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More books, more choices: why America needs its indies

Farhad Manjoo thinks corner bookstores are simply comfy and quaint. He couldn't be more wrong.

By Rachel MeierStaff Writer / December 16, 2011

At the Booksmith, an independent bookstore owned by Christin Evans (r.) and Praveen Madan (l.), her husband, and located in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, customer preferences are sometimes different from those of customers at another San Francisco indie just four miles away.

Tony Avelar/Christian Science Monitor

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This week, the novelist Richard Russo wrote an op-ed column for The New York Times disparaging Amazon’s recent pricing promotion.  The column went on to talk more broadly about Amazon and independent booksellers.  In response, Slate published a piece entitled Don’t Support Your Local Bookstore by Farhad Manjoo. In his article Manjoo tells his readers “if you’re a novelist – not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry – you should thank him [Jeff Bezos, founder, president, and CEO of Amazon] for crushing that precious indie on the corner.”  

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At the heart of both authors' pieces is the question of what best promotes a literary or book-reading culture.  Not surprisingly, both articles have received passionate responses from readers and inspired thousands of comments online.

Manjoo says that the “bread and butter” of local bookstores is the same “mass-manufactured goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan. It doesn’t make a difference whether you buy Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs at City Lights, Powell’s, Politics & Prose, or Amazon – it’s the same book everywhere.”

It does make a difference, but not for the reasons Russo lauds or Manjoo disparages.

Part of the value of independent bookstores as a whole is that there is a multitude of people controlling what’s bought, what’s promoted, and what’s displayed.  Of course Walter Isaacson’s "Steve Jobs" is the same book everywhere.  What’s different is what’s sitting on the display table next to "Steve Jobs."  It absolutely matters where you buy your copy, not because of the book itself but because of what you’re exposed to while you’re shopping.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines culture as “the refinement of mind, tastes, and manners; artistic and intellectual development; the artistic and intellectual side of civilization; the cultivation or development of the mind.”

Culture, at a least a compelling one, develops when people are collectively engaged with a whole range of books, authors, artists, musicians, television shows, theater, magazines, etc.  We would not consider an artistically robust culture to be one where everyone had been exposed to Matisse and Dali but no one else.  The same is true of a literary culture: to have a good one, it is vital that a whole lot of people are reading, being exposed to, picking up, talking about, considering, engaging with, and blogging on a whole lot of books. In other words, more is more.  In fact, more is critical.

All bookstores (with few exceptions) are going to stock and display the category killers: "Steve Jobs," Stephen King, "The Night Circus."  They would be doing their customers and themselves a disservice if they didn’t.  Farhad Manjoo’s assertion that there is “little that is ‘local’ about most local bookstores” is inaccurate: what makes a local bookstore “local,” and also relevant, is its reflection of the tastes, eccentricities, fads, and buying habits of the community it serves.

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