Saturday, December 17, 2011

On Bookstores

I assume all of you have read Farhod Manjoo's takedown of independent bookstores in Slate. For the benefit of those who haven't, his argument boils down to this: by selling books for lower prices, Amazon has done more than any other business in America to foster reading. He goes so far as to argue that Amazon is the "only thing saving" literary culture. He also argues that bookstores are economically "inefficient:" because they spend money on utilities, rent and employees, small bookstores have to sell books at "a huge markup."

My response to his first point is that I think more credit is due to Oprah's Book Club than to Amazon for fostering reading in America. A talk show host with roughly 40 million loyal fans told them to go read Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, and Tolstoy, and many of them actually did it. At least one academic historian credits her with democratizing reading, enabling American women who had never thought of themselves as "literary" to experience the pleasures of reading and of talking about what they've read, and to learn that their opinions matter. Oprah has also been credited with the proliferation of book groups in the U.S. in recent years.

Furthermore, to log on to Amazon and begin shopping a person must be already interested in looking for books. I doubt that Amazon's mere existence led millions of Americans to think, "Well, since I don't have to leave the house to do it, I think I'll buy some books" (If that is the case, Americans are even lazier than I thought).

As for bookstores being "inefficient," they're probably no more inefficient than any other business that doesn't operate on the scale of Walmart. Small bookstores create local jobs and bring foot traffic to neighboring businesses. They enrich neighborhoods in myriad ways—far more than they would if they were just another boarded-up vacant retail space (which is the inevitable result of the Amazon/Walmart business model). And if Amazon's labor practices are an example of "efficiency," then I want nothing to do with it.

Manjoo derides independent bookstores for having "paltry selections" and "no customer reviews." But with Amazon you have to already have some idea of what you're looking for. You can't really browse the shelves with Amazon. There are no surprises waiting for you the way there have been for me in brick-and-mortar bookstores, like my adolescent discovery of Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem or my graduate student stumbling upon Christopher Hitchens' The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice.

As for the selections being "paltry," bookstores can place orders for titles they don't have. And as for the lack of "customer reviews," bookstores have staff recommendations, which Manjoo sneers at as akin to "choosing your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends." He's ignoring the obvious fact that people work in bookstores because they love books—God knows it's not for the money. The average bookstore employee is probably someone whose preferred leisure activity is reading. He or she is probably very well educated. Why wouldn't you welcome their book suggestions?

I will close with my childhood memories of an independent bookstore that was very important to me growing up. It was the unimaginatively named "Book Mart" in the even more unfortunately named Starkville, Mississippi. The store was roughly a forty minute drive from my home town. My parents were both avid SEC football fans, and by age nine or ten they realized I would never be one. So when they went to Starkville on a Saturday afternoon to watch Mississippi State football they would simply drop me off at the Book Mart and pick me up when the game was over. It seems shocking now. I can't even imagine the presumption that led my father to approach two owners of a business and ask them if they would babysit his nine-year-old son.

The Book Mart was owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Brown who were delighted to have me there. And the store was a wonder to me as a child. I never imagined there could be so many books in one place. And nothing about the Book Mart was "efficient." One of the top shelves was taken up with a third edition (published from 1788 to 1797) of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was never intended to be sold. It was just there. They also refused to charge students sales tax if they were buying classics such as Hawthorne, Dickens or Tolstoy.

Every time I was dropped off there, after chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Brown for a bit, I would collect an armload of books, walk to one of the alcoves in the back and sit on the floor reading (when my parents came to pick me up after the game they would buy me one or two of the books I liked). I wasn't very discriminating as a child. I devoured a lot of dreck: G.A. Henty, Rudyard Kipling ....but that store was also where I discovered Greek and Norse mythology, the Arthurian legends, and many other stories that meant a great deal to me as a child, and that even now I can't dismiss.

I became a sort of store mascot: regular customers would come in on a Saturday, find me in the back, say hello, and ask what I was reading. I even went so far as to venture my opinions on the business: I would take books off the remainders table and tell Mrs. Brown she should raise the prices. Invariably her husband would hear me and say from somewhere in the store, "I told you..."

Years later when I went to college in that same town I would visit the Book Mart and it still had a little of its old magic. It's where I discovered John McPhee, Walker Percy, John Irving and many other writers. They don't mean as much to me as they once did, but they were steps to something better.

I look back on the Book Mart, and the Browns, and I feel grateful.

I will never feel that way about Amazon.

1 comment:

Liam O'Shiel said...

Kevin - please consider reviewing my new novel entitled "Eirelan." You can read about it on Amazon and also at It is set in an Ireland of the distant future. I believe the book would appeal to many readers in the Boston area. I will be happy to provide you with a print copy upon your request.

Liam O'Shiel
Link to Amazon:

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