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
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
Previous: Endless Summer: Inside A Baseball Losing Streak | Next: The 'Whitey From Virginia' Who Believed In Black Kids
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: wiredog | April 15, 2009 9:07 AM
Posted by: Lindemann777 | April 15, 2009 9:37 AM
Posted by: NoVA-too | April 15, 2009 10:43 AM
Posted by: beth8 | April 15, 2009 11:33 AM
Posted by: tomtildrum | April 15, 2009 11:58 AM
Posted by: lynnec | April 15, 2009 12:07 PM
Posted by: tomtildrum | April 15, 2009 12:17 PM
Posted by: thefrontpage1 | April 15, 2009 12:24 PM
Posted by: thefrontpage1 | April 15, 2009 12:27 PM
Posted by: lgp2 | April 15, 2009 12:53 PM
Posted by: jhpurdy | April 15, 2009 1:18 PM
Posted by: seanpcarr | April 15, 2009 1:42 PM
Posted by: beth8 | April 15, 2009 1:56 PM
Posted by: PrinceGeorges | April 15, 2009 11:36 PM
Posted by: foodie2009 | April 17, 2009 11:34 AM
Posted by: kiry | April 17, 2009 1:54 PM
Posted by: ltownsend1 | April 20, 2009 1:21 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.