Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bookstores and Beyond: Amazons and Little Guys at the Garden Party

I received an email from someone who appreciated my recent review of Charles Bowden's book but has a low opinion of Amazon and its effect on local bookstores and wondered why I took part in that. I decided I'd respond with a post as it might get an interesting discussion going, and because I've got some history with the issue from a few perspectives. And then it somehow led back to the book.

I lived in Boston or the surrounding area for most of my life, and I expect to be moving back there at the end of June. One of my favorite things about the Boston area is the large number of bookstores.

My long time favorite was WordsWorth in Cambridge--well over 100,000 titles at its peak, all discounted, a strong nature section where I bought many books. Amazon started online in 1995; WordsWorth tried adding an online presence to compete but eventually closed in 2004 after I'd left the area but it had been in decline for quite a few years. No doubt that was in part due to Amazon and its deeper discounts; I certainly was doing most of my bookbuying in the late 90s, the period of my life when I had the most disposable income, most of which got spent on books, at Amazon. I liked (and still do) the usefulness of its enormous selection
as a research tool and, as a thrifty New Englander, its cheapest prices.

So I'm sure I played my small part in the closing of one of my favorite stores and I thought it was a shame when it closed as most of us tend to think of all change to places we love. But a few blocks down the street was Harvard Book Store (not University affiliated) which opened in 1932 and is still open and thriving, regardless of Amazon and the internet and the megachains.

The biggest bookstore in Boston was Waterstone's, part of an international chain. They had a huge selection which I enjoyed browsing but I rarely bought anything there because they charged list price; they closed following a fire. Another favorite was Avenue Victor Hugo--the store closed but remains alive online.

Over in Brookline, where I lived for a few years, Brookline Booksmith has been a local favorite (though never one of mine) since 1961. Lots of people were predicting doom when a Barnes & Noble store opened a few blocks away in the 1990s. I recently read that the B&N store has closed; Brookline Booksmith is still open.

In the late 90s, I managed the small bookstore of a professional college where we sold mostly textbooks and equipment. We not only had students who bought items online at a lower price than we could afford to charge; they actually had the nerve to have them shipped to the bookstore to be picked up since they weren't home during the day. The college store later stopped selling textbooks which were instead offered at a nearby Barnes & Noble.

Here in Duluth, there's a small bookstore which had a great bookclub run by a friend who used to work there, but otherwise I've never had any affection for the store though I recognize its contribution to the community. And over in Marquette, MI is a great little bookstore called Snowbound Books. It's been around since 1984 and I'd hate to see it go out of business, but I wouldn't mind at all if Amazon helped put a regional chain which has a store there out of business.

All of which is to say that while Amazon and other large online or physical stores have undoubtedly contributed to the closing of some stores, others have survived and beaten the giants. Although I'm more and more sympathetic to the viewpoint as I get older, picking one point in time and saying that's how things should remain, whether it's in retail stores or societal values or in determining which species are considered native or invasive, is arbitrary and really just a denial of change.

If a small bookstore wanted to offer me free books in exchange for writing reviews on its website I'd be perfectly willing to do so, but I also have no regrets for the thousands of dollars I spent at Amazon over the years. They offered me better selection, better prices, and more convenient, less hassled shopping--should I be required to support a business which offers me less? And where exactly would we stop on that trail? Should we not buy books from national publishers which have offered authors more money than local publishers? Should we stop reading the authors who leave those local publishers for a better deal?

Sure, I'm not a fan of globalization and large corporations just as I'm not a fan of much of the change which is going on in the world. But if I were to be 100% consistent with those beliefs I not only wouldn't shop at Amazon, I wouldn't be using a computer or electricity or living indoors.

I suppose one's choices depend on individual priorities (for example, I think not eating animals is more important than whether someone shops at Amazon or Walmart or who they vote for) and that we're all better at living our ideal lives in some ways than others. I'm proud to have never owned a car and to that extent not contributed to habitat destruction, road kill, oil drilling, war, and a wide variety of pollution, but it's probably due at least as much to the fact that I hated driving as it is to the values which have led me to choose a simple life in many other ways. And though it's rare, I'm not so pure that I won't gladly accept a ride when it's necessary or sometimes just because I want to make my life easier.

And some of the choices may be a matter of that acceptance which Bowden writes of. Can I stop climate change or globalization or all the suffering our species causes other species every day or what's coming for billions of humans? No, I can't. It seems to me that an awful lot of the small number of people who even bother to think about such things need to tell themselves they can. I don't know, maybe they really believe it, maybe they need hope, or false hope, or faith. Maybe I need the pain and sadness which is part of accepting what I see as the truth. I only know that as in that Bowden quote, for me there's only one Garden of Eden worth believing in.

There have been many times when I wished I lived in a much earlier time, or a commune, or a monastery, anywhere where I could deny or not take part in what is happening all around me. But though I choose to not take part in many of the typical ways of life of this time and place, this time and place is when and where I live whether I would have chosen it or not. On different days, either the acceptance or the resistance will run stronger and the days will be dominated by sad smiles, or angry frustration, or deep breaths of peace. Some days I'd rather be an ecoterrorist; other days, a Taoist. Either way, I'll still be here tomorrow. Until the day when I'm not, cast out of the ever-changing, uncontrollable Garden.


Terry said...

"...wouldn't be using a computer or electricity or living indoors."

I was going to say living in doors, at least, should be possible in a broadly sustainable way, but now I realize I'm not sure if that's the case, at least not for 6.7 billion. And if you drop the population far enough just about anything is sustainable, so that would be cheating.

Allan Stellar said...

I shop at Amazon. Some friends have given me guff about this. And I agree with much of what you say.

We tend to equate small bookstores with the romantic notion of small farmers. Well, I feel the small organic farmer is much more important than the small bookstores.

We need more readers. Having a bookstore is less important.

The best thing is to support your local library. And to support the small publishers. Publishing isn't in any danger of going away; in fact, more books are published every year. Self publishing has exploded. There are 90 million blogs to read. Writing and Publishing (even small electronic journals like yours) are flourishing. Ideas are being decimated.

I don't think the death of the small bookstores has diminished intellectual opinion one iota. Yes, I miss them. But I do like Amazon too...

greentangle said...

Terry--Yeah, and actually I don't think 6.7 billion could live sustainably outdoors either.

I missed another bear roaming the neighborhood last week.

Allan--Yes, I love libraries though I'm about to stop volunteering because of all the things I need to do before moving. Really, I like big bookstores much more than small ones because the small ones rarely have the type of books I'm interested in.

For some reason the idea of 90 million blogs made me think of Bogart: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world. . .