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

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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. 

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Kirk's picture
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Kirk from Pingree Grove, IL is reading The Book Of The New Sun December 14, 2011 - 2:51pm

You make a good argument, but I'm inclined to agree with Manjoo on this one. I read his column this morning and knew that it would lead to some good debate around here though.

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 14, 2011 - 3:06pm

I'd be really interested to know which points you agree with. I don't say that to be combative. I'm just curious. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life December 14, 2011 - 3:14pm

It sucks, but this is the world we the consumer have created. You make a good rebuttal though, Rob, as Manjoo's comes off as more condescending than anything.

Andy Cates's picture
Andy Cates December 14, 2011 - 3:57pm

Water For Elephants' success started in the Indie bookstore market. A total success. My Kindle book on Amazon, however--a great middle grade book that can and should compete--has only two sales in one week. Hail the mighty Amazon? Wonk, wonk, wonk.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words December 14, 2011 - 4:24pm

I would rather spend an hour browsing in an indy than a few moments finding a book I'm looking for through a search engine. It's yet another way to discover something new and interesting. Also, it's what keeps the hunter & gatherer skills I've inherited exercised.

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz December 14, 2011 - 11:15pm

Great article Rob,

As you're probably aware I have mixed feelings about Amazon myself. The appeal of shopping there is obvious. To save time and money and find great things. And who doesn't want that?

I feel sorry for Manjoo. He is getting torn apart on that comments thread over there. But I respect his opinion and he does make some really good points. 

But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.

-This guy has real tact. And that image of the giant foot coming down on the bookstore and pulverizing it is kinda comical. If only a big enough foot were available to do the same to one of Bezos' Fulfillment Centers

Amazon and Barnes & Noble let you sample the first chapter of every digital title they carry, and you can do so without leaving your couch. 

-Yay! My ass can get fatter while I shop!

 

And then there’s the Kindle, which turns the whole world into a bookstore, and which has already been proven to turn ordinary readers in monster book-buyers. Amazon has said that after people buy a Kindle reader, they begin purchasing e-books at twice the rate they’d previously purchased print titles. (And they keep buying print titles.) Amazon has also been instrumental in helping authors create more books. With the Kindle, it launched a self-publishing system that allows anyone to sell a Kindle book. There’s also its Kindle Singles program, which transforms stuff that the book industry wouldn’t otherwise be able to sell—shorter-than-book-length magazine articles, essays, and fiction—into material that can be sold for money.

-Now this is where I'm really torn and it is the only reason I still continue to support Amazon despite the disgraceful way it treats its employees and perpetuates the Citizens for a Rabid Economy mantra that mires this country in the lie that is capitalism. Buy more! Buy more! Buy more! But don't you dare leave your couch to do it. But I still agree that more than anything, the introduction and implementation of this book form has revolutionized reading and urged more people to read. And the value of that simply can't be denied.

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?

Well according to a majority of Americans, yes. It is up to the minority to try to make sure that doesn't happen. Apparently Manjoo considers himself a card-carrying member of the former.

I will continue to buy heckloads of books. Some new, some used, some from In Other Words, some from Powells, some directly from small presses and some from the authors themselves. Heckloads, Buttloads and Fuckloads. At least there is a little solace in the fact that two of Amazon's best sellers were self-published. So more and more I see Amazon as a sort of necessary evil. I just hope its horns don't get any bigger.

But as things progress and Amazon 'crushes all the precious' alternatives on all of the corners in all of our cities and towns, I too will buy more and more of my books from Amazon. But I will do my best to avoid buying other merchandise from them. I will spend the money I save by not buying more stuff from Amazon on a play or some books at Powells.

 Amazon will never be able to replace that magic sensation of stumbling upon a book that you had no idea existed but for some reason still felt compelled to pull from the shelf. And not because Big Brother Amazon recommended it, but because your physical proximity to it made that relationship possible.

-Tirade over and out.

 

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 14, 2011 - 11:17pm

Dude. Powell's is THE SHIT. I love that place like I love my family. 

Kirk's picture
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Kirk from Pingree Grove, IL is reading The Book Of The New Sun December 14, 2011 - 11:30pm

I'd be really interested to know which points you agree with. I don't say that to be combative. I'm just curious.

You did a great job digging into his argument, so I'm not going to really say anything that is going to change your mind. But, based on the items you picked out of his article

The selection and recommendations are far superior. You work in a killer store, that's great and I'm sure you have a lot of customers that love you. But your evidence is anecdotal, at best. I live in the 'burbs. Throughout my entire life, there has never been a nearby-indie store that was worth a damn to me. Beyond that, I had big B&M stores - overpriced and useless.

This list price argument he makes is very valid. In 2011, I do personally think he is correct when he says traditional book stores are inefficient and wasteful. I don't think his statement is misleading, as you claim. It is a common fact in retail that list prices are often over inflated so that store can sell them lower than list and trick people into thinking they got a deal. Even with the high prices that Borders charged, when I did buy a book there, I don't think I ever paid cover for it. In fact, Wikipedia even says this:

"Suggested prices can also be manipulated to be unreasonably high, allowing retailers to use deceptive advertising by showing the excessive price and then their actual selling price, implying to customers that they are getting a bargain. Game shows have long made use of suggested retail prices both as a game element, in which the contestant must determine the retail price of an item, or in valuing their prizes."

Sure, Amazon can charge a lot less than you can because they are big and have way lower overhead. That is the epitome of efficiency. In fact, the most efficient businesses are almost always the most successful. That does not make them a bad business.

There were other points in the article that you didn't point out, but his feelings are pretty spot on for me.

You live in New York, I get it. You live somewhere that indie stores can actually work. But for those of us in the 'burbs, they are very rarely worth walking into and I'll take amazon. But even that is kind of on the edge for me because I don't buy any traditional media anymore. All the media I consume is digital these days (except video games because it isn't always an option). So really, for me, there is literally ZERO reason to walk into a bookstore.

NotMarilyn's picture
NotMarilyn from Twin Cities, MN is reading Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn December 15, 2011 - 7:08am

The selection and recommendations are far superior. You work in a killer store, that's great and I'm sure you have a lot of customers that love you. But your evidence is anecdotal, at best. I live in the 'burbs. Throughout my entire life, there has never been a nearby-indie store that was worth a damn to me. Beyond that, I had big B&M stores - overpriced and useless.

I have the same problem. My heart belongs to indie booksellers, but I can't find one unless I spend the day hunting. I live in a middle-class, white bread, old-people-everywhere, area where the only bookstore is a B&N. I won't hate on them, but I can NEVER find the book I want there, so I'm forced to hunt it down via Amazon.

However, when I can, I drive the hour and a half to Haslam's. I could spend the entire morning browsing, hit up the Taco Bus right across the strees (YUM!) then go back for more browsing and probably end up leaving with more books than I can hold. 

 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 15, 2011 - 12:19pm

It's so tricky. Do I buy books from Amazon? SURE. How often have I bought something for 40, or 50% less than what I can find in a bookstore, especially the indies. But I LOVE going to Quimby's or Myopic books for a number of reasons. For the same reasons I love touching, sniffing, holding books (yes, I do this) I love being INSIDE a cool indie bookstore. Hell, I love hitting up Good Will and Salvation Army too, and I support my local library as well.

Indie bookstores need to change. If they ONLY sell new, full priced books, they will die. They need loss leaders too. They need to sell USED books at greatly reduced prices. And they need to sell things based on the nostalgia and emotions that are involved by merely existing—mugs and hats, shirts and pens, bookmarks, etc. They need to sell food and coffee (liquor?) whatever they can mark up 200, 500, 1000%.

As an author, I can honestly say that if it weren't for Amazon, I doubt that I'd have sold HALF of the books that I have. It IS a necessary evil. Amazon isn't doing anything wrong, although I really don't like the idea of sending people INTO a store to get information only to buy a book online. That sucks. I'd ban all cell phones in my bookstore just for this reason.

I didn't like a lot of the WAY that Manjoo spoke, but some of his logic is sound. If you want to change anything, then stop shopping at Amazon. Buy more books from local bookstores. But if local indie bookstores don't change the way they make money (readings? bands? new business models? book swaps? books clubs?) then they will fail. Sad, but true.

And I LOVE local indie bookstores. It all makes me quite sad.

Great article, Rob.

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 15, 2011 - 12:56pm

Richard, Kirk, NotMarilyn - I see what you guys are saying, and they're points I don't disagree with. Like I said, I don't hate Amazon. I only pointed out their negative aspects because Manjoo was making the case that they were pro-literature and pro-business, which they're not. They're not anti-literature either. They're a business. You can say they're pro-blender and pro-coffee and pro-pens and whatever else they sell, then. 

But Kirk, I do disagree, that Manjoo's point on the list price was valid. $35 for Steve Jobs' bio is steep. But the way Manjoo phrased his argument, he made it sound like bookstores are taking that book and charging $40 or $50 for it. That's not fair. 

Kirk's picture
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Kirk from Pingree Grove, IL is reading The Book Of The New Sun December 15, 2011 - 1:09pm

I agree that he worded it oddly, but I don't think he was trying to say they are marking books up above list. He was simply saying that "list" is a rip-off price in the first place.

All that said, I think Richard is spot-on. It's not that indie book stores aren't viable anymore. It's that the old way of being an indie book store isn't viable anymore.

They need to find a way to remain relevant because the primary thing they sell can be bought at any number of places for a lower cost. If your only defense for your pricing is "it's expensive to run an actual store", you're going to lose.

It's not much different from when record stores began disappearing a few years ago. The ones that remain seem to have been the ones that do a lot more than just sell brand new CDs.

Businesses have to change as time, technology and trends no longer favor their previous business models.

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz December 15, 2011 - 1:35pm

There is absolutely nothing wrong with 'not' supporting indie book stores and doing all of your reading digitally. Just be careful when you go to write in the margins because it's really hard to erase. And dog-earing is an electrocution hazard. 

And just wait until all of the paper books have moldered to dust and there is nothing but digital options left.

Crash.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 15, 2011 - 4:30pm

some good conversations taking place elsewhere if you want to read more on this topic and/or come back here and chat

Chad Post at Three Percent

http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=3...

Roxane Gay at HTML Giant

http://htmlgiant.com/snippet/bookstores-are-easy-to-use-if-you-know-your...

tonyt's picture
tonyt from Chicago is reading The marriage plot December 15, 2011 - 5:35pm

I agree with Manjoo entirely. I am all about frequenting locally owned, small businesses. I go to the local grocer because he sifts through his produce by hand and it is often ten times better than that of the big box grocery stores. I go to the local butcher because his meat is better, he is concerned with where he gets his product, what it is fed, and how it is killed and transported. My Checking account is with the small bank because they know my name when I walk through the door.
All of these independently owned and operated businesses are more expensive than their big box counter parts, but I go anyway. Why, then, do I dislike indie bookstores?? Plain and simple, they offer a run of the mill product for an inflated price. Yes, I do understand that it is not actually inflated, but by not offering discounted pricing they are, in essence, achieving the same goal (with regards to my wallet).
You could say that they are using the essentially "inflated" prices to supplement their community based offerings and displays of local authors. This, however, has not been the case at the local bookstores I have encountered in the Chicago area. Often these places are over-run with pretentious hipsters reading shockingly awful popular crap.
Further, the last time I went into my indie bookstore to buy a new Stephen King book, I got a awful look from the unwashed jag-off at their "help" desk. After noticing his scowl, I asked if he had anything that he could recommend that was better in that genre and he said, "why would you want to read that kind of stuff, its commercial garbage." 
Everything about the independent bookstore screams disdain for the main stream. Their standard operating procedure, therefore, forces the main stream out of indies into the arms of amazon. Indies cannot resent the main stream, whom are made to feel uncomfortable and out of place inside of their walls, for going elsewhere,
Also, of the conversations I have had at bookstores and online, regarding books I am reading or books I am considering reading, I value the content of the electronic chatter much, much more (props to lit reactor).

My point, in a nutshell, is that, most indie bookstores have chosen their ever-dwindling place within our modern society. They offer an average product for an inflated price, touting an added value that is only realized by a small portion of the book buying public. Their business plan is fatally flawed. 

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz December 15, 2011 - 9:59pm

There is definitely a lot more chatter electronically. As to the erudition of that chatter as it compares to an indie book store, I suppose it depends on the indie bookstore.

Any clerk who treats a customer the way that guy treated you deserves to be terminated. Everybody has different tastes and a clerk's job should be to direct the client to a potentially exciting read. Just like a good sommelier guides a  wine drinker to a wine based on what the drinker says they like.

I agree, too, with what you said about the butcher and grocer, etc. I suppose there's a lot of merchandise, particularly when it comes to sustenance, that is far superior if purchased locally.

ReneeAPickup's picture
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ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books December 16, 2011 - 3:54pm

I have to say that a lot of the anti-indy stuff is as (if not more) anecdotal than the pro-indy stuff that was argued in the article.

I don't hate amazon, but I do love B&M bookstores. I wonder where people expect literary events to happen when there are no B&M bookstores? Your library? When's the last time you've been there? Most libraries are open odd hours, and have less and less money keep the electric going, let alone host literary events, book signings, readings, etc.

The thing about a book store is, you aren't JUST paying for books, you are paying for a place that depends on loving books as much as their customers, and that will bring you the events, the atmosphere, the chance to meet someone in the fiction section that loves the same authors you love. They enable you to stumble upon a book you've never heard of, read the blurb, and leave with something new--where Amazon may make recommendations, it's not going to pull something out of left field for you, because that is not where the sales are.

Amazon can't do any of that. Amazon can ONLY sell you books (and other things), which is fine. It has it's place, but I think the hurry to buy all your reading material from Amazon is forgetting a lot of what makes B&Ms great.