Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Amazon, indie stores and elitism among readers

A couple of weeks ago, Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist at Slate, published one of those "Behold and click upon my courageous unconventional views!" articles that the online magazine is famous for. Manjoo took aim at the popular wisdom (at least among the literati) that Amazon is the Devil to the saintly and struggling local, independent book store; that all those one-click purchases made at the online behemoth are acts of literary heresy by stupid and selfish people who care more for low cost and convenience than the preservation of literary culture. Majoo wrote:

All of which is to say that I was primed to nod in vigorous agreement when I saw novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed taking on Amazon’s thuggish ways. But as I waded into Russo’s piece—which was widely passed around on Tuesday—I realized that he’d made a critical and common mistake in his argument. Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores. Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, “doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.”
That’s simply bogus. As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books. With his creepy laugh and Dr. Evil smile, Bezos is an easy guy to hate, and I’ve previously worried that he’d ruin the book industry. But 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 for crushing that precious indie on the corner. Read more...

Now, that bit about longing for the demise of the local independent bookstore? Typical Slate inflammatory nonsense. But for different reasons, I'm becoming uncomfortable with the genuflection to indie bookstores and demonization of Amazon and big book retailers. I think that too much of the discussion smacks of classism and a desire for the right sort of people to hold on to literary privilege. Consider this point from David Plotz on the December 16 episode of Slate's Political Gabfest Podcast:
"All you need to know to defend the independent bookstore...If you think of it as a transactional question...Of...Where can I get a good book? Where is it cheaper? Where can I have a reading experience? And am I buying more books if I buy them through Amazon? Then, sure Amazon and the chain stores are a much better deal. They're much better. You get more books for your money. You're likely to buy more books...
That is not the question...The point about independent bookstores and local bookstores has nothing to do with how well they do with supplying you with books. The thing about them is that we live in a world of undistinguished space...and sprawl and that independent bookstores are anchors of a particular kind of life...a particular kind of urban community life that is incredibly valuable and is not measured in dollars. If it's measured in dollars, it has an extremely high value and we should be grateful. We should pay twice as much for books at independent bookstores. 
When you have a strong independent bookstore, as when you have any strong local retail operation...that you create communality...you create a density...you create an exchange of ideas and a pleasure in community that you don't get in other places. And that's why people..a certain class of people...like to live in dense urban spaces that they can walk around to and pop into." [Emphasis mine]
He goes on to remind co-host John Dickerson that
I'm also willing to accept that that's a form of prejudice that, John, you and I have. We were raised to get pleasure in being in a book store...to enjoy the smell of it and so forth...and other people may not have that. Listen.

This is what lurks around the edges of some responses to Manjoo's article--that a desire to give a certain class of person a place to hang out in their hip, urban neighborhoods is more noble than making it easier for the masses to read and discuss literature. Besides, plebes don't understand the smell of a good bookstore anyway. If they did, that would be more important to them than book cost and convenience.

This is such a privileged and narrow point of view; and I say that as a longtime voracious reader who desperately wants brick-and-mortar book stores--the big and small--to survive.

I became captivated by reading in the first grade. I always returned from weekly trips to the library with an armload of books that I would then greedily consume. I don't recall there being any independent book stores in my Midwestern rust belt city during the 70s and 80s. And the closest chain book stores--Waldenbooks and B. Dalton's--were about 15 miles away at the mall and good for bestsellers more than rare finds. In the dark ages pre-Internet, if I wanted a book that wasn't within my library system (most books were) or at the mall, I was simply out of luck.

I was barely in my 20s when the big book chains hit the scene. And while I nodded along as other book lovers lamented Borders and Barnes and Noble's impact on literary culture, and cheered for Meg Ryan's book store-owning character facing off against the mega chain in You've Got Mail, I was, in reality, a little confused. Big book sellers were a boon to me. I didn't turn my back on some treasured local literary shop just to snag cheap books. There was no such thing in my town. My personal library was built, in part, because of places like Barnes and Noble, and, yes, Amazon. These places made a broad range of books and literary genres accessible to me.

When I moved to Chicago, for the first time I had an awesome independent book store within walking distance--57th Street Books on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. It was just the sort of tome-stuffed, cozy, egg heady, bibliophile's paradise that indie fans champion. I loved it and lament that I now live hours away. When I'm in places like 57th Street Books and Tattered Cover in Denver, I feel like I'm with my people--other folks who desperately search for fashionable ways to arrange the stacks of books that have overflowed their shelves. Indie bookstores are like enclaves for elite readers

This is, maybe, the rub: Some of the cheer leading for indie spots over chains or online book stores feels like the privileged protecting their private club houses while denigrating the spots that serve the unwashed rabble.

The New York Times op-ed cited by Manjoo includes the following from one author: “People have to understand that their short-term decision to save a couple bucks undermines their long-term interest in their community and vital, real-life literary culture.”

My neighborhood indie book store was a favorite of the academics and neighborhood culterati. But I wonder how accessible it felt to the mostly black and brown surrounding community. (Yes, urban black folk do read.) And I wonder why it is somehow a slap at literary culture that those people's lives, and the lives of a whole lot of people of every race, may necessitate choosing convenience and low cost over comfy chairs, readings by new authors and a "literary culture" that rarely includes them.

Why don't I hear more champions of literary culture discussing the excellent work that local libraries do? A lot of readers without access to indie or chain bookstores, Internet access or a credit card to shop online, do have a branch library nearby with knowledgeable staff. The content is all free and you still get the coveted book smell. Amazon and independent bookstores are not the only options readers have. Indeed this doesn't have to be a zero-sum game at all. One can appreciate brick-and-mortar chains, indie shops, local libraries, Amazon and the online shops on favorite independent spaces. (While researching this post, I showed 57th St. Bookstore some love and picked up this book online.)

It seems lost on people like David Plotz that the local bookstore experience he reveres is not one that most people have. A commenter to the Manjoo piece points out:

I am as concerned about Amazon's potential market monopoly as anyone else--that's worrisome! But for me, there is a fundamental flaw in all the arguments I hear for "support your local bookstore." The people making these arguments all talk about this fabulous local bookstore that they seem to have in their community: it's warm and cozy, and it has a great selection of books, everything you want's always there, and you can browse easily and find new things that interest you -- and the staff all have PhD's in literature and will sit and have a scintillating conversation with you over lattes while they make brilliant recommendations about what to read next -- and somehow this is all "community building" -- because of course the store is also the center of some kind of local intellectual community (I'm never quite sure what that means) and they have regular author's readings and all the kids hang out there after school, and and...

I call this image "the magic bookstore"--and I don't believe it. Or rather: I believe such a place might exist, somewhere. But it's not what most people get. 


Today I live outside a mid-sized Midwestern city. Of the five bookstores closest to my home and work, three were Borders, which means three are gone. Left are Barnes and Noble and a really neat indie shop that specializes in kids books. My brick-and-mortar options are limited and I have a really stellar local library system that I neglect way too often. I am well aware that my own Amazon habit and Kindle addiction play a part in narrowing my retail options and may, once day, result in the limiting of services at my local library.

We need to talk about these things. We need to think about whether we are comfortable with every aspect of the digital reading revolution and the continuing growth of Amazon...whether we're clear on what could be lost...we need to understand that our actions have consequences. But we can have these conversations in ways that honor realities beyond those of upper-middle-class, white urbanites. (This reminds me a lot of discussions about conscious eating. I love Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, but man can they disappear up their own privileged backsides from time to time.)

Book sellers, book creators and book readers do stand at a crossroads. There are decisions to be made. If we can eliminate much of the more-cultured-than-thou rhetoric, we might make these choices in a smarter way that serves multiple needs.

Photo Credit: Studies in Solitude


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