I'm in Portland, I usually find time to stroll through it for half an hour or so.
I always think it'd be a great place for a giant game of tag.
That said, I don't usually buy anything on my sojourns, because, honestly, $20 a book adds up pretty quickly.

Amazon, however, I will never buy anything from. I don't care if I'm saving $6.02 or $100.
I'm sure they probably won't miss my $6.02, but any company that abuses the patent system like that isn't going to get any help from me.

P.S. Stephenson should be paying _me_ $21 for having slogged through that book.
posted by madajb at 3:10 PM on December 12, 2008


Here's why I prefer brick-and-mortar bookstores (independent ones) over Amazon:

Like other people here, I like going in for Book A and discovering books C-D. I know about Amazon's "you might like" or "other people also bought" features, but it isn't the same. And sometimes I go in for a mystery and come out with a mystery, two nonfiction books about the Iraq war, and Mark Doty's latest book of poetry. Recommendations from Amazon aren't going to give me that "wandering around the store" experience.

I like going in and saying to a worker: "I read this book about ten years ago and I can't remember what it was called or who wrote it. It was about [blahblahblah]..." and they know what I'm talking about. And then they recommend two or three other things I hadn't known about.

I also prefer them for a very personal reason: I've worked in independent stores. I worked in a gay bookstore that was also the de facto community center; at the time, chain bookstores hardly carried new gay titles, let alone a decent backlist.

In the general independent bookstores I've worked in, I've worked with and met some seriously amazing people.

I don't know how to explain to folks who don't get it why it's important that they should try to get it.

the thing is, I think you're making an argument that's fundamentally based on an outdated understanding of literary culture.

The thing is, I think you're making an argument that's fundamentally based on a fairly narrow - and perhaps restrictive - understanding of literary culture. I love the book questions on askme, and I've bookmarked, favorited, written lists, and bought books recommended there. But a forum like this isn't the be-all and end-all, and it shouldn't be.
posted by rtha at 3:12 PM on December 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


I can agree with the notion that not every indie bookstore has a sweeping selection, charming ambiance and smart and fuckable staff. I have been to a lot of lousy ones in my day as well. Many of them are gone, and I shed no tears for them. On the other hand, there are some great ones: I listed a half-dozen above, from one coast to the other, all of which I have shopped at this year. They survive simply because they are great stores and have a loyal following of customers. I am not reflexively pro-indie -- it is just that my experience has always been great in these stores, so I support them. I do find a place for the Chapters and Indigo of the world: during inclement weather I am happy to sit in their comfy chairs and browse a book before making my purchase elsewhere. And I suppose that I would order something online if I needed it in a hurry and knew exactly what I was looking for and could not find it anywhere. In general, thought, it seems so soulless.

I know this won't convince the Amazon loyalists, who somehow deduce that driving local bookstores out of business is the best way to support book culture. There are amazing booksellers out there. This I know. However, I recognize that this is the Internet and therefore others' conjecture will trump my experience.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:31 PM on December 12, 2008


Amazon gets me the books I need at a much lower cost. It instantly provides me with access to feedback from a potential pool of millions of people, rather than just one at a counter. It provides me with recommendations made by my peers. That's pretty much all I'm interested in.

I could understand if Amazon was polluting the world or running sweatshops in China or whatever, but they're not. They're a business that came up with a unique and compelling model that happened to work, and continues to grow. I am not interested in "supporting" a business with an outdated business model that whines over the fact that they can't compete. I'm sorry if this sounds cold and callous, but that's just the way it is.
posted by joshrholloway at 3:32 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


A) I am not convinced that Amazon's mission is to "drive local bookstores out of business."

B) I have no investment in supporting "book culture." I merely buy books and read them, most of them non-fiction, most of them highly specialized.
posted by proj at 3:33 PM on December 12, 2008


Funny, I was just thinking about how much I adore Amazon-- I've never bought anything new from them, but their used book listings are a godsend. We buy a lot of used books because new books are pretty well covered by our library. But that one-click shopping is dangerous. Two months ago our monthly Amazon bill was $150.00; even at $1.49 (plus shipping) those little purchases add up.

Back in the 80s if I wanted to read an old book not found in our library-- such as Gaudy Night by D. Sayers-- I would have to send a request off to the rare book dealer who advertised in the back of the L.A. Times Book Section, wait for the reply, and then ante up $60.00 plus shipping. It was no picnic collecting P. G. Wodehouse as a teenager, I can tell you!

A used bookstore just opened last month locally, which I thought was an insane idea. Dave and I drove over there to check them out and they had fewer books in their shop than we have on our shelves at home. So maybe it is just a front.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:33 PM on December 12, 2008


I will say this: the loss of bookstores is something to worry about. But not so much because of the friendly people at the register (though I've done that job and liked it fine).

I teach at a big state university, and I've been here for a number of years--long enough to have witnessed the gradual decline of bookstores on campus, ever since Barnes & Noble and Borders sprouted up at the edges of town.

When this happened, bookstores began failing. The used bookstore with the wood paneling, then the one with the ramshackle shelving, then the one in the basement of the YMCA, then the independent that specialized in philosophy, then the new book browsing branches of the textbook stores. And others.

For people like me, it hasn't made much difference. We can order from Amazon, or drive out to Borders. But for undergraduates, and especially those without cars, the whole tenor of campus has changed, as reading has gradually vanished from undergraduate life outside of course requirements.

We're used to thinking of ourselves as information consumers, and being simply glad to be able to get what we want ("The idea that I should care is baffling to me," as one comment put it here). That's fine, but books aren't just consumer products--they're also a mode of education, and instruments that shape the ways we see the world. So, if they vanish from the daily lives of most people, or are replaced by different sorts of post-textual artifacts, it makes sense to consider the change that's happening.

Ask yourself who you would have become if you hadn't explored bookstores or libraries as a kid, or a college student. Would you have become a reader on your own? What sort of reader would you be?

We need to pay attention to the material forms of acculturation present in our communities. To put it another way: if we loose bookstores and libraries while retaining churches, other houses of worship, and etc. there is a potential danger. Because places matter, and material bookstores offer inviting entryways to literacy (in its broadest sense), and to the critical comparison of ideas, even to those who don't habitually seek those kinds of things out out at Amazon or Metafilter.com.
posted by washburn at 3:40 PM on December 12, 2008 [15 favorites]


I worked at a Barnes and Noble in Evanston the first year they opened, part of the first wave of the Borders/B&N saturation. At the time, the main bookstore in town, Kroch's and Brentano's, had a limited selection and a snippy staff. At the time, we thought we were in book heaven. This was before Amazon, and I'd never seen so many titles in one place before. I loved it. It didn't take long to get disenchanted with the place though - no local control of inventory, piles of discarded and stripped books as a result, minimal local author support, managers who knew nothing about books, and surly staff (If you ever had a girl with really long hair growl at you from behind the register in 1992, that was probably me). We were a bookstore, but we could have been selling anything.

Then I moved to Denver and saw Tattered Cover for the first time. It had an amazing selection and knowledgeable staff, it was a wonderful place to rest and read, and it was a strong center of literary culture in the city. If it goes under, I will cry and probably break something.

And then I moved to Delaware. That sucked for so many reasons, one of them having to rely on a small and poorly stocked independent bookstore. When a Borders opened down the road a year later, I was overjoyed, and when the local bookstore went bust, I didn't care one way or the other.

So I can see the bookstore argument for both sides: stores like Powells and the Tattered Cover are just amazing, not just for their selection but for their cultural value in the community, and I'll gladly pay more to keep them in business. But after having lived, many times, out of range of any decent bookstores, I love Amazon just as much. I still remember the days watching a B. Dalton employee slowly look through his Books in Print microfiche to let me know how many weeks it would take to get my book, if he could at all. And the ability to have almost any book in print that I want - usually within a couple of days - is still amazing for me to think about. I'd have a hard time getting over the loss of the Tattered Cover, and I'd be very bitter about the human race in general by the time I did, but I also don't think I could go back to a life without Amazon.
posted by bibliowench at 3:42 PM on December 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


I buy books both online and off, from Amazon and ebay to Bookmans and Antigone Books, but this essay by John Tynes capture a lot of arguments on why the indie bookstore isn't necessarily some noble bastion of civilization. Some excerpts:

Fourth, I think real-world bookstores are overrated. Here's where I'm going to get in trouble. See, a lot of literati/book-lover types get all misty over Ye Olde Bookstores, all of which were apparently staffed by English Ph.D.'s with tastes you respected and who devoted their every waking moment to ensuring that they could provide you with the best, most insightful advice as to the world of books. These literati turn sort of snuggly at the memory of Their Favorite Bookstore, and this Meg-Ryan-in-wool-socks sort of sappy haze descends over any semblance of reason. Soon they're beating drums for the lot of small, scrappy bookstores fighting off the big chains, because those small, scrappy bookstores were always better and they didn't stock five hundred copies of the aforementioned John Grisham potboiler. You know what I'm talking about? Well, I call bullshit on that. I live in Seattle, reputed to be a book-lover's paradise. (Portland's got us beat, actually.) I look for three things in a bookstore: a deep selection within topics I'm interested in; comfortable places to read and the ability to do so without buying anything; and good author appearances because that can be really special. You know what? There's not a single damn bookstore in book-lovin' Seattle that accomplishes all three of these things. Elliot Bay Books has the deepest selection, Barnes & Noble lets you read all day, and the University Bookstore brings in the best selection of authors.

Well, I call bullshit on that. I live in Seattle, reputed to be a book-lover's paradise. (Portland's got us beat, actually.) I look for three things in a bookstore: a deep selection within topics I'm interested in; comfortable places to read and the ability to do so without buying anything; and good author appearances because that can be really special. You know what? There's not a single damn bookstore in book-lovin' Seattle that accomplishes all three of these things. Elliot Bay Books has the deepest selection, Barnes & Noble lets you read all day, and the University Bookstore brings in the best selection of authors.


...

Then there's this notion that your small, funky bookstore will be better able to help you find a good book, or have any useful advice at all. Please. Except for the owner/manager, those people are making six bucks an hour to run a cash register. Why would you expect them to know about the thousands of titles they carry?

I worked in a funky little books/comics/records store once, a real Ye Olde kinda place, and if you happened to ask one of us about the narrow little range of things we were excited about, we could quote you chapter and verse. But odds were that we didn't know what you were talking about and if we did, we'd probably mock you behind your back for being such a philistine.

If you're a customer or a manager, you have no right to expect the underpaid staff to be English majors, or the equivalent thereof.


...

Now when I first started at that funky little store, I was hot to help people and give advice and so on. But once you work retail for a while, it pretty much crushes your soul. Your bosses may be nice, but there's no career track in funky little places like that. You may have great taste and be helpful, but you're still not going to be making a real living wage there. There's no real incentive to be knowledgable except for your own naivete and pride in your taste, and that wears off quick. I think it's unfair to have those expectations about poor working stiffs, and it ticks me off when I hear some sap ranting about how much better the service is at the little store than at the soulless corp-o-rama. It's only better because that helpful staffer will be gone in six months from soul-crushing burnout, on to another dead-end job in the service sector, and another helpful staffer who mistakenly thinks it's cool to work at a cool store, who is deluded into thinking that their approach to this job really matters one whit, will step in to take their place. It's just a damn job, and a piss-poor one at that.

Boutique bookstore managers, even the nice ones, are still slave drivers. It's not their fault; that's the tiered economic structure we're stuck with. But the mythical obligation of knowledgeable, tasteful service at minimum wage is an oppressive, elitist one, and I wish it would die. I expect a bookstore worker to know where the different categories are located, to make change from a twenty, and to handle special orders. Anything more substantial and you're perpetuating the myth.

posted by Snyder at 3:46 PM on December 12, 2008 [10 favorites]


rtha - actually, I agree with you that online fora aren't and shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of literary culture. But at the same time, I think there's already a model for a lot of the things you seem to like in a bookstore - it's the library. I've had the experience of walking into a library and going "I read this book ten years ago and it was about [blahblahblah]" and having the librarian go "yes, I'm pretty sure that's [whatever] and you can find it right over here" (and they remember my name, too). Some libraries are great cultural centers, as well - they have book signings and reading groups and programming. Perhaps I'm biased as a librarian myself, but I can't help but think there's already a place to do many of those things that's actually cultural philanthropy, a place to which I have already, by virtue of paying my taxes, given my money.

I can understand why you see value in independent bookstores, and I'm not trying to talk you out of spending your money there. But it's a bit difficult for me to understand why I should spend money getting those things when I've already got them.
posted by marginaliana at 3:47 PM on December 12, 2008


So anyway, five minutes after your Kindle or whatever widespread usable digital book technology really takes off, widespread usable digital book piracy takes off.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:48 PM on December 12, 2008


With 3.99 being the new price point for comics I think they’ll be moving to an all-digital-piracy model pretty soon.
posted by Artw at 3:54 PM on December 12, 2008


Amazon is great for some things, while physical shops win for others. Libraries are great for something else. I use all three, plus eBay (yaah buying in lots), Alibris (supporting indie shops online), and dumpster diving. The end.

People have been copying books online for a while. I actually downloaded a text file of I Am Legend a few years back, and decided to buy it from the local used shop after getting tired of reading from my desktop computer screen. I got the file off of a P2P system from someone who had a LOT of text files, which makes me think there were people retyping stories out for some while now. Now that OCR is getting better, you can make a searchable PDFs pretty quickly. And that's all just piracy from physical books.

And there's already a fairly lively comic book piracy "scene" - some people put a lot of work into faithfully recreating comics, others do rush-jobs ("zero day," is what the warez kids are calling it, I think).
posted by filthy light thief at 4:08 PM on December 12, 2008


Oh I'm very aware of that. The 3.99 can only push more people into it, because frankly that's a rip-off.
posted by Artw at 4:12 PM on December 12, 2008


I'm sorry, what the hell kind of library doesn't have Gaudy Night??
I was just going to totally agree with Marginaliana (as a fellow librarian) that the library basically performs all the functions that the independent bookstores do, but for free! But if this is the state of libraries, well, I dunno. :)

Still, I'm the same--I only buy books that I know I will read again, and get the rest from the library. I like Amazon because they have everything I need and they're cheap. I think library staff do a much better job of the personal side of things than any bookstore I've ever been to.

The one exception is signed copies, and I am happy to pay independent-bookstore prices for those. (I might actually stop by Mysterious Galaxy today, in fact.)
posted by exceptinsects at 4:13 PM on December 12, 2008


But at the same time, I think there's already a model for a lot of the things you seem to like in a bookstore - it's the library.

And you are so absolutely and completely right. Unfortunately, I'm incapable of returning books. I mean, I really really hate to give them back. What if I want to re-read it? What if I want to re-read it and it's 3 o'clock in the morning? Etc.

But I love libraries. I'm just not allowed to borrow anything from them.
posted by rtha at 4:17 PM on December 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Just like the decline of the local music shop, and buying of physical music carriers in general, there will always be a market for well-crafted items, at least from collectors and fans. Ever since I found Subterranean Press, I've been drooling over their work.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:31 PM on December 12, 2008



1. E-books have definitely reached some sort of tipping point, where the sales have exploded relative to previous years. That still accounts for a teeny tiny portion of the book business. E-book popularity is good.


Joy. E-books. We can have all the pleasures of the digital medium for books. No right of resale. No right to lend. Device and format obsolescence forcing us to re-purchase the same works again and again.

Writing on paper or paper-like media can outlive languages. You'll be lucky if your e-book lasts a decade.
posted by rodgerd at 4:49 PM on December 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


I am not convinced that Amazon's mission is to "drive local bookstores out of business."

Obviously it is not. It is merely a byproduct. Consumers will spend a finite amount of money on books, and if it goes to Amazon, it does not go to a local business. I applaud that they are able to make books more affordable to so many people, but I have zero interest in supporting another iteration of the consumer culture of standardization, low expectations, and marketing. Others' tastes will differ.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:54 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Secret Life of Gravy: "Back in the 80s if I wanted to read an old book not found in our library-- such as Gaudy Night by D. Sayers-- I would have to send a request off to the rare book dealer who advertised in the back of the L.A. Times Book Section, wait for the reply, and then ante up $60.00 plus shipping. "

There's something wrong with your library, not just your local bookstore. Has Gaudy Night ever been out of print? It certainly isn't obscure.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:58 PM on December 12, 2008


As many of you know, I work at (one of the most famous) independent bookstores. In lousy economic times like this, it makes for a good place to buy gifts that are affordable, yet thoughtful and unique. I actually work at the used book buying desk, and one thing I can tell you is that a lot more people are selling books than in previous years, make of that what you will. (Also, not all indie bookstores are 'quaint,' ours is something of a madhouse, actually.
posted by jonmc at 5:00 PM on December 12, 2008


billysumday: what you're describing is a private member's club. They're wonderful. And expensive.
posted by honest knave at 5:15 PM on December 12, 2008


People want different things from bookstores, just as they have differing views about libraries. Some book collections are archives, or specialist resources affiliated with universities or private endowments. I love AbeBooks for academic titles specific to my field. But I am also a big fan of libraries; thank you Benjamin Franklin for widening the availability of books, and marginaliana for reminding us.

Even as some suggest that bookstores should become more like, well, elitist libraries for those who want them, certain library systems are eyeing for-profit stock management principles to match supply with demand. The public howled when the library system serving my hometown decided to institute commercialpractices by allocating shelving square footage based on what was actually going out the door with borrowers:
"We're being very ruthless," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system. "A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost."
The library assured concerned readers that classic literature would remain on the shelves. Libraries are civic institutions. Not so, commercial bookstores. It seems to me that the relevant model to consider is Blockbuster vs. online DVD rental services.
posted by woodway at 5:17 PM on December 12, 2008


I'm another full time author - I make much of my living from book sales - and I agree with most of this thread even though half of it disagrees with at least some other post. When it's your cash, I think you get to decide what's right.

For me writing books means reading books, so I spend tons annually at bookstores. I buy many from amazon, but I try to buy as much as I can from local non chain stores that do their job: they offer something different or better than the experience offered by B&N or Borders. Elliot Bay, mentioned by Slarty, is an ideal experience. People know their shit, it's a big store, but it has its own vibe. Smaller bookstores can rock if the sensibility of the owners comes through. 2000 well chosen books are way more interesting to browse than 50,000 books at B&N selected by some committee to maximize sales, with promotion tables determined by which publishers put out cash, not which books the owners and staff believe, as readers, most patrons would want to read.

Powells, which I love, is no Elliot bay. It's a warehouse. Actually, several warehouses. It's hard to browse without feeling overwhelmed and there isn't much feel to the place, simply as side effect of carrying zillions of books.

I do not agree with Roy Blunt Jr. What he suggests is a sort of book bailout program. Books and bookstores should mostly fend for themselves just like every other art form or business does. Radio, TV, and Movies have all changed with the times and books do too. Maybe there should be fewer writers and fewer books out there for awhile, who knows. If you want to help the system write an amazon review for your favorite books or send an email to the editor and publisher who published it. Buying more books simply to buy more books doesn't really solve anything. Most of those books won't be read - so what was the point?

I see a broken feedback loop in library and used book stores. When I use the library or buy a used book no feedback makes it to the publisher or the author that someone is interested in that thing. Or that they were moved, touched, educated, enlightened, enraged, or whatever it was they hoped to get from the book actually happened (or didn't happen). Most public libraries don't allow book reviews by patrons like amazon, nor suggests that they post reviews up on something like librarything. There's a big gap between what people pay for and what they experience, and libraries and used books stores, as much as I love and use them, contribute to that gap. Which helps no one.

I've picked up the habit of posting reviews for books I obtained used, or from the library. A book takes years to write: and the 5 minutes I take to respond seems a fair trade. I don't do it all the time, but I wish I did. And I wish other readers did too. It would help the system to deliver more of what people want, instead of encourage the production of things that sold well before they were read. And it's this gap I wish independent stores tried to help fill. To be a better guide for readers to help them find what they want, and to give more insightful feedback to publishers on what customers are trying to find. The fact that publisher don't listen much to opinions from the independents is a separate problem - the numbers don't work in their favor. Wish I had ideas on that. I'd love to see an annual book awards program run by a coalition of independent bookstores, something that gives them a vote in the game, but I don't know of anything like it.

The day Gotham city books closed caught me off guard. Although it was a high brow place, every encounter I had there was a kind of enlightenment, where even with ignorant questions or vague notions of what I wanted, I'd be lead to books of magic by people interested in fueling my curiosity. Sometimes just wandering their collection had the effect on its own: there was simply a shortage of bad books in that store. And that's something hard to say about most big book shops in the world. I'm not saying Gotham deserved to be saved on some principle of literary righteousness, only that something hard to replace is lost when a place like that closes. The end of Gotham represents a greater loss to me than (should the unfortunate happen, and I hope it doesn't) the end of Powell's.
posted by Berkun at 5:25 PM on December 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Obviously it is not. It is merely a byproduct. Consumers will spend a finite amount of money on books, and if it goes to Amazon, it does not go to a local business. I applaud that they are able to make books more affordable to so many people, but I have zero interest in supporting another iteration of the consumer culture of standardization, low expectations, and marketing.
When I purchase a book from Amazon, I expect to get that book. This is essentially the same expectation that I have when I purchase a book from a local bookstore.

When I go to Amazon to purchase a book, I expect to find that book offered for sale. When I go to a local bookstore to purchase a book, I sometimes have that expectation, but not nearly as often.

I also expect to find it quickly on Amazon, whereas I almost never have that expectation at a local bookstore.

And I expect to be able to purchase it (from Amazon) without the hassle of getting off my couch. I never have this expectation when I purchase from a local bookstore.

The one way in which I have a higher expectation in a local bookstore is the speed at which I will receive the book. But this assumes the book is available there in the first place, and more importantly ignores the fact that I virtually never need a book within three days of its purchase.

Is there something that I'm missing, which backs having lower expectations for Amazon than for a local bookstore? In almost all ways, and literally all ways that are significant to me, my expectations for Amazon are either equal to or higher than my expectations for a local bookstore.
posted by Flunkie at 5:26 PM on December 12, 2008


Joy. E-books. We can have all the pleasures of the digital medium for books. No right of resale. No right to lend. Device and format obsolescence forcing us to re-purchase the same works again and again.

Or, books can be distributed outside the vendors' systems, in open, documented formats - as they are right now.

I have a lot of books. Or, more accurately, my spouse has a lot of books. So many that it's hard to get around the house. I have a Sony Reader, and have thousands of ebooks - most in text or HTML format, and almost all are copies of books we've already purchased. Since I bought that Reader, I've read more than I had in the last ten years, because it's (a) with me wherever I go and (b) just as easy to read as a real book, unlike a computer screen.

Sure, Amazon and Sony and others have their DRM formats, but just like other media, it's going to be very difficult to keep it locked down. There's already a thriving pirate book scene, to the point where I can find a torrent for almost everything I look for.
posted by me & my monkey at 5:39 PM on December 12, 2008


For people like me, it hasn't made much difference. We can order from Amazon, or drive out to Borders. But for undergraduates, and especially those without cars, the whole tenor of campus has changed, as reading has gradually vanished from undergraduate life outside of course requirements.

Are you seriously asserting that of all the demographic groups in the world, it's college students that have trouble ordering books from Amazon? Seriously?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:55 PM on December 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


The main disagreement between the two sides of this thread is whether or not books are fungible commodities or whether they form part of a cultural practice. Most of the people on this thread believe the former. When they say, "I can buy the books for cheaper on Amazon," etc., the specific character of the commodity (books) is irrelevant; the sentiment could be the same regardless of the product ("Amazon grocery has cheaper peanut butter than my grocery! Why should I go to the grocery!"). I think the problem is that books are part of a cultural practice that we participate in as a group (they are not peanut butter), but I don't see anything stopping us from vitiating that practice as an individual. (Note that everyone arguing against independent stores argue from the perspective of individual benefit.) That is to say--I find myself agreeing with the used bookstore contingent on this thread, but I too buy many of my books on Amazon. Some random thoughts:

--Metafilter typically has an anti-humanist bent with participants perpetually patting themselves on the back for their rationality. However, I think there is a way of arguing for independent bookstores in a way that is not sentimental but because independent bookstores offer beneficial functions. (Additionally many of the rational views--such as the comment on the other thread arguing that all public radio stations should shut down and switch to podcast--typically ignores that most people are not like you.) Or: On one hand, the worst bookstores I've been to have been run by moms and pops. On the other, stop telling me that I can buy peanut butter cheaper at a store that sells it cheaper than another store!

--Disclaimers that should be obvious: (a) some used bookstores are bad; (b) Amazon and B&N have tremendous selection; (c) libraries and independent bookstores are not mutually exclusive; (d) preference for Amazon does not make one anti-books.

--This discussion does not have a lot of grain to it. There are obviously a lot of different types of books and different book buyers have different needs. For example, many of the commentators on this thread may not care about literature, but the future of literature really depends on small presses and journals, many of whom have a specific relationship to independent bookstores. More generally, I think it's possible to argue that independent bookstores may present values that don't matter to you (author readings, ordering special or hard-to-find titles, service, curatorship), but they matter to society on a much larger level. People have an innate relationship to social space and habits. I suspect that most of the people who have argued in favor of Amazon have spent a significant part of their lives in bookstores, hanging out, browsing, and reading. I am skeptical of a future book culture where this experience is foreign to a young reader.

-- A good independent bookstore surprises me. I've spent a significant part of my income at Amazon books (and B&N), but it has never surprised me.

-- I think this thread feels very crass to some people, because we're using different analogies for the bookstore. The anti-indie side views a bookstore as essentially a general store--just a vendor. The pro-indie side uses a curatorial model. Imagine here a bookstore as a wine ship with wine tasting or a bookstore as an indie record label. (Small presses are often likened to indie record labels.) The breakdown on perception may be sociological, with people in urban centers using the latter analogy and people in suburban areas using the former.
posted by kensanway at 6:19 PM on December 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


My local new and used bookstore went bankrupt and took my family's $1000+ in store credit with them. So while I want to support my local bookstore, I'm not feeling particularly charitable towards them right now.

Not blaming the new post-bankruptcy owners, but pretty ticked off at the old owner for not meeting his obligation.
posted by zippy at 6:21 PM on December 12, 2008


eBooks are a perplexing problem. On the one hand, you can't control+f a dead tree. On the other hand, you can't loan a (and this is the dominant form right now) DRM'd ebook to your friend, and eventually the DRM scheme will collapse and you'll have a worthless bunch of random bits that used to be your ebook.

I look forward to the day when every dead tree book comes with a complimentary DRM-free PDF download of the text. Unfortunately, if the music industry is an example, it'll take a decade of rampant piracy before that concession is made.
posted by mullingitover at 6:22 PM on December 12, 2008


Yeah, gotta say that took me by surprise. College undergrads go nuts over the cheap Amazon prices.
posted by storybored at 6:23 PM on December 12, 2008


I don't want to live in a world without independent bookstores.

In other news, amazon is enBorgifying abebooks.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:24 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Don't overlook the role that independent bookstores have in revitalizing city centers. My struggling northeastern small city has been losing businesses for fifty years, but it now has a jewel of an indie bookstore in one of the restored buildings downtown. That little bookstore draws people - and coffee shops, craft stores, and antique stores have sprung up around it.
posted by enjoytroy at 6:26 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lots of people making anecdotal claims and confusing correlation and causation in here.
posted by proj at 6:30 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I don't want to live in a world without independent bookstores.

I wouldn't enjoy that a whole lot either. On the other hand, I did live in world without Amazon, Borders, or Barnes and Nobles. And it was even worse than a world without independent bookstores would be.
posted by Justinian at 6:39 PM on December 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


Joy. E-books. We can have all the pleasures of the digital medium for books. No right of resale. No right to lend. Device and format obsolescence forcing us to re-purchase the same works again and again.

Well, this may be the overall lesson of this whole thread, but: you purchase the product that you like from the vendor of your choice. Different formats exist, and you choose between them now. Adding one more won't change that.

The reason e-book popularity is good for the book business is that it's a fairly easy and low-risk format to make available to the very tiny minority who want it--but that's really only true if you're already publishing it in traditional form.
posted by lampoil at 6:41 PM on December 12, 2008


I cannot imagine life without Half Price books. It's chain store, that started locally and they have the most amazing amount of used books and music and software, ever. It's a godsend. I love that place. (They have new releases too, for those folks who don't like used books.)

I have a Kindle too, that I got as a gift, but I don't buy a lot of books for it. I tend to use a software solution to convert already available/freeware books. The kindle is great for carrying a lot of text around without needing a backpack, but I hate not being able to lend a book to a friend.
posted by dejah420 at 6:48 PM on December 12, 2008


I cannot imagine life without Half Price books. It's chain store, that started locally and they have the most amazing amount of used books and music and software, ever.
A more amazing amount of used books and music and software than, oh, Amazon?
posted by Flunkie at 6:50 PM on December 12, 2008


This Portlander and Powell's-lover will spend a near-obscene amount of money at Powell's this year - just as I've done for the past 15 years. I'm the kind of book fiend who will pinch pennies elsewhere just to free up more money to spend at Powell's. I read book reviews on Amazon, decide what I want, then go and buy the books at Powell's. I only buy books at Amazon if Powell's doesn't have what I want in stock.

I'm spoiled by the instant-gratification factor: Powell's is about a fifteen-minute walk from my home, so buying books there is far more convenient for me than buying through Amazon. And believe me, I take full advantage of it. Even when I lived in Canada, though, and couldn't get the free shipping deal for book orders over $50, I still bought books from Powell's online, because Powell's rocks.

I have a home library of well-loved books that approaches the size of a small country. (Okay, so I exaggerate, but not by much). Much as I love and use libraries, I prefer to own most of the books I read. 95% of my library is non-fiction and small-press academic titles, and I like to highlight favorite passages, mark pages with colored tape flags, write comments in the margins, and read the same books over and over. Sure makes moving a hassle, though.

I value independent bookstores - particularly feminist, community-oriented and GLBTQ-friendly bookstores such as In Other Words (which is in very serious financial trouble, facing possible imminent demise) and the former Mother Kali's in Eugene - and I value places like Borders and B&N as well. I also think the economic downturn is hurting booksellers of all stripes, simply because many people can't afford to buy books from any bookseller at the moment, indie or not.

I am dismayed, though not surprised, to hear that Powell's is being forced to cut back. If they ever go under, it will be the end of an era for me. I'll do all I can to prevent that from happening.
posted by velvet winter at 7:06 PM on December 12, 2008


I cannot imagine life without Half Price books. It's chain store, that started locally and they have the most amazing amount of used books and music and software, ever.

Half Price (and Recycled in Denton) are among the very few things I miss about Texas.

The problem with used books from Amazon is that there's the same trust problem as with used books from ebay, and you can't see how fucked-up the book is. That, and spending $2 to ship a $2 book doesn't make a lot of sense.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:33 PM on December 12, 2008


I work for a non-profit publisher that's actually turning a profit surplus so far this year. I attribute that to encouraging internet sales, entering partnerships that encourage electronic dissemination, and a heavy use of POD. I love me some indies, including Powell's (and my own, now gone some 8 years, god rest its soul), but comScore just reported that in spite of a probable depression, Internet sales of books are up by 10%. Interestingly that's also how much we're up this year over last. That channel provides targeted and efficient purchasing for those who can purchase this holiday. Our first Kindle books become available next week.

These days it's all about thrift. How little can I ship? If I must print, how close to the consumer can I print? If I can get you your content without killing a tree and without shipping I'm more than happy to, if it lends itself to a sustainable model, including sustaining the author and publisher. POD and distributed printing are probably the next step for the "book" as we know it. It may occur in bookstores but if the Google Book settlement is accepted pretty much as is, it may occur in libraries as well, or instead. The book printing kiosk, the Espresso Book Machine, is currently in production and ships next month. It is a whole new world that just may not be able to afford bookstores, and that is very unfortunate.

For what it's worth, and to add a few data points—our site lists all 1,900 of the books we've published, and though only 1,200 are in print, pretty much all have links to Amazon and Powell's so our customers can choose who to buy from and can get our Out of Print stuff used. The Powell's links are pretty new, but so far for December, Powell's has sold 10 books for the month while Amazon sells about 20 books every day.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:43 PM on December 12, 2008


I have never been in a "good" indie bookstore, if "good" means that the booksellers were anything better than mildly rude, mildly disinterested, and mildly knowledgeable. The only reason that I've ever gone to indie or used (generally used) bookstore was to find out-of-print titles. The staff almost always remind me of the staff at an Apple store -- and like the Apple store, I love the product but hate the attitude.

I study and teach philosophy for a living, and so I read a lot. If I don't enjoy being in these stores, I can only imagine that potential young readers are even more turned off by them. If the literary culture is damaged by this, it won't be because readers are "falling for" the cheap prices of Amazon, et al, but because the culture of these stores was never very inviting even at the best of times.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:49 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I shop at my local independent (which is quite prosperous probably because it is named after its landlord and location) for used books and remainders, and the occasional stupid impulse buy. And I enjoyed my trip to Powell's when I was in Portland, where I picked up some ancient paperbacks for cheap. But basically Amazon beats the pants off any physical bookstore. Their prices are always better, the selection is better, and the Amazon Prime shipping deal makes it like that machine with the lever wired into the rat's pleasure center that he can't help keep pushing.

With perhaps narrow exceptions, it's just a better model for selling books. I don't cry when a better model replaces a worse one.
posted by grobstein at 8:05 PM on December 12, 2008


I buy from independent bookstores when I can. Sometimes, yes, selection and convenience trumps doing so, but I will try them first (and for some things, I try to buy directly from the publisher).

Amazon is easy and cheap. I'm not denying this. And sometimes when my local indie book store is out of a title I want, I'm off to the Barnes & Noble.

But it broke my heart when Olsson's closed all their stores in the DC area without warning. I knew they were on the decline -- my local one lost about half its space before shutting down -- but they were a good place to wander and buy things.

If I lived in Portland, I'm pretty sure Powell's would be taking all my money. But lately, even I, as a frequent buyer of books, have cut back quite a bit. Because like everyone else, I don't have as much money to go around.

I hope Powell's will make it through this, if only because I'm selfish and I haven't gotten to go there yet.
posted by darksong at 8:44 PM on December 12, 2008


Is there a book about how I can be all high, mighty, and righteous about my spending habits and the rest of you suck because yours are different than mine?
posted by juiceCake at 8:45 PM on December 12, 2008 [6 favorites]




Why do I have to choose one or the other? I buy from Amazon and Ebay online, frequently shop at Barnes & Noble and Borders, and am a fiend for used bookstores. I've also found my local Goodwill shop to be a good source of used books, and I'm a fan of PaperbackSwap as well.
posted by SisterHavana at 9:33 PM on December 12, 2008


I have never been in a "good" indie bookstore, if "good" means that the booksellers were anything better than mildly rude, mildly disinterested, and mildly knowledgeable. [. . .] I love the product but hate the attitude.

Must be hard to deal with such horrible attitude.
posted by washburn at 9:36 PM on December 12, 2008


often unpleasant mom-and-pop operations

languagehat brings up a good point: the romantic notion of independent bookstores only rarely lives up to reality. I remember being treated extra-shabbily in a used bookstore in chicago not too long ago. first the proprietor wanted me to leave my bags at the counter (no thank you, I would like to keep my camera equipment on me), then he lectured me on the disallowed use of cellphones (I did not have a cell phone on me) and then he made some rather insulting remarks when I chose to leave without purchasing anything (I would have bought those old life magazines had you not been so rude and constantly eyeballing me).

there are a few good independent bookstores with knowledgeable staff I would hate to see going out of business. hennessy & ingalls in santa monica belong into that group, as does strand in new york city or vromans in pasadena (I know they are a chain, I'm talking about that branch).

but in general? those grumpy, small-selection booksellers can suck it.
posted by krautland at 10:47 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


So anyway, five minutes after your Kindle or whatever widespread usable digital book technology really takes off

you don't really know how the kindle works, do you?
posted by krautland at 10:48 PM on December 12, 2008


Are you seriously asserting that of all the demographic groups in the world, it's college students that have trouble ordering books from Amazon? Seriously?

I didn't suggest that students can't figure out how to order books from Amazon. Obviously, students have no problem ordering textbooks from Amazon or other on-line vendors. My point was that students are less likely to get turned on to reading in the first place if they don't encounter books and reading as part of daily life.

Yes, students will buy their required books on-line. But will they read books by new authors and acquire interests and get into long-format reading in general by having access to Amazon on the web? Maybe; and I hope so. But I'm not convinced that they will.

Amazon is good at feeding a reading habit, if you've got one. But since it's invisible to non-readers, I'm not sure that Amazon is as good as brick and mortar bookstores at generating new readers.
posted by washburn at 11:23 PM on December 12, 2008


I wish we spent as much time and energy arguing about the books themselves as we do arguing about the places where we buy them.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:29 PM on December 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


First off, I completely recognize that in smaller cities, where a B&N or a Borders is the only game in town, this is certainly of cultural value to a smaller metropolitan area, particularly when the only alternative is no bookstore. To dismiss the positive attributes of a big box store (in this particular scenario) would be just as foolish as declaring that all independent bookstores suck and that "the big B&Ns have far more selection than any independent." These two exceedingly misinformed sentiments from languagehat, Justinian, and others are ridiculous, particularly since they come without any specific examples.

A few weeks ago, while on vacation, I visited The Poisoned Pen, a bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona with a remarkably comprehensive mystery selection that easily beat out most B&N mystery sections. And City Lights's poetry section can handily obliterate a big box store's poetry section. Let's take some random title from the City Lights Bookstore's poetry section: Sharon Doubiago's Love on the Streets. Well, I've just put in City Lights's ZIP code 94133 into B&N for this book. And guess what? It's out of stock in every Bay Area B&N bookstore!

But independent bookstores aren't just about "snobby" titles, and this is the reality that people often forget. The Booksmith happily has your John Grisham if you need it. And so, oddly enough, does the Poisoned Pen. And the Poisoned Pen will even tell you how many copies they have available.

The people who work at these two excellent stores are friendly, helpful, and (here's the big clue) they actually read books. Meaning that they are personally informed about the stock within their store. These two particular stores are not, in my experience, run by snotheads. The staff are happy to deal with customers of all stripes. After all, it remains in their best interest to stay in business. (On the other side of the coin, the less said about Forever After Books on Haight Street, run by two exceptionally miserable people who perpetuate the false stereotypes against indie bookstore, the better. And Yelp will back me up on this.)

What we are talking about here are independent bookstores in major metropolitan areas, and their importance to the community. Places where you can walk in and actually feel a book in your hands, flip through the first chapter, examine the binding, and otherwise test the tactile sensation you have with the book.

Sure, you can browse inside the book at Amazon and pull up a helpful PDF of the book that you can flip through. And, yes, you can engage with thoughtful readers online. I've been doing this on my own site for many years. The Internet is indeed an amazing thing.

But how can you fully engage with a book if you're not holding it in your hands? When you're limited, through the Amazon Inside the Book feature, to a mere excerpt? You can't smell the pleasant paper or talk with another person (or, if you want to get libidinous about it, even flirt). Amazon cannot produce a substitute for this tangible social experience. Moreover, if I wanted to get a book tomorrow morning, I'd have to go in-person to a bookstore, assuming that it was in stock. If I ordered it on Amazon (or preferably Powell's), I wouldn't be able to get it until Monday.

But a good independent bookstore is more than this. Take a look at the history of the now regrettably closed Cody's. When Fred and Pat Cody opened up the store, they specialized in providing cheap paperbacks to its customer base. You could walk in the store and come out with a good deal of intellectual books. The emphasis here was on what was on the front table. Fred Cody worked hard to stay ahead of the curve, knowing which books were hot. (By contrast, if you walk into a B&N, the table space out in front has been purchased with co-op money paid for by publishers.) When the big box stores shied away from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and refused to sell it, Cody's continued to carry it. They were firebombed for it. In 1968, the bookstore was such a community center that anti-war protesters beaten down by the police were carried there and cared for by the employees.

Can you honestly claim that a typical B&N store would go well out of its way to support a community like this? Particularly when they regularly make demands of publishers about the appropriateness of a book cover? Or the manner in which they categorize a book? Centralized corporate decisions often come before everything else, no matter how "good" the big box store is.

Perhaps a bookstore that cuts a wider cultural swath simply doesn't matter for you. Well, don't worry. You can still get your cheap books at Amazon while those of us who give a damn about the life and variety of books keep on fighting. But when the bookstores go away and the selection becomes no more distinguishable than the blockbusters you can pick up at any airport, don't say we didn't warn you.
posted by ed at 11:52 PM on December 12, 2008


Amazon is good at feeding a reading habit, if you've got one. But since it's invisible to non-readers, I'm not sure that Amazon is as good as brick and mortar bookstores at generating new readers.

Proponents of the "cultural" argument for independent bookstores should perhaps consider spending more time supporting public libraries than bookstores.

In the long view (over the next 5-10 years), because of economies of scale and burgeoning e-book technology, physical book-only bookstores smaller than Powell's have a more or less unsustainable business model.

If properly funded, public libraries can be a cultural center for the town or city, with the massive and eclectic circulation that independent bookstore customers require, while offering numerous physical outlets for authors to promote their works. Libraries hook readers while they're young, and promote browsing and exploration of new literature.

I find the arguments against the commodification of books truly silly, as a justification for independent bookstores. You're buying books, whether you go to the indie or to Amazon. It's a commodity and money is changing hands, no matter how you get it.

If you really care about keeping the culture of the printed word alive and healthy, get angry about your local libraries losing funding, instead. A strong public lending library system yields exponential cultural returns.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:55 PM on December 12, 2008 [9 favorites]


I'll do what I do every year at Powell's, when I'm in Portland for the holidays: Drop a couple of hundred dollars, and then go again on another day with my kids, and hang out in the children's section for a while, going over everything, making sure we didn't miss a "Harry the Dirty Dog" book or whatever, and then more money will be spent.

I hope Powell's is there forever. Portland is not going to let it vanish due to a few bad quarters. Jesus, there are satellite Powell's in the airport. It's a city brand.

Fuck Detroit, save Powell's.
posted by kenlayne at 11:56 PM on December 12, 2008


Yes. In this country (Canada) the Coleschaptersindigo collective has the overwhelming share of the market.

Heh. Not if you live in Victoria, which I do. Although there is a stupid disgusting Chapters downtown, right in the most stupid and filthy and disgusting part of town, I never need to go there. And thank god I never need to go into Coles, which is literally a Coles Notes-version of a bookstore.

Victoria is great because we have Munro's, probably one of the most beautiful bookstores I have ever seen. We also have Bolen Books, another independent bookstore with the largest selection of books in town. We also have one of the largest used book stores in Canada, Russell Books. If I really want to get serious about finding a rare book, I can go 20 min up the highway to Sidney and visit Tanner's Books, a large independent bookstore run by a former Chapters exec. Sidney is also a "booktown"; besides the nine bookstores in a town of about 10,000 people, there are plenty of antique stores with rare finds. Although the moniker "booktown" may sound hokey, it makes Sidney a destination. I can spend an entire afternoon going around to local bookstores looking for particular books.

Finally, Victoria is the home of startup Abebooks, the world's largest online used book marketplace.

So, while I feel bad that Powell's is in a bit of a slump, I know where I'll be buying my Christmas presents this year: at the dozens of excellent independent bookstores that makes Victoria so unique.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:01 AM on December 13, 2008


And I'd like to point out that, regarding the AP article with Powells, it's not an either/or thing. It's not that every employee is being told that they need to either scale back their hours or take a sabbatical. They're being told that they can do this, that it is an option. A wide variety of people work for bookstores, and some of those folks actually would find it conceivably beneficial to work less hours, whether due to family matters or other pursuits. I think the article phrases it in an alarming way, which, again, is why I ask, aren't other businesses doing this as well? My roommate's dojo is cutting pay, one of my other friends is being told not to work overtime for sure, and another person was just told that the higher position they were applying for wouldn't be opening. It seems like this article cherry-picked something out of proportion.
posted by redsparkler at 12:11 AM on December 13, 2008


What are "independent" bookstores independent from?

*Cough* Also: *Kaff*

This Powell's you speak of sounds pretty damn exceptional, but the exceptional has a habit of being the exception. It's wonderful to speak about community and up with peopleness, but if I wanted community mixed with handing over my money, I'd join a church. After dabbling a bit, I finally embraced the 20th century, took the plunge, and did a huge chunk of my Christmas shopping via Amazon.ca1. As a result, I'll be taking my monthly book and comic buying business there from here on out2: No hassles, no scowls when I have the nerve to actually take a Free Comic Book Day Comic after buying stuff, no weird smell that is, condescending dismissal notwithstanding, definitely not old book smell, no rijerkulous mark up, no having to listen to a pack of gibbering knobs who couldn't run a lemonade stand talk about how their improv group so has a shot of making the Fringe Fest next year, but really, what is up with Jeyren acting so ghetto lately?

1 Also, the wishlist feature is pretty damn mom-proof, so the odds of me getting another James Blunt CD for my birthday is nil. Thanks, Amazon.ca!

2 Yes, yes, I know, "I'm sure they'll be just devastated to see you go." I worked customer service for six years. I understand the grind. I empathize, I've been there. But that also means I can tell shit from shinola and have a low tolerance for the former when I'm on the other side of the counter.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:31 AM on December 13, 2008


A few weeks ago, while on vacation, I visited The Poisoned Pen, a bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona with a remarkably comprehensive mystery selection that easily beat out most B&N mystery sections. And City Lights's poetry section can handily obliterate a big box store's poetry section. Let's take some random title from the City Lights Bookstore's poetry section: Sharon Doubiago's Love on the Streets. Well, I've just put in City Lights's ZIP code 94133 into B&N for this book. And guess what? It's out of stock in every Bay Area B&N bookstore!
I don't see how the examples you provide in any way show that independent bookstores have a better selection than B&N or Amazon. You handpicked a couple of genres and then provided the names of stores that specialize in those areas. That's all well and good, but it really doesn't show that I have a better chance of getting a particular book that I want, from a random genre, at an independent bookstore, rather than at say, Amazon. And btw, Love on the Streets is available from Amazon, and will get here in two days if I want it.

Perhaps a bookstore that cuts a wider cultural swath simply doesn't matter for you. Well, don't worry. You can still get your cheap books at Amazon while those of us who give a damn about the life and variety of books keep on fighting. But when the bookstores go away and the selection becomes no more distinguishable than the blockbusters you can pick up at any airport, don't say we didn't warn you.
Where do you get off attributing these heroic qualities to yourself while characterizing the rest of us who choose to shop at Amazon as money-grubbing misers who don't care about anything except how cheap we can get books? That's certainly a factor, but I enjoy being able to find pretty much any book instantly, whether used or new, and instantly access the opinions of many readers, who while they may not individually be as well educated and well read as these mythical booksellers you speak of, in aggregate represent valuable information.
Finally, I don't understand your comment about a bookstore that cuts a wider cultural swath. It's not as though I'm buying John Grishams and Robin Cooks here. I don't quite see how you can claim that any independent bookstore cuts a wider cultural swath than Amazon, when I have never seen one to even start to match the selection Amazon has (I love looking up obscure books and usually find at least a used copy.). It's a frankly unjustifiable form of snobbery.
posted by peacheater at 1:19 AM on December 13, 2008 [4 favorites]


"Provide an environment safer and better than their cars. Why not, Mr. Mayor?"

"So it's a train."

"A supertrain."

"I've been burned by this train business before. You people all seem to forget."

"We can change this city."

"People love their cars."
posted by ed at 2:07 AM on December 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Man, I love Amazon and the Internet. Now I can find and order books I could never get at before. Not in San Francisco. Not in Boston. Not in New York City!

You see, I read books in foreign languages (Spanish, French, Italian mainly) and fuck if I've ever seen any independent bookstore with any kind of decent selection.

I think I'm more of a snob than you, ed. I love reading. And I love books. I love paperback books and hardback books and reading books online. I've stopped caring about the "smell" of books, realizing that this was nothing more than childish nostalgia. Useless snobbery.

When I read Montaigne, the ink and paper I read it on is already much different than what he was writing on. So I'm not sure what is so authentic and interesting about paper and ink from the 20th century except its the era i grew up in.

Those of us who really love books should be:

- Supporting public libraries so that books are available to as many as possible even those without resources to buy them.
- Supporting archival and preservation projects particularly online ones such as the The Internet Archive so that these texts will continue to be available in some form in the future. Want your precious 17th century poetry text to be available? Stop worrying about whether your independent bookstore has it and get it scanned and distributed!
- Supporting the widest possible diffusion for books. This means keeping Amazon and Abebooks around. This means Barnes and Noble because although they do suck in many ways, as languagehat points out, its still a vehicle for diffusion.

I live in London now in the Bloomsbury area. One of the saddest things to see is shopfronts of antiquarian booksellers which have recently closed. I count about 5-10 of them within a block or two of me!

But they're not all gone. One of them, for example, is so successful he has several assistants and you can see them furiously working when you pass by. What's his secret? He buys and sells his books on abebooks. And he works within his own specialized field (late 19th and early 20th century British fiction) knowing what books are undervalued and buying them up. And being one of the best sources on the Internet for particular works.

He's embraced the Internet. He's embraced the concept of diffusion. And he does it all because he adores books. You can walk in on him anytime too. He loves to chat, about how he knew Tolkien and Orwell and Green and about his valued first editions. Actually he wrote a book about all his adventures in the book world. It's available on Amazon.
posted by vacapinta at 4:23 AM on December 13, 2008


From the other end of the industry ...

This is having knock-on effects.

Retail new book sales have driven off a cliff. The immediate result was Black Wednesday (the third of December) when a number of publishers downsized or imposed pay/hiring/spending freezes. This is now working its way back through the food chain towards folks like me. Second-hand book sales don't put money in the publisher's pocket -- or the author's. Folks who've lost their job don't buy hardcovers (or even new paperbacks). And so on. There is a non-public mailing list I'm on (effectively a water cooler for SF novelists) and a number of folks are seeing their forthcoming print runs cut, or even series works cancelled despite hitherto-acceptable sales (because the next book is expected to be 30% down due solely to the recession, and the editor's afraid they'll be fired if they buy titles that show a loss).

Put it this way. Any industry that takes a 20% revenue hit for just one month is going to be down 1.8% on its overall annual performance, even if every other month is average. And nobody expects October's sales figures to be the last of the bad news ...
posted by cstross at 4:27 AM on December 13, 2008


PS: I've just had a hardback edition remaindered this week. The publisher -- who normally calculates their print runs to within a whisker of what will sell -- had printed 20% too many copies. And guess what? I don't get paid for remainders. (The publisher doesn't make a profit, either -- they're sold "at cost" just to get them out of the warehouse they're clogging up.)
posted by cstross at 4:31 AM on December 13, 2008


At what point does an independent bookstore become a chain? For years I heard tales of Foyles, and the eccentric filing system and shoplifting problems. When I moved to London I went down there and saw something bright, clean and indistinguishable from the Waterstones round the corner. And there are branches everywhere.

I have a soft spot for Waterstones (we have Borders in the UK, but very few, so this is our equivalent) as I grew up in a town where there was a tiny WH Smith, selling about as many books as you would find in a mainline trainstation branch, and to be able to actually find the book I wanted on the shelf was amazing. Manchester has a huge branch and even though I couldn't afford new books as a student, I'd wander round for ages just looking, pulling volumes from the library shelving and writing down titles. I knew of course that there was a whole world of books outside the bestsellers and classic fiction my hometown store sold - now I could have them. (I had to scour charity shops to be able to find Generation X. This was before Amazon shipped to the UK.)

Now I tend to buy second-hand just because I like having a book with a history. I tend to buy only reference/instructional books as these are easier to own than to have from the library, but I find charity shops tempting, and I rather like the fact that my copy of The House at Pooh Corner, bought in Goodge St Oxfam in June 2000, has a dedication between gay lovers for Valentine's 1971 inscribed inside. I wonder whether there was one for 1972.
posted by mippy at 6:30 AM on December 13, 2008


I feel like a miser being on an Internet blog in the comment area. I'm destroying culture aren't I? I'm taking business away from local business and am only giving my money to the big cable/telco operations that dominate my city and country. I'm a soulless capitalist who has actually considered buying Northrop Frye from Amazon and in so doing committed an inadvertent act of moral degeneration.

I should be at my local mom and pop coffee shop having crumpets and tea and interacting in the real world with my fellow citizens who are so cool because they read books and feel themselves better than the others not only because of the particular books they read, but because of how the acquired those books.

Why settle for Internet smug when you can go out and have the real thing? Imagine how wonderful it would be in person. To see their faces. To hear the inflection in their voices as you or others are denounced for what you are. But here I am on the Internets because I'm cheap and don't contribute to society in a way meaningful to others. Or something.
posted by juiceCake at 6:55 AM on December 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, what the hell kind of library doesn't have Gaudy Night??

There's something wrong with your library, not just your local bookstore. Has Gaudy Night ever been out of print? It certainly isn't obscure.

Long Beach, CA circa 60's, 70's, early 80's had neither Busman's Honeymoon, nor Gaudy Night. I had read all the other Wimsey books and was in a fever to read the final two.

Being disappointed was nothing new to me-- in those days (pre- big chains and pre-internet) being an Anglophile was agonizing and expensive. Trollope, Wodehouse, E. F. Benson; all had to be pursued and purchased with a king's ransom. I was perpetually wanting to read books that were out of print at the time, such as Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, and while I had several good, used stores nearby (Acres of Books, for one) they never had what I wanted. Used book stores in my experience are really only good for serendipitous discoveries, not for specific titles-- which is why Amazon is so amazing.

When I went to London in 1976, I was in a swoon over the many lovely bookstores and shipped home several boxes of books. Sadly at least two boxes never arrived (I say at least two because I was v. bad at keeping records) and to this day I still mourn the loss of the boxed, limited edition of Watership Down with full plate watercolors.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:47 AM on December 13, 2008


For me, the issue is part of a greater issue of disappearing independent stores that offer some kind of unique service to the community, but face competition from big chains/online retail, or really, when it comes down to it, transparency in pricing. Some other examples for me would be:

- Indie record store: without it, where would people post flyers to find a new drummer?
- Independent dive shop: learning how to dive from experienced people with a passion for it is great. Without people also buying some equipment there at list price, they would go out of business.
- Independent fancy grocery shop: They can stock local products from farms/companies too small to be a supplier to Whole Foods.

Sure, you can look for a drummer on craigslist and shop at a farmer's market, but you can't shop at a farmer's market on a day it isn't open and you can't learn to scuba dive on the internet. Independent businesses have a responsibility to offer a valuable service in exchange for being successful, but at the same time, pricing pressure from businesses operating at a bigger scale make it impossible for most independent businesses to compete on price in a totally open and transparent marketplace.

Everyone who says "it's my money and I'll spend it on the best deals" is totally entitled to do that. Presumably that's what economists would expect a rational actor to do in every case. On the other hand, doing this is absolutely destroying independent businesses who 9 times out of 10 do not have the infrastructure or volume to be the low cost provider. I am somewhat worried that people don't fully understand this yet and won't until it's two late for small businesses.

Independent businesses will disappear in many, many areas (as they already are) unless at least some people are willing to pay a premium for their existence.
posted by snofoam at 8:58 AM on December 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


...or too late, as the case may be.
posted by snofoam at 8:59 AM on December 13, 2008


Bookstores like Powells and City Lights are wonderful places, but comparing them to an ordinary local bookstore is like comparing Obama to my local city councilperson. I'm another person who has had a few too many uncomfortable interactions at local bookstores with rude staff and strange policies. The big chain bookstores are far from perfect, but they are at least selling books in places where there didn't use to be many options, and their employees are usually at least minimally polite.

That said, my bet for the long term is on libraries. Bookstores (well, except for Amazon, I suppose) are really wedded to a very particular distribution model, and to one particular form of a physical book. There will always be bookstores, but I think the public library has a much more flexible model. Even a fairly crummy library, like the one in my neighborhood, still exists primarily as a conduit for information. Right now that is primarily in the form of physical books, but they have a large DVD and CD collection, free computers, audiobooks, and so on. And if books change to being transported on memory chips, the librarians will just shrug and figure out how to check those out.

Second-hand book sales don't put money in the publisher's pocket -- or the author's.

The spectacle of authors whining about second hand book sales has always chapped my ass. I have all the sympathy for that as I would a land developer complaining about people buying used houses, or an automotive executive complaining about used car sales.

It is a good illustration, though, of how what may turn out to save bookstores (eg more efficient used book sales via the internet) won't do much good for authors and publishers, unless there is a big spillover effect, where more used book buying synergisticallly turns into more books sold of all varieties. It's a conundrum, certainly, but I've read author complaints about used book sales since I was a child, and I'm no more sympathetic now than I was then.
posted by Forktine at 9:02 AM on December 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'd say that theoretically used book sales could help publishers and authors in a roundabout way if it is supplementing the profitability of a store that also sells new books. Also libraries. Their used book sales enable them to buy more new books, and higher circulation helps too. I don't see much evidence that it's a zero-sum game. The publishing industry is used to catering to all possible avenues and looking for small growth in multiple areas--they employ people whose job it is to try to sell a couple copies of a farm book to a tractor shop. Even lending out your copy helps with word-of-mouth.

If you're consuming books in some way other than stealing them, then it's a good thing.
posted by lampoil at 9:26 AM on December 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have no love for badly-run independent bookstores. I'm surprised, though, that it hasn't come up more that one reason to support the quality little guys (for me, even at a reasonable premium) is that the money stays in the local community a little longer instead of going to the corporate headquarters. That's the main reason the strict price/selection criterion doesn't work for me. Externalities matter.

Of course, I live in Seattle, so all those Amazon purchases just keep rolling in and paving our streets in gold...
posted by sapere aude at 9:30 AM on December 13, 2008


Forktine: you won't catch me complaining about used book sales -- they're a natural part of the publishing cycle. What bugs me is people who say "oh, I want to help out author X, so I bought a second-hand book of theirs". It's an astonishingly common misconception.

(If you're standing on a boardwalk and see someone who's fallen in the sea, you don't help them by sticking a dime in the coast guard benevolent fund's collection box -- you help them by throwing them a life belt.)

Other things guaranteed to annoy me: the idea that publishers are rapacious middle-men who pocket most of the cover price of a new book. (They don't: 50-70% of it goes to the distributors and book stores and, yes, to Amazon.com, who are among the most ruthless in the business: that 33% discount off retail they offer you doesn't come out of their pocket). Folks who download a warez copy of a book then ask if they can Paypal the author some conscience money instead of buying a chunk of dead tree (thereby (a) denting the author's sales track, and (b) not paying a bent penny to the folks who turned a typo-riddled manuscript into something readable). DRM and similar snake-oil.
posted by cstross at 10:12 AM on December 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Everyone who says "it's my money and I'll spend it on the best deals" is totally entitled to do that. Presumably that's what economists would expect a rational actor to do in every case. On the other hand, doing this is absolutely destroying independent businesses who 9 times out of 10 do not have the infrastructure or volume to be the low cost provider. I am somewhat worried that people don't fully understand this yet and won't until it's two late for small businesses.

Big box bookstores aren't so much about, "Ooh, what a deal! Suck it independent business!" as much as, "Hey, this place actually has the book I'm looking for, and it's priced almost reasonably!"

Consumers are not to blame for the death of the independent bookstore. It's the publishers and their somehow-legal gougeriffic price fixing and just plain spiteful hardcover-before-paperback release schedules. These two things combined make buying new releases (the only reason I wouldn't just buy used) a ridiculously expensive exercise.

Go yell at them, please.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:29 AM on December 13, 2008


Sorry, I bought all my books a decade ago. When I finally finish reading them, I'll either be dead or print will be extinct.
posted by Eideteker at 10:43 AM on December 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


ed: would be just as foolish as declaring that all independent bookstores suck and that "the big B&Ns have far more selection than any independent." These two exceedingly misinformed sentiments from languagehat, Justinian, ...

Almost as misinformed as claiming I said anything of the sort. You appear to have stuck the words "all" and "any" in there in order to twist statements to fit your preconceptions.
posted by Justinian at 10:57 AM on December 13, 2008


For people like me, it hasn't made much difference. We can order from Amazon, or drive out to Borders. But for undergraduates, and especially those without cars, the whole tenor of campus has changed, as reading has gradually vanished from undergraduate life outside of course requirements.

I'm an undergraduate - my group of friends are big readers. The internet has been key in allowing that. We're dirt poor and can't begin to afford borders prices, let alone indie bookstore ones. Amazon is a life saver, but many of the students I know have moved on to using web 2.0 book sharing sites like bookmooch.

If it weren't for amazon, ebay, etc. we wouldn't be able to run our book club. There are independent bookstores in our city, but they're expensive and price is really the biggest factor for people whose minimum wage goes largely to buying textbooks. The indie bookstores are largely novelties and not practical for everyday use.

I'm not sure where you're coming from with the suggestion that an increase in cheap and easy-to-use online retailers (at the expense of niche and pricey physical stores you need to travel to get to) has made it more difficult for undergrads to read.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:22 AM on December 13, 2008


- Independent dive shop: learning how to dive from experienced people with a passion for it is great. Without people also buying some equipment there at list price, they would go out of business.

In this particular case, I can see a definite argument for the small, indie retailer model.

Diving equipment is a life support system. You don't want to cut corners on something like that. So you want to be buying the best possible quality and you want shop staff who are familiar with how that equipment works in real life, who may have used that equipment themselves at some point in the last few months.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:30 AM on December 13, 2008


I'm not sure where you're coming from with the suggestion that an increase in cheap and easy-to-use online retailers (at the expense of niche and pricey physical stores you need to travel to get to) has made it more difficult for undergrads to read.

I'm glad, solon, that my worry about bookstores hasn't applied to you and your friends. I should perhaps note that I'm not only bemoaning the loss of expensive indie booksellers, but also used bookstores that were usually cheaper than Amazon, etc. Those were the sorts of places I used to buy things from back in the day.

It's interesting though--it seems like these online bookstores might be really good for people running book clubs like yours. I did (and do) love rummaging through used book stores; but that sort of hunting did tend to make reading a solitary pursuit, since I'd be finding and reading isolated copies of whatever I happened upon. I suppose that using amazon or etc. might facilitate forms of social reading (since you can get ten copies of a single book) that are trickier when relying on used bookstores.

I do notice quite a difference between my own bookstore-less campus and, say, U of C , a couple hours North. Reading feels sort of "built in" to the environment there, in a way that I think communities (universities in particular) should encourage if possible, since it makes reading less a niche activity. I mean, I wonder how many students at your university are in book clubs such as yours? Clubs such as this are a great idea, but I'm not yet convinced that they can introduce (or reintroduce) as many people to reading as tend to get involved when reading and literacy are more built in to the everyday environment, through libraries, newsstands, bookstores, and other material places and things.
posted by washburn at 1:57 PM on December 13, 2008


Enrich Thy Neighbor, an article from The Phoenix arguing the importance of buying local. Excerpt:
"I live in Cambridge," he explains. "Say I take my $100 and go and spend it at the Harvard Book Store. Then, the owner decides he's going to go over to Curious George & Friends to buy a present for his kid. Then that guy goes for dinner over at Harvest and they then go to the local hardware store to replace some bulbs. If you do that five times, you're taking that $100 and making $300."
posted by Kattullus at 8:18 AM on December 14, 2008


The difference between a good indie and Amazon is sort of like the difference between a really good magazine and a print catalog. Yeah, I could have found it in the catalog, but this group, these books together, when done right, they promote study. Don't discount the amount of discovery that is dependent on serendipity and the curatorial element. I went looking for this book and found this one instead. That, it seems to me, is what we'll lose. Well that and a very important public space where a lot of community building frequently occurs.

But to be frank, my pessimism isn't limited to the indies, it includes much of the physical retail channel. B&N and Borders are both struggling now. As mentioned above, Borders' stock is trading at irrational levels, below the value of their owned inventory. B&N has also plunged and there are troubling signs there as well. Amazon, on the other hand, has increased its business. Its newest category killer is sold out, and it has efficiently leveraged subsidiary efforts like the Kindle in ebooks, and BookSurge in Print on Demand, to dominate publishing's future.

I also think the Google Book settlement has a significant role to play in the very near future. The portion in the proposed settlement about allowing libraries to print portions, groups of portions, and maybe even whole books, could have a profound impact on book distribution. Google may be willing to sponsor the initial equipment purchases in some cases, and if libraries are willing, they may find themselves in the role of book makers and book sellers. I think that could actually really be a good thing—there are a lot of similarities between a good bookseller and a librarian, but it won't be good for the current players in the physical bookstore retail landscape.

My two cents.
posted by Toekneesan at 11:08 AM on December 14, 2008


ed: I'm not sure there's much point in this, since you seem uninterested in anything except repeating how wonderful independent bookstores are and trashing anyone who disagrees (with the aid, as Justinian points out, of misquotation and distortion), claiming their tales of bad experiences are purely anecdotal. Then you say:

The people who work at these two excellent stores are friendly, helpful, and (here's the big clue) they actually read books.

How very nice for the people who shop at those two stores! But here's the thing: I'm no a priori fan of huge mega-enterprises. I used to routinely deplore B&N and champion the little local bookstore, despite my awareness that a great many of them were ill stocked and run by unpleasant people. But reality finally wore me down. You can scoff all you like, but I'm telling you that the big B&Ns in NYC (specifically, say, the Astor Place and Lincoln Center branches) have better selections of almost everything than any independent, and I speak as someone who has spent far too much of my life rummaging around bookstores. And for used books, the internet has ushered in a golden age. Used to be, if I wanted a copy of some obscure gem, I had to wander the land, searching the dusty shelves of used book stores hoping to find a copy that the owner hadn't priced at some outrageous level. Now I go on Amazon and find a copy for a few bucks, and it can be in my hands in a couple of days.

Things change. We're all attached to what we grew up with, and sure, I mourn the many bookstores I've seen disappear. If I'd been around a century ago, I'd have mourned the disappearance of the horse-drawn carriage. But the fact is that the book-buying experience has gotten immeasurably better, and if you can't see that, you need to take off the blinders.
posted by languagehat at 12:16 PM on December 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Everyone who says "it's my money and I'll spend it on the best deals" is totally entitled to do that. Presumably that's what economists would expect a rational actor to do in every case. On the other hand, doing this is absolutely destroying independent businesses who 9 times out of 10 do not have the infrastructure or volume to be the low cost provider. I am somewhat worried that people don't fully understand this yet and won't until it's two late for small businesses.

The reason independent bookstores are dying is the same reason independent records stores are. Most people want the underlying product, not the unique shopping experience, and these places aren't offering anything that customers value in exchange for their higher prices. So they resort to the hipster equivalent of "Buy American" to guilt customers me into spending money there.

No. The time for that has officially passed.

No "buy American". No "support indie bookshops." No "buy locally." Learn to compete. It's a business enterprise, not a political enterprise. You want customers to pay $6 more for a book in your store than at amazon, you'd better figure out a way to compensate them for the $6 and the trip down there if you want them to visit. A free newspaper, a bagel, something that at least acknowledges that the consumer is spending more than they have too on the book and that you appreciate it.

The arrogance of these emotional appeals to "buy indie" is quite stunning and brings out my latent Republican. They imply that the consumer is overflowing with money but being a cheapskate or a skinflint for buying the same thing for less. In case you haven't heard, hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs and homes. It's a disaster out there. Stop trying to guilt them into handing you their money, and learn to compete.

The economy is contracting that's what recession means. If there were 5 online and b&m outlets for books during the "Flip This House" Roaring 2000's, there is maybe only room for three now. Deal with reality.
posted by Pastabagel at 5:16 PM on December 14, 2008 [12 favorites]


Coming late to the party:

Joy. E-books. We can have all the pleasures of the digital medium for books. No right of resale. No right to lend. Device and format obsolescence forcing us to re-purchase the same works again and again.

Believe me, a lot of us are working really hard to fix this.
posted by nev at 6:51 PM on December 14, 2008


In an actual real and helpful sense or in a pisssy Doctyrow fan who wants some vague moral argument for pirating the hell out of everything sense?
posted by Artw at 7:46 PM on December 14, 2008


Roy Blount Jr. at the Author's Guild proposes an all out blitz.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:10 AM on December 15, 2008


wow, there's nothing i like better than checking into Metafilter to find my chosen profession of the past couple decades spoken of with such arrogant contempt & loathing...
posted by jammy at 8:43 AM on December 15, 2008


wow, there's nothing i like better than checking into Metafilter to find my chosen profession of the past couple decades spoken of with such arrogant contempt & loathing...

If that's what you want, then you should become a Republican PR person.
posted by grouse at 9:00 AM on December 15, 2008


Or a moyl.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:37 AM on December 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


If that's what you want, then you should become a Republican PR person.

well, gee, grouse, that's just it - i didn't think i was doing something as slimy & repulsive as that - i'm an independent bookseller (btw, "independent" means i am not owned by a corporation, i.e. no one tells me what to do) - i thought what i was doing was connecting people with the books they want & need

but from what i can tell on this thread many MeFi folk feel there's not much difference - they hate me as much as any hypocritical shill (except for the ones that work at Amazon, of course, because they have a politically correct business model) - i mean, shit, i might as well be Karl Rove because all i do is deceive & manipulate people into giving me money

no use crying over spilt milk, though, right? i think i'll just go take a turn in my horse-fuckn-drawn carriage - don't worry, i'll be sure to wave as you all go sailing by lickety-split up the ziggurat
posted by jammy at 3:31 PM on December 15, 2008


Well, I certainly know that the whole reason why I posted an FPP about independent bookstores in the first place was because I hate them. The bookstore finder link? That's palces to avoid.
posted by Artw at 3:37 PM on December 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


Jesus, jammy, quit whining. Nobody here hates independent bookstores; I myself (the source of your horse-drawn carriage allusion, I presume) love them, as I have said more than once in this very thread. The fact is that unless they provide serious value-added ("serious" as in something other than "I love books, dammit!") they're going to go under, just like horse-drawn carriages. That's a pity, and it obviously sucks for people who run them (I say as someone who used to be assistant manager of one, and know exactly how difficult it is to keep them running), but it's the truth. If you want to be among a bunch of people who will do nothing but weep and moan along with you, try your local independent booksellers convention. This is MetaFilter; most of us do not own or work at indy bookstores, and we have to balance our love of such bookstores against our love of, you know, books, which we can get more cheaply and easily elsewhere. That's just a fact, and leaving bitterly sarcastic comments here won't change it. I understand you don't like it, but for fuck's sake, don't take it out on us. We're not the enemy.
posted by languagehat at 8:10 AM on December 16, 2008


Jesus, jammy, quit whining. Nobody here hates independent bookstores; I myself (the source of your horse-drawn carriage allusion, I presume) love them, as I have said more than once in this very thread.

Sweet Inanna, languagehat, quit lying. you never said any such thing - what you did say was: "most independent bookstores sucked" and that "a great many of them were ill stocked and run by unpleasant people" and that it's just a fact "that the book-buying experience has gotten immeasurably better" (apparently for everyone - it's amazing how you can speak not only for all of Metafilter, but for the entire book-buying public)

We're not the enemy.

you're certainly no ally, languagehat.
posted by jammy at 10:04 AM on December 16, 2008


Shut up and bake us a Hitler cake.
posted by Artw at 10:08 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


That massive "WHUMP" and bright light seen in the northeast is Jammy's unpleasant, snide, profanity-laced complaining about (some) independent bookstore owners being called unpleasant collapsing into a supernova of irony.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:12 AM on December 16, 2008 [4 favorites]


they hate me as much as any hypocritical shill (except for the ones that work at Amazon, of course, because they have a politically correct business model)

what
posted by Sys Rq at 11:15 AM on December 16, 2008


That massive "WHUMP" and bright light seen in the northeast is Jammy's unpleasant, snide, profanity-laced complaining about (some) independent bookstore owners being called unpleasant collapsing into a supernova of irony.

how very clever! except that, as languagehat pointed out, this is Metafilter where being snide & snarky is pretty much the order of the day - and anyways, you're not at my store and & i'm not serving you - and if you did come in my store & tell me that i wasn't working hard enough to compete & that i don't understand successful business models & that my colleagues are a bunch of weeping & moaning crybabies who can't get with the modern world & that corporate control of media is really the best option for serving the public then yes, i will most certainly be unpleasant to you

in any case, it's quite clear that i'm not welcome here and the last few comments are pretty much nothing more than calls for me to shut up... so i'll go, ok? if you'd like to tell me more about how wrong & unpleasant i am, feel free to memail me
posted by jammy at 1:32 PM on December 16, 2008


in any case, it's quite clear that i'm not welcome here and the last few comments are pretty much nothing more than calls for me to shut up... so i'll go, ok?

I'm sure you colleagues will thank you.
posted by Artw at 1:42 PM on December 16, 2008


Well, checking back on this thread, it really did take a strange, bitter turn. But I guess it's no surprise that people feel strongly about their book-buying habits.

languagehat writes:
the fact is that the book-buying experience has gotten immeasurably better, and if you can't see that, you need to take off the blinders

For the record, I'll say that I don't feel that being asked to leave my bag at the counter is especially traumatizing; nor do I feel that being constantly asked to join the "rewards club" or pestered with other offers by some associate who is forced to flash the corporate smile contributes to an "immeasurably better" experience to be found at the big chain stores.

But what strikes me as really odd in languagehat's casually condescending remark is the charge that anyone who considers the book-buying experience in terms broader than price+selection is somehow wearing "blinders."

As the first link of this post notes, the loveliness of the Amazon.com experience seems to be leading to fewer, not more, books being purchased--a fact that would seem to have some implications that are at least worth considering, especially if one feels that reading and literacy have positive social effects.

Languagehat also writes:
You can scoff all you like, but I'm telling you that the big B&Ns in NYC (specifically, say, the Astor Place and Lincoln Center branches) have better selections of almost everything than any independent

Well, ok. But I'm not sure how languagehat would know that these B&N branches have better selections than every single extant independent bookstore. Moreover some scoffing is probably in order here, given that the Astor Place B&N was shut down almost a year ago.

As brick-and-mortar bookstores like the Astor Place B&N close their doors, it's at least worth considering the consequences of a shift to a book distribution system that caters to the needs of a shrinking number of dedicated readers, as more and more people find that, with the disappearance of books from daily life, reading book-length pieces of text has become an activity that belongs to the past.
posted by washburn at 7:51 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


As the first link of this post notes, the loveliness of the Amazon.com experience seems to be leading to fewer, not more, books being purchased--a fact that would seem to have some implications that are at least worth considering, especially if one feels that reading and literacy have positive social effects.

I was fascinated by this claim, so I went back and read that first link. I call bullshit. The link says book sales are down. It doesn't give the slightest reason to believe Amazon has somehow caused book sales to go down. What are you, crazy? A company which makes it easier to buy books, somehow making people buy fewer books?

You don't think there could have been any other factors, other than Amazon, that caused book sales to drop in October?
posted by grobstein at 9:15 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


jammy: in any case, it's quite clear that i'm not welcome here

you know, I think that's not because of what you say but how you say it. antagonizers are seldom popular and you especially seem to like the ad hominem attack quite a bit.
posted by krautland at 6:25 AM on December 17, 2008


For the record, I'll say that I don't feel that being asked to leave my bag at the counter is especially traumatizing;

That's great for you, but I don't count 'being treated like a criminal the moment I walk in' as a plus, and certainly not something I need to pay extra to experience.
posted by almostmanda at 6:46 AM on December 17, 2008


I especially like it when you don't notice the sign and get shouted at.
posted by Artw at 8:56 AM on December 17, 2008


Oh yes the delights of being watched like a hawk as a potential shoplifter just because you didn't shave that morning... yeah, I've really missed that one.

Also being told off for 'damaging' the magazines in a sf book shop when I had the gall to flick through one before I decided to buy it.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:21 AM on December 17, 2008


There’s always daring to open the bags and look at things at comic shops, that’s a good one.
posted by Artw at 9:41 AM on December 17, 2008


I’ve an idea the SF bookshop I used to like on Charing Cross road has closed down, which is a bit of shit. I don’t exactly see crappy Forbidden Planet picking up the slack, since books could take up valuable Todd McFarlane figurine space.
posted by Artw at 9:43 AM on December 17, 2008


There’s always daring to open the bags and look at things at comic shops, that’s a good one.

You need just the right edge on your thumbnail to slice through the shrink wrap...
They must have really hated me in Games Workshop (back in the mists of time when it sold non-GW games) when I'd 'un bag' about half-a-dozen role playing scenarios on each visit.

It was in the same shop as a the bloke who told me off for reading his mags when I, for the one time only, asked advice on what to buy. He sold me a Perry Rhodan book. I never bought another.

I think the shop that had a 'This Is Not A Library' sign was my personal favourite in active customer hatred though.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:34 AM on December 17, 2008


What happend if Borders goes under?
posted by Artw at 2:08 PM on December 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Interesting, Artw. Although it's really hard for me to believe the doomsday scenario of both Borders and B&N going out of business.
posted by grouse at 2:58 PM on December 19, 2008


If they merged, they'd be too big to fail!
posted by woodway at 3:14 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Times ran this piece on Saturday— "Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It" by David Streitfeld
posted by Toekneesan at 4:53 AM on December 29, 2008


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