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 , Staff Writer

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    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.
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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.”  

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.”

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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.

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.

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."

I spent years in the independent book business, and now I work at a major publishing house in Manhattan. On my worst days I can give you a better book recommendation than Amazon’s and so can any number of my former colleagues.

In almost all other industries, we value experts and their opinions, and often reward their experience monetarily; excellent lawyers demand and receive a much higher fee than incompetent ones. It is alarming that we don’t place that same value on professionals working in the book business.

There is no other industry in which consumers express outrage at being asked to pay list price.  Can you imagine going into a clothing store and thinking it unreasonable of the merchant to require you to pay the $45.00 price printed on the tag of a shirt?  How about going into a supermarket and refusing to pay the price listed for your box of cereal?  Sure, you can opt to purchase generic Kix, but books are unique: there is no generic edition of "The Time Traveler’s Wife."  Bookstores aren’t selling books at a markup; Amazon is selling them at a markdown.  And yes, whether you call a markdown at one retailer a markup at another, a $15.00 book less 50% is always $7.50.  Amazon makes its money by assuming you’ll still spend that same $15.00—you’re just going to buy two books.  And Manjoo is right in his assertion that that is a boon for an individual reader and for the book-reading culture as a whole, assuming that that same customer doesn’t in fact buy one book and one video game or simply pocket the other $7.50.  But what is the monetary value of a book that you discovered via bookstore display, bookseller suggestion, or recommendation from a friend who discovered it in a store—a book you never would have found without those influences? 

In 2010 a novel called "Tinkers," by Paul Harding, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  The novel was published by Bellevue Literary Press, a tiny press associated with a literary journal called Bellevue Literary Review.  "Tinkers" was literally plucked from obscurity by a few independent booksellers who came across it, loved it, and were determined to get it national recognition. "Tinkers" went on to be named one of the hundred Best Novels of 2009 by Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com and one of the Best Books of 2009 by NPR and by Library Journal.  It was shortlisted for the Mercantile Library First Novel Award and, as previously mentioned, won a Pulitzer. 

In 2010 Amazon decided to stop selling Macmillan titles on its site because it didn’t want to capitulate to the terms of purchase Macmillan was asking for its e-books.  That was a crisis, and I don’t mean for Macmillan or Amazon – I mean for us, as readers.  Ultimately Amazon agreed to continue working with Macmillan, but there was a period of time, the last weekend in January, 2010, where virtually none of the thousands of books Macmillan published were for sale at Amazon (by February 4 some Macmillan titles still hadn’t had their buy buttons turned back on).  Now imagine if Amazon had been the only game in town. 

Farhad Manjoo took a look at some of the fringe benefits of shopping at independent bookstores – “unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day”– and dismissed those perks as superfluous. And he’s right. They are. But he ignored primary and substantive benefits of independent bookstores and, in doing so, rendered his assessment irrelevant.

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.

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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