Last Saturday, Amazon invited customers, while browsing brick-and-mortar retailers, to use its new price-check app and earn up to five dollars off any three non-book items. Today, the novelist Richard Russo penned an op-ed for the New York Times gathering the thoughts of some of his author friends, among them Stephen King, Ann Patchett and Scott Turow (president of the Authors Guild), about this kind of promotion. They describe it with phrases like “invasive and unfair,” “a bridge too far,” a “bare-knuckles approach” and “scorched-earth capitalism.” The most eloquent of Russo’s subjects is Patchett, the owner of a new independent bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books. Says Patchett,
I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.
Writing in trademark contrarian fashion over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo, in an article not-so-subtly titled “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” takes issue with Russo, Patchett et al. After acknowledging that “Amazon just did a boneheaded thing, and it deserves all the scorn you want to heap on it,” Manjoo counters,
Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?
Readers of this blog are well-acquainted with our views on independent retailers (particularly bookstores), shopping locally and the virtues (in our minds) of a book you can hold in your hands versus one you can read on a computer screen. Because one of his makes his livelihood working at a bookstore, we obviously have a dog in this fight. It’s no mystery where we come down on Russo vs. Manjoo.
What is Manjoo really asking for, though? Yes, it can be a frustrating experience to go shopping anywhere this time of year, and there’s a certain sedating charm in the ease of ordering online (assuming you know what it is that you want). But what we find lacking in Manjoo’s perfect world is anything resembling human interaction. The joys of browsing a bookstore, beyond comfy chairs, hot coffee and a space to do your best thinking, are running into a friend or former teacher while you’re there; hearing an author speak in person and then meeting him after the reading while he signs and personalizes your book; having a place to go on a cheap date night; taking your child to story time, where you are treated to the sublime pleasures of Pete the Cat; and conversing with a bookseller about an author you just read and loved (or hated) and being told what you should read next (or avoid). Yes, Amazon has wonderful algorithms that tell you what other people who bought the same book as you bought next. But is that really an educated recommendation? Isn’t a person — hopefully a knowledgeable one, who asks what you like to read rather than just foisting something he likes upon you — far better than an algorithm? (Manjoo is a technology columnist, so he probably has poor interpersonal skills.)
Manjoo also takes issue with “the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo” by arguing that there really isn’t much that’s “local” about your local bookstore. “Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house,” he writes, “an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community.” Except, of course, for the investment that any local business has in its schools, nonprofits and the community; for the tax base it provides that community, which Amazon does not; and (not least of all to us) for the jobs it provides.
Today at work, I (Ben) saw one of my favorite customers, someone who hadn’t been in for a while. I asked him how he was doing. His mother was in the hospital. He had just finished moving into a smaller home with his wife, who was newly retired. Neither of them had found their retirement footing yet. He said he needed to come to the store to “relax and get lost in a book.” He asked for two that we had in stock, and I put two more in his hands that he hadn’t heard of yet. He gave me a smile and shook my hand. Both of us had a better day for it.