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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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There is no doubt that Amazon employs smart people whose knowledge of books is top-notch; but as a reader or a consumer you don’t get to interact with them.  Amazon excels at providing universal access, warehousing and fulfillment, and the value of these services should not be minimized.  But Amazon and physical bookstores excel in different areas and provide different services.  Amazon’s “ability to foster literary culture” is made stronger by the existence of independent bookstores because they provide strength in areas that Amazon is the weakest.

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The irony in the pitting of Amazon against indies is that each business has made the other better.  Amazon forced a revolution in the way publishers warehouse and fulfill orders, demanding quick and efficient turnaround, which benefited brick and mortars.  It has also, of course, forced virtually all independent bookstores onto the web, a service that though stores might have preferred to avoid providing, consumers absolutely want.  Conversely, Amazon, who markets itself as the place where you can find any book, sources its hard-to-find and out-of-print titles from some of the most independent booksellers of all – tiny operations, whether actual stores or individuals. 

There is no single driver of a vibrant book-reading culture.  By definition, there couldn’t be.  “Collective voice” sites like Goodreads.com are currently playing an invaluable role in our culture and are doing an enormous amount to foster a literary culture.  But reader reviews, like shelf-talkers in bookstores, don’t tell me whether I’ll like a book; they only tell me that you did.  And crowd sourcing only works if there’s a crowd there to source.

I would be at a loss if I had to chose between the expertise of great booksellers and the unique displays their bookstores provide, and websites like Goodreads that offer a forum for all readers to review and contribute to the collective rating of a book.  We are richer as a culture because we have both.

Happily, the literary world isn’t either-or in the case of Goodreads vs. booksellers.  It remains to be seen whether that’s the case when you stack Amazon against physical bookstores.  We as readers, as thinkers, as citizens better hope it isn’t.  Amazon provides some excellent services, but if we lose brick and mortar shops because of it, you’d better believe we will be less well served.

I’m skeptical of the notion that we’d all be better off if we never had to leave our couches to make purchases.  Manjoo puts forth that “bookstores are difficult to use,” that they have “no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine.”  Becoming a society that finds alphabetical organization and the act of asking another person for a recommendation or for help locating a book challenging (because, sure, some books could be shelved in either psychology or self-help and you might have to walk from one section to another and look in more than one place, were you left to your own devices) is not an end we should be striving for.

Anyone who claims to value literary culture should be advocating for more: more books, more readers, more access, more services, more exposure, more formats. More choices. Anyone who advocates for the opposite either doesn’t really care or is just posturing.  That includes you, Mr. Manjoo. 

Rachel Meier regularly blogs on books for the Monitor.

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