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Save Bookstores, Or Let The Market Decide?

The closing of Vertigo Books in College Park this weekend has readers talking about whether the merits of locally-owned, independent bookstores create any obligation to do business at shops that may be a bit pricier, but add value to our communities in other ways.

Here's a peek at some of the better email traffic since my piece ran earlier this week:

My argument that Amazon and other online booksellers have an unfair advantage because they don't charge sales tax--as well as my comment about big chain bookstores being "soulless"--drew some push-back from folks who work at those places and see themselves as ambassadors for books.

"I love books and buy a lot of them....usually from Amazon, but not always. I also work at an Amazon shipping facility. They aren't all evil. Our Amazon is located out in the middle of the Nevada desert. There were no jobs out here until Amazon moved in. I've worked there for 10 years. They pay well, have flexible hours and good benefits. I am able to stimulate the economy with my Amazon paychecks.

What I like about Amazon is that they stick with hiring Americans....very rare for out West were at least 1/3 (or more) of the workforce is Hispanic...some legal some not. So maybe that helps make up for the sales tax thing. At least the company is helping to keep American citizens employed and our money stays in this country. Gotta go buy groceries now. Payday was Friday....yeah!!

Verna, who worked at Waldenbooks, wrote in defense of her employer:

"Although I am writing about a chain bookstore that was a part of the 'soulless' Borders group, I nonetheless lament the closing of the Waldenbooks where I was a part-time bookseller for eight years. Waldenbooks did not have an excellent selection or the lowest prices, but we had good customer service and a good number of regular customers. We filled a need in an area where many minorities and seniors live who do not drive and rely on public transportation. We prided ourselves on helping our customers and what we lacked in stock we made up in congenial customer assistance and special orders. The closest bookstore to us is about five miles away and when we referred our customers to one of these other stores we might as well have asked them to fly to Mars. I feel as though I am letting down a group of friends and depriving them of books. For the first time in 17 years we did not show a profit in 2008. I attribute that to the economy more than Amazon.com. No, we were not the best bookstore, but many people came in to tell us how much they would miss us, and I will certainly miss them."

Reader John Hyland wrote an eloquent love song to a book culture that seems to be slipping away:

It is terribly sad to lose such patches of literary heaven simply because people aren't buying enough books from these places to sustain them. While I have done my best to be a loyal patron and browser myself, I must acknowledge that I have periodically purchased books from Amazon. For me to buy a book at a retail store requires planning, a minimal half-hour trip in the car, and the agony and ecstasy of walking amongst hundreds of books that I would love to have, but cannot afford.

As I sit typing this message to you, I am surrounded by my collection of cherished books and publications and files that I value far more than the monetary investment it required to accumulate them. Your shared sense of loss is keenly felt by millions of book lovers and consumers everywhere, and we stand with you in expressing the sadness of that loss, but we must find a way to adapt as we reconstruct the bookstores of the future.

I have received many expressions of loss and concern about bookstores and books, but I have also heard from quite a few people who essentially view books and book culture as something to be relegated to the trash heap of history. These are not only young people; to the contrary, the harshest converts to the idea that digital culture requires the elimination of what preceded it tend to be older folks. To my surprise, most college kids I talk to are strong believers in the superiority of print for many purposes, even as they live in and embrace the electronic world.

Reader Joe Apple:

"I can't say I'm too sorry about the current situation. First, bookstores. I go to a nationwide
bookstore and buy a book because I need it today. Do I qualify for the same discount that I would get from Amazon? Of course not because I'm not a member of "their club" that costs around $30.00/year. I wonder why I don't buy more books from them?

I went to another national office supply store to buy some DVD labels. Oh, they don't carry the same brand labels that I bought the last time I was there. Of course, when I go on that brand's website, I find exactly what I need. Now if I could get an internet grocery store to deliver a salad. I go to my grocery store and the salad bar is not open, because all of the personnel except one lone checkout person are in a management meeting.

No, stores deserve all of the agony they get. Stores who assume that there will always be another sucker that will buy something don't deserve a break."

In general, I agree that most products are sold far more efficiently online. I don't think I've been inside an office supply store since the invention of the web, nor do I expect ever to be in one again. But buying certain items such as books, clothing and food often entails complex choices that require either human assistance or the employment of various human senses--touch, smell--that don't quite communicate on the net. That's where physical retail will focus from hereon--that, and retail as entertainment and social endeavor. That service should indeed cost extra, but retailers haven't yet figured out an effective way to communicate that idea to consumers. Maybe they should steal a page from the movie industry, which has shown that it's still possible to get people to pay to go to see something that they could just as easily--and much more cheaply--see at home.

Reader Bill Weisberg argues that it's not quite right to portray Amazon as the malevolent killer of local bookshops:

"Local bookstores are failing because most readers value the convenience and price advantage of Amazon over the service they receive from a local bookstore. (The same is true, of course, of the Wal-Mart vs. old downtown issue; most people prefer inexpensive goods to personal service; most of the complaints about that trade-off come from those who don't need to watch their dollars, I suspect.) I find it a tad patronizing for book buyers to be told that they should prefer to pay more, for a smaller selection of books (chosen by someone else).

Second, I have always wondered how many local bookstore patrons actually use the services offered by a local store, particularly the staff selections, etc. When I am approached by the staff at such a store, my reaction to the "may I help you" is usually "thanks, just browsing." Browsing is why I like a physical store; if I know what I want, I tend to shop Amazon. I would guess that the reasonably well-educated patrons of the local bookstore don't, actually, get much in the way of direction from the staff."

I bet Weisberg is right that most patrons don't make much use of the human recommendation engines at the local bookstore, but that doesn't mean we don't still draw some value from the presence of knowledgeable clerks. They contribute to a welcoming and distinctive atmosphere, a sense of place. All very amorphous stuff, but nonetheless a value that people talk about with great admiration--just listen to the stories people tell about the great retail shops of their youth (no matter how old or young they may be). Those tales almost always involve great quirky and somehow knowledgeable clerks and proprietors who manage to make their shops seem like someplace special.

Is there another model? After more than two decades of struggle to find a secure footing as an independent bookstore in downtown Washington, Chapters Literary Bookstore closed its doors in 2007. But now it is trying for a rebirth. The shop has become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, now called Chapters Literary Arts Center & Bookstore. Chapters owner Terri Merz has signed a letter of intent to move into 601 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The idea is to not only sell books, but add a reference library, a letterpress center and a tea bar. The non-profit would also conduct literary programs both for customers and for people who work next door at D.C. Superior Court and the Public Defender Service. Chapters has 75 days to raise money to pay for its new home. For information, e-mail chapters.literary@erols.com or visit www.chaptersliterary.com.

We are all diminished by our natural desire to buy goods at artificially low prices. As the housing collapse demonstrates (and the car industry's woes as well), the illusion fostered by the big box store mentality that prices can always be lower is based on a combination of fraud and abuse of workers. If consumers prefer rock-bottom prices to good service, that's fine--that's why I shop at Price Club rather than Fresh Fields. But to make that choice without recognizing that we will pay for those low prices in other, huge ways (economic inequality, social strife here and abroad) is naive and ultimately destructive.

By Marc Fisher |  April 24, 2009; 8:10 AM ET  | Category:  Books , Business , Maryland , Prince George's
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Comments

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Really? ANOTHER column on the demise of the independent bookstore? After you recognized in your earlier column:

"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."

The horse is dead - stop flogging it!

Posted by: dcd1 | April 24, 2009 9:13 AM

Marc,
I think this is, overall, a fine post. But I'll admit I read most of it distractedly after the first blatantly racist reader comment. Hispanics aren't American? Are blacks? Asians? I would imagine this reader thinks not.
Your reader is not merely commenting that Amazon doesn't hire illegal aliens, but that they hire "American" when there are so many Hispanics in the population. Why choose this comment? Why give voice to that racism? Last I checked, the only "pure" Americans are on reservations.

Posted by: BrentwoodGuy | April 24, 2009 9:13 AM

Lose the first e-mail. As BrentwoodGuy pointed out, it's racist. And, yes, I've been in that part of the country and seen how many hispanics (legal and otherwise) there are. Still racist to call all hispanics non-Americans.

Posted by: wiredog | April 24, 2009 9:31 AM

What is a book? Is it the paper and binding, or is it the content? If it's just the content, then the Amazon kindle is the future of Books. I don't see how local (or chain) bookstores compete with that.

Thousands of free books at Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

Thousands of books at Amazon for less than the paperback price. Many newspapers and magazines there as well. Why subscribe to the Dead Tree Post when I can get it on Kindle. Especially since the comics are now unreadably small?

Posted by: wiredog | April 24, 2009 9:44 AM

Vertigo Books failed because people didn't want to pay the prices they asked for their books. Or because they didn't want to buy the books Vertigo had for sale. My husband and I went into the store several times. I think we bought one book between us.

Most of their stock seemed to be about oppressed people and/or injustice in the world.This is not stuff I wanted to read.

Posted by: confused1 | April 24, 2009 9:47 AM

Part of the problem is the significant delta between the bookstore price and online prices. It's not just cheaper it's waaaay cheaper.
it's not only books but other retailers who're taking a beating. When I need a new motorcycle helmet, I go to [local shop who shall remain nameless] to size and examine. I would love to buy from them but their prices are 25%-35% higher. I wouldn't mind paying a bit more, but come on! And now with everyone offering free shipping. I assuage my conscience by buying from a brick-and-mortar store in FL who also sell online, but it's waay cheaper than buying here.

Posted by: ronjaboy | April 24, 2009 10:14 AM

Marc:

The headline to this posts asks whether the market should decide. The problems is, the playing field isn't level. In my state of Maryland, the home of Vertigo Books, online retailers start with a six percent cost advantage because they don't collect sales tax on purchases.

It is stupid that we have tax laws that give advantages to out of state businesses that do nothing for my community. But because one Amazon has more lobbying power than a thousand Vertigo Book stores, that advantage continues.

It is easy for me to buy a book or whatever product online and save a little bit of money. But when everyone does that multiple times we end up with communities that don't have jobs, don't have a tax base, don't have a real community.

As for me, I vote for community. It's okay to pay a spot more (and sometimes a spot less).

Posted by: PrinceGeorges | April 24, 2009 2:32 PM

I think Chapters has the right idea - rethinking what they provide; it's just disappointing it took their potential demise to make them rethink what they offer.
I'd be happy to see Barnes & Noble and Borders go away (since I don't shop there anyway).
But since you asked - yes, let the market decide. If, as a business owner, you're too overwhelmed to think about the service(s) your business provides (in addition to the material) and make that work in both kinds of markets (prosperous or not) , then I've got little patience (or $$) to let you continue to take my money (or continue to give you my money). (and maybe you shouldn't be a business owner)

Posted by: robjdisc | April 24, 2009 4:47 PM

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