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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.

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The bestsellers at a store in San Francisco are not going to be the same as the bestsellers in Dayton, Ohio. Moreover, the best-selling sections at one store in San Francisco may vary wildly from those at another. I ran a bookstore in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, and one of the best performing categories there was counterculture.  I don’t know many stores that even have a counterculture section, let alone a robust one.  And though the community we served had a lot of artists, writers, and “creative types,” poetry was not in high demand with our customers.  By contrast, City Lights Books sees a huge demand for poetry books and houses one of the most well-stocked poetry sections in the country. Booksmith, in the Haight, and City Lights, in North Beach, are located 4.2 miles apart.

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You are no more likely to discover a book buried in the stacks of a bookstore (independent or otherwise) than you are to find it perusing Amazon’s webpages.  But you are more likely to discover something different, because there is a unique group of people reading, selecting, and promoting titles at each store.

Sure, a number of bookstores may have purchased one or two copies of Jenny Erpenbeck’s truly excellent novel, "Visitation," when it was released last fall, but not many of them purchased a stack of fifteen and put in on the new and recommended fiction table.  Northern California’s Bookshop Santa Cruz did because a staff member there was crazy about it.  If you had walked into that store looking for "The Help," a national bestseller, you would have found it on display at the front of the store and next to it, you would have spotted "Visitation."  Maybe it would have appealed to you and maybe it wouldn’t have, but you would have been introduced to it.  And there are countless opportunities for discovery like that in every bookstore.  It’s not about whether one store makes better choices than another in regard to what it stocks and displays on its shelves; it’s about the variety of choices.  Literary culture is not only created by “getting people to buy a whole heckload of books,” as Manjoo claims; it is cradled by getting people to buy a whole heckload of different books.

What makes excellent booksellers excellent is that they read a ton, they are surrounded by and have at their disposal people who do the same, and that they are skilled at the practice of giving recommendations.  Make no mistake, giving recommendations is a skill. Just ask any master sommelier (or customer who has had the misfortune of interacting with a lousy bookseller).  You have to listen to what a customer says about their tastes, interests, and desires and discern from that what it is they’re looking for, what will most satisfy them right now.  It is a delicate process of matchmaking.

Amazon does not, as Manjoo claims, suggest “books based on others you’ve read”; it suggests books based on others you’ve purchased, viewed, or rated, and there is a difference.  An algorithm can’t automatically distinguish between what you bought to read for yourself and what you purchased for your sister-in-law (you can direct it to exclude items by digging around in Amazon’s “Recommended for You” and selecting items individually, but most people don’t do this regularly).  It won’t know what you haven’t read yet or why you hated something.  It won't understand that, though you usually buy biographies, you’re interested in delving into fiction and don’t have the vaguest notion where to start.  It won’t know that the reading experience you’re looking to have is best characterized as similar to the one you had when you read Wallace Stegner’s "Angle of Repose."

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