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Getting Vertigo Over Lost Bookstores

It's gotten to the point that even newspaper editors -- hopeless nostalgics that they tend to be -- roll their eyes over yet another Death of a Bookstore story. Like tales about dying newspapers, these lovesongs to a fleeting era and a sagging technology can be tiresome, both to younger folks who see the new media as a perfectly reasonable and even exciting replacement for what came before, and to older folks who have had it with the constant reminders that the culture that served them so well is vanishing before their eyes.

So when Bridget Warren and Todd Stewart announced the other day that they are shutting down Vertigo Books after 18 years, first in Dupont Circle and then in College Park, I had a certain hesitation about writing on this topic. I've rarely met a more passionate and knowledgeable bookseller than Warren, whose commitment to books and the people who read them is so powerful that she managed to conduct simultaneous careers as bookshop owner and as director of programming for the Prince George's County Public Library system, even while acting as unpaid den mother to countless local writers and readers.

But what finally compelled me to risk the wrath of those who've read one too many sad stories about shuttered bookshops was the letter Warren and Stewart wrote to their customers. It's not the standard nice-to-have-known-you expression of thanks. It's not even merely the rant you'd expect about how "you folks decided convenience was more important than relationships and intimacy," though there is some of that in the note.

It's both an analysis of what went wrong, and, refreshingly, a forward-looking piece that offers customers coupons to use for discounts at locally-owned small businesses that, unlike Vertigo, will still be around--at least for a while.

The note is frank: "Why are we closing? There are many reasons, but basically, not enough people buy books here." It goes on to argue that "way too many people (not you, but someone you know) are buying their books at Amazon." The down side of taking advantage of Amazon.com's discounts, ease of use and enormous selection is that your local bookseller cannot compete with the behemoth on price or choice. Rather, it offers more intangible benefits: Relationships--a real intellectual exchange with owners and staff who know their stuff and can guide you to more fulfilling reading. Community--readings, author events, and book clubs where you might connect with people whose ideas challenge your own. And a sense of place--a way to satisfy a yearning that even most gadget-happy folks have within them.

As Warren and Stewart put it:

"...your shopping dollars help create the community you want to live in. For every $10 you spend at locally-owned businesses, $4.50 stays in our community. The math is simple and compelling:
Vertigo Books $4.50
Barnes & Noble/Borders/Costco $1.30
Amazon $0.00
The money you spend with locally-owned businesses continues to circulate as we pay employees, buy supplies and pay taxes that are used to provide basic services to residents."

It's true that Amazon and other online booksellers have an unfair advantage because Interweb merchants still don't have to charge you sales tax--a government subsidy that might have been justified in the first months of the web's explosion into our economy, but now constitutes absurd aid for the richest and most powerful forces in many areas of business.

Warren and Stewart acknowledge that online shopping is seductive--which it is. Just an hour before I started writing this post, I ordered a book from Amazon. It was $7 cheaper than it was selling for at the terrific independent bookstore that's four blocks from my house, or at the soulless link in the Borders chain that's also four blocks away. The plain, ugly truth: I ordered it online because I couldn't stir myself to get up out of my chair, and Amazon offered free shipping.

The previous day, as I often do, I did get up and walk over to Politics & Prose, mainly because I needed to browse through several books before deciding which one suited my need. Other times, I walk over to meet a friend. Usually, if I choose the store over the online purchase, it's because I have a second motive--something beyond the quick, easy transaction. Even the very best and most creative booksellers face a huge hurdle if each customer must be lured in via the literary version of bread and circuses.

The ultimate proof of the superiority of the local bookseller is the point the Vertigo folks make about what's next:

What does Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, do for our community? We are:

* working for quality public schools
* advocating for smart growth and sustainable development
* pushing for comprehensive planning and public transit
* serving on local boards and committees
* supporting your causes
* and operating a business that recycles, reuses and donates.

And, except for that last item, we'll continue to do these things.

College Park, Prince George's County and all of the Washington area are the poorer for not having Vertigo Books around after April 25. But having the people of Vertigo still out there evangelizing for books is some solace. When a big company goes away, a Circuit City or a big bank, for example, the local impact is relatively minimal--some workers lose their jobs, but the effect is regional or national in scope. But when a small local business dies, we lose a chunk of ourselves, a piece of the thing we call community, the reason we live wherever we might live.

Aside from lamenting such losses, what's to be done? Surely no one wants to subsidize private booksellers, but we could reasonably decide to level the playing field and strip the Amazons of the world of the portion of their price advantage that comes from not paying sales taxes (that would also help our local communities by boosting tax revenues.)

Then there's the old question about our own behavior as consumers. I like the idea of supporting local businesses, but in practice, I do so mainly when those local businesses are well and interestingly enough run that they bring me in on the merits. They can be more expensive than the bargain basements of the web--but not wildly so. And there has to be value added in exchange for those modestly higher prices. Is that too high a bar to set for businesses run by our neighbors and friends? Come ahead with your views, in the poll and on the comment board below...

Continue the conversation on Potomac Confidential, my weekly discussion show here on the big web site--this week at a special day and time: Today (Wednesday) at 11 a.m. (The show returns to its regular Thursday noon time slot next week.)

By Marc Fisher |  April 15, 2009; 8:35 AM ET  | Category:  Books , Business , Culture , Development , Prince George's
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Comments

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The only brick and mortar bookstores I've been in lately have been Hole in the Wall in Falls Church and Old Book Store in McLean. Both of them used book stores.

Sometimes I go to Books a Million or B and N to browse/kill time.

Most of my offline reading these days is magazines.

Posted by: wiredog | April 15, 2009 9:07 AM

I like going to bookstores to shop and compare products, and to discover new things. But if I already know what I want, I normally go to the Web - it's too annoying to show up at a bookstore and find that they don't have what I want, when I could have just stayed home and clicked to get it delivered to me.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | April 15, 2009 9:37 AM

I do my best to buy my kids' books at Aladdin's Lamp Books, and get birthday gifts there (if a book is what we're giving). I'm doing my best to also support Tree Top Kids, a local toy chain, for birthday presents. I would be pretty upset if both of these went under. They are really convenient, and I hate schlepping to the big box stores.

For my own reading, I tend to buy from Amazon, or hit the semiannual library book sales, which supports the Library. I get most of my own books from those library sales.

And, you can't beat Ayer's Hardware in Westover (Arlington) for those things that you need: supplies for kids' school projects, workbooks, stickers, cooking items, plants, or hardware! Basically, it's an old-fashioned general store. I hope they continue to make it.

Posted by: NoVA-too | April 15, 2009 10:43 AM

We have always loved good independent bookstores and good newspapers. It's a huge loss to the whole community when, as you said in your column, the culture that served us so well is crumbling before our eyes. Things change, so many things we've taken for granted for so many years are disappearing, as ephemeral as cherry blossoms.
It's vitally important to support good community bookstores, both for new books and used books. My daughter grew up on books from Reston's Used Book Shop, which thankfully is still there at Lake Anne, and on new books from Imagination Station, which used to be in Lee Heights in Arlington, but went out of business a few years ago.
We've never bought a book from Amazon or any other online dealer. We're not rich people (far from it), but we want to support the kind of community-oriented businesses we believe in and want to keep.


Posted by: beth8 | April 15, 2009 11:33 AM

Amazon is not the sterile environment some seek to portray it as. It offers "a real intellectual exchange" with as many different people as a reader might want. Reviews, book lists, recommendations are all readily available.

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 15, 2009 11:58 AM

Mea culpa. I buy a lot of books from Amazon. I do often browse in brick-and-mortar stores, and I'll buy there for instant gratification, i.e., to have the book in my hands *right now*. Otherwise I'd rather get the cheaper price and greater selection from Amazon.

That said, one of my favorite bookstores in the world is Tattered Cover in Denver, an independent bookstore. (Too bad they don't have a branch in DC!)

Complicating matters for me these days is that I own a Sony Reader, which I like a lot. I recently had to decide between borrowing "World Without End" from my daughter or buying the e-book version. I ended up borrowing it (because I'm cheap), but the e-book version sure would have been easier to carry on the Metro. :) If e-books are in fact where the publishing industry is headed, *all* brick-and-mortar bookstores (except for used bookstores) will likely close eventually -- even the big guys like Borders and B&N.

I like Marc's point about beginning to make online retail behemoths pay sales tax, even though that will increase the price of the books I buy.

Posted by: lynnec | April 15, 2009 12:07 PM

The community-involvement point is simply silly, by the way. Vertigo Books doesn't participate in local politics; its *owners* do. And they say themselves that they're going to continue to do so. I have no idea what Warren and Stewart's politics are, but they're just individual voices like any of us. The idea that the community is somehow *obligated* to fund their personal political activities, and should feel guilty for not doing so, is breathtaking in its sense of entitlement.

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 15, 2009 12:17 PM

I can honestly say that I do not conduct any business of any type on-line, and I never will. It is cold, heartless, boring, plastic-like, horribly deficient, un-personal and dehumanizing. And it literally makes no sense to buy something without actually seeing it, looking at it, inspecting it--and holding it in your hands. It makes no sense. This crappy system of buying things on computers is actually not the answer to our business problems--it is the problem. And it makes no sense to buy things on line, considering the dangers of identity theft and other scams. Everyone: Get up off of your overweight behinds, take some initiative, and go out and actually interact with the world and buy products live, in person, in real storees that deal with real people--and products that you can look at, hold and see before you buy it. That is really the only normal way to conduct business, in any era.

Posted by: thefrontpage1 | April 15, 2009 12:24 PM

And, by the way, any editor who takes an overly-cynical view about stories about longtime, much-loved local businesses closing--which is real NEWS--needs to get out of the business. And this is coming from a 30-plus journalism veteran. The closing of Vertigo Books is a news story, it should be covered in the Metro section and in the Style section, and possibly it should be noted in the Business section. Heck, all three sections. It is a news story. There is no argument--it is a news story. Anyone who thinks otherwise has lost a big part of their news judgement.

Posted by: thefrontpage1 | April 15, 2009 12:27 PM

While I occasionally order from Amazon (generally because it's something I have not found elsewhere), I try to support independent bookstores as much as possible (though they are a rapidly vanishing entity around here). I still miss Mystery Books in Dupont Circle. A wonderful store in NC is McIntyre's Fine Books near Chapel Hill.

Posted by: lgp2 | April 15, 2009 12:53 PM

I worked for a couple of years in the mid 70s at one of D.C.'s legendary book dealers, the Savile Book Shop on P Street in Georgetown. We had enormous depth of stock, in house charge accounts, a delivery service, did special orders--we were a true "carriage trade" operation. Sadly, the store was sold to one Wally Kuralt, brother of the late Charles Kuralt, who operated a couple book stores in North Carolina.

I knew we were doomed when, shortly after the new owner took over the buying, a shipment arrived that contained a number of copies of The Shooter's Bible which, as you can guess, is about firearms. When asked, Kuralt said, "Oh...we sell a TON of those back home."

In Georgetown, we didn't sell so many. In a fairly short span of time, a store that had thrived since the early 50s and whose front door bore an inscribed plaque quoting the Christian Science Monitor saying "One of the best stocked bookshops in the world," was no more.

For a while, it became a Second Story Books. Don't know what's there now. It doesn't take Amazon to kill a book store.

Posted by: jhpurdy | April 15, 2009 1:18 PM

It's unfortunate to see another store go down. It's not anywhere near my neighborhood, but I imagine it's a loss.

More generally speaking, however...

...many shuttered shops deserved to fail.

Commercial enterprises are -- or should be -- all about the customers. Shops of any kind that cannot please customers typically have trouble succeeding. Times change, and so do the preferences of shoppers. I miss having more independent bookstores around, a couple in particular. If your prices are somewhat higher but shopping there is a good experience in other ways -- helpful staff, cool vibe, unique selection, convenient location, coffee, chairs, whatever, I'll happily give you my business. But if shopping in a store of any kind produces a dissatisfying experience, customers tend to avoid going there.

Posted by: seanpcarr | April 15, 2009 1:42 PM

...beware of those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing...
the current recession/depression resulted from those whose only values are market values, not human values

Posted by: beth8 | April 15, 2009 1:56 PM

Thanks for writing this. I didn't shed a single tear when Circuit City closed.

Vertigo Books--this wonderful place right here in my community, owned by people who value community in the same way that I do--hard to read that letter and not cry.

Posted by: PrinceGeorges | April 15, 2009 11:36 PM

Thanks for your honest assessment of your own laziness, Marc (buying a book from Amazon since you couldn't be bothered to go to your local bookshop four blocks away)-- it's refreshing, but dangerous. Would you still be employable if all your dead tree readers got "too lazy" to open their doors each day to pick up their copies of the Post and just read it online (without clicking the ads?). Something to ponder....

Posted by: foodie2009 | April 17, 2009 11:34 AM

I adore KramerBooks and buy some books there, but one can't ignore the very real deterrent of traffic in this region. When I am in the city, I'm biking, metroing and walking everywhere, but if I'm not, you couldn't pay me to drive to a bookstore in a mall and jockey for a parking spot.
The ease of searching for a book online vs. browsing in a bookstore elbow to elbow with others is also a factor.

Posted by: kiry | April 17, 2009 1:54 PM

It's too bad about Vertigo books. I never went there but I imagine that like most independent bookstores they offered incredible service, had a really knowledgeable staff and were completely ignored except by a small (and probably shrinking) but devoted customer base.

I have to admit that I buy books from a lot of locations. Frankly I buy books everywhere from Amazon to Barnes and Noble, from online e-book dealers to independent bookstores.

When I choose Amazon because it's usually often cheap and because I'm online already, and the few times I buy from Barnes and Noble it's simply because there's one about a half hour walk from my house.

But for the most part I buy my books from Politics and Prose here in DC. There's just a completely different experience buying a book there than I get online. The staff is friendly and well-read and can usually find me something they know I will love, but have never even heard of, simply by their asking me a few relevant questions.

Compare this with going into a Borders or a Barnes and Noble where, even when you are lucky enough to get a knowledgeable staff member, they are usually so rushed they don't have time to give good customer service. Or Compare this to Amazon where you can't actually feel the book in your hands or flip through the pages before you buy it.

In the end, compared to a place like Politics and Prose, or Vertigo or Busboys and Poets or Kramer's, all these places really have going for them is the price.

Posted by: ltownsend1 | April 20, 2009 1:21 PM

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