Columns > Published on December 14th, 2011

Why Independent Bookstores Matter: A Rebuttal To Slate's Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo has a piece up at Slate right now, Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller, that has independent bookstores in a tizzy, because it makes the argument that Amazon is a friend of book-lovers, and the indies are not.

It's a controversial piece that's earning a lot of scorn, and I believe rightfully so. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and I'm more than willing to entertain arguments that clash with mine, but Manjoo's reasoning is specious and hollow. 

His article was sparked by the recent Amazon promotion, in which consumers who scanned items in brick-and-mortar stores would get discounts for buying those items on Amazon. Many saw it as an attack on physical retailers, and while the promotion didn't extend to books, many felt it was just a matter of time. (Manjoo was also inspired by Richard Russo's New York Times op-ed). 

Now, if you're going to get invested in this, please, go read Manjoo's original piece. What I'm going to do is pull passages out and explain why I believe Manjoo is wrong, but you should read the whole thing, because context is important.

And as a point of full disclosure, two things: We're an Amazon affiliate, so every time you click over to Amazon through our site and buy something, they toss a little money our way. It's one of the ways we keep the site running. Also, I work for a digital publishing imprint housed in an independent bookstore. So if I have any bias, it can be argued on either end. 

Here we go. Text from Manjoo's article, followed by my rebuttal: 

[Local bookstores offer] a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?

Any bookstore would look paltry compared to Amazon. That being said, I work in a small store that sells great books I've never been able to find anywhere else. Jim Thompson! Donald Westlake! Ross Thomas! Cornell Woolrich! These aren't authors I typically find, in any great quantity, in chain bookstores. Sure, there are no customer reviews, but the people who work there are absurdly knowledgeable, and I dare to say their opinions have much more worth than some person on the internet--who may or may not have been paid to write that positive review. Finally, Manjoo's example of getting recommendations from the guy at the box office is comparing apples to oranges. He's reaching to make it, which says a lot about the stability of his argument.

They’re economically inefficient, too. Rent, utilities, and a brigade of book-reading workers aren’t cheap, so the only way for bookstores to stay afloat is to sell items at a huge markup... At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent. In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.

This is not just false, but dangerously misleading. Book are not marked up; they're just not marked down. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is currently selling for $17.49 over at Amazon. At most bookstores it sells for $35, which is the list price. The price that the book is actually supposed to cost, based on whatever magical formula the publisher has decided. What's sort of baffling about this point is that Manjoo clearly knows what a list price is, and for him to say charging that sum is marking up a product is incorrect. And it's not like Amazon is discounting books out of the kindness of their heart. Because of their bulk buying, they get bigger discounts. Plus, they take a loss on a lot of the items they sell, so that they can keep you as a returning customer. Their pricing is economics, not altruism.

There is little that’s “local” about most local bookstores. Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house, an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community. Sure, every local bookstore promotes local authors, but its bread and butter is the same stuff that Amazon sells—mass-manufactured goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan. It doesn’t make a difference whether you buy Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs at City Lights, Powell’s, Politics & Prose, or Amazon—it’s the same book everywhere.

This is another very shaky point, in which Manjoo acknowledges the local activities of independent bookstores, and then tries to refute the very point he just made. Local bookstores promoting local authors is exactly what independent bookstores do--one of the many things they do. Just this week, the store where I work did a local event. It brought together a great author and a ton of readers, nearly all of whom walked out with stacks of books. Do indies need the best-sellers to stay afloat? Yea, sure. So? Staying afloat lets stores push those local events and local authors. Should bookstores not sell Steve Jobs in order to be authentic, or something?  

Wait, but what about the bookstores’ owners and employees—aren’t they benefiting from your decision to buy local? Sure, but insofar as they’re doing it inefficiently (and their prices suggest they are), you could argue that they’re benefiting at the expense of someone else in the economy. After all, if you’re spending extra on books at your local indie, you’ve got less money to spend on everything else—including on authentically local cultural experiences. With the money you saved by buying books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few productions at your local theater company, visited your city’s museum, purchased some locally crafted furniture, or spent more money at your farmers’ market. Each of these is a cultural experience that’s created in your community. Buying Steve Jobs at a store down the street isn’t.

Again, this is reaching, in the worst possible way. So you should save money by buying books on Amazon so you can go out and support other cultural events? What does that even mean? This point indicates, to me at least, that Manjoo doesn't give a damn about books and literature. The point he's trying to make is just so ridiculous, so wrong-headed--that independent bookstores are hurting culture by charging so much for books (??)--that this is the point where I stop taking him seriously. Also, do you want to talk about hurting local economies? How about the fact that, for years, Amazon fought efforts forcing them to pay out local sales taxes, but dropped that fight to comply with a federal bill that would put everyone on the same playing field (which meant no one would have an advantage). 

So, sure, Amazon doesn’t host readings and it doesn’t give you a poofy couch to sit on while you peruse the latest best-sellers. But what it does do—allow people to buy books anytime they want—is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it.

This is anti-intellectualism. Do you want to buy a ton of books or do you want to sit on a poofy couch, guys? Fine, go sit on your poofy couch with your pipe and your Tolstoy, I'll be over here buying a ton of books for really cheap!

I'm not going to sit here and try to make the case for independent bookstores as magical places where, as soon as you cross the threshold, you are beset by the magic of literature and transformed into a more complete human being. But I do believe that independent bookstores are important, for a variety of reasons. But first, I'm going to tell you something about me:

I live in New York City. I've considered living elsewhere but I know I could never hack it. This place is in my blood. And over the past few years I've been saddened to see institutions close because of the stifling cost of doing business. Independent business are constantly closing down to be replaced by a bank, or a Starbucks, or some other multi-national corporation that can afford to do business here. I understand free market economy and capitalism and all that fun stuff, but you know what? CBGB was an important piece of this city's culture and history; Starbucks will never be able to make the same claim. 

Independent bookstores are important because they are havens of culture. They contribute to the fabric of a neighborhood. In New York City, and anywhere else. And it breaks my heart clean in two whenever I hear news that a bookstore is struggling, and may have to close down. That should make anyone sad; who wants to live in a neighborhood where the only place you can hear music is a Starbucks, and the only place to get a book is to order it online? Besides Manjoo? 

They're gathering places for people who love books. They're places where local authors can hold events to meet readers and new audiences. They're places where you can get recommendations from people who love books so much, they're working in a bookstore (not a business that will make you rich).

Even more than that, they drive local economies; people who visit us will sometimes catch a meal in our neighborhood, or someone who patronizes the bar across the street might see us and take a walk over to browse. All ships rise together.

If anything, Amazon has played a role in devaluing books, to the point where people believe you should only buy them if they're offered at steep discounts. To say that Amazon loves books more because they charge less for them--the heart of Manjoo's argument--is laughable. 

Amazon will never host a reading where an author can shake hands with a reader. They'll promote what sells, not what's good. They'll sell books with the same reverence and care that they'll sell a blender, because to them, both items are the same: A product with a price that goes in a box. And all of that is fine! That's how Amazon works! It's why I did all my Christmas shopping with them. Ease of use and convenience, and so I don't have to go lose my mind at the mall. 

Do you pay more at an independent bookstore? Yes. Indies don't have the luxury of slashing prices, because there are salaries and rent and utilities to pay. So if you want to shop at Amazon, that's fine. I'm not telling anyone they can't. But to paint the economics as some sort of conspiracy to gouge readers and stifle literature is absurd. 

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at

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