Should independent bookstores thank Amazon?

The other day I did the jerky thing: I went to the going-out-of-business sale at my local Borders. Everything was between 20 and 40% off and, if can believe it, I only bought a single book, and that begrudgingly. What’s more, I paid with a gift certificate that had been long buried and unused in my wallet. But here’s the thing; that one little purchase, although I’d been eyeing the book for some time, and although it only cost me $.54, I left feeling as though I’d just performed some unpleasant chore.

Let me explain.

First, to reach the store requires entering the traffic-heavy lanes that lead to the local mall. Normally, I try to avoid this place at all costs to the point that I have nearly groaned inwardly when a friend has presented me with a gift card to one of the mall stores. Once on the property, there’s the ordeal of finding a parking space in the steaming zoo of a lot. Entering the store, one is immediately pinned against the closest bookshelf by the ravenous shoppers who are more scalpers than book lovers (I admit, on this occasion, doing what I was doing, I must include myself under this nomenclature, though I did not shove and I tried to preserve my manners). Finally, there’s the product itself: the books. Although they look and feel like the books bought in the relaxed and intellectually-stimulating environment of an independent bookstore, they are not. They hang pendulously from the shelves like tumors, each one cancerous and each one needing removing. In place of cheerful staff-recommendation shelf-talkers, garish yellow “20% off” sale tags are pasted to their once beautiful covers. Bargain bins filled with ‘reject’ books line the aisles – among them, The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson, Anne of Green Gables, and The Dalai Lama’s Little Book of Inner Peace; these large bins and the hungry bargain-seekers digging through them, obstruct one’s passage further.

Luke can’t find the cheap Sudoku book he’d been looking for and, like me, nothing else is cheap enough to tempt him. (Because, that’s the thing, even when a store is going out of business, the sales are not that great.) He is annoyed by all the pushy shoppers talking on their cell phones. Neither one of us are enjoying the experience. We are both empty-handed.

“You read more than me, so you buy something for yourself with the gift card.”

“It would be a shame to waste it,” I admit.

I head directly toward the Literature section and find the Es. Without giving it much thought, I select Penguin’s new linen-bound edition of Middlemarch.

“This’ll do,” I say, adding with forced cheerfulness, “I love this cover and I’ve been meaning to read the book for some time.”

Walking out to the car, we are sullen. I wait until we are out of earshot of any booksellers or customers before voicing my thoughts.

“You know, even with all those sales, it feels wrong to support a store that has already gone out of business. Especially when there are independents that could use our business.”

“Doesn’t it?” Luke says. “Maybe if the sales were really good, but you know, I kept thinking ‘I can get this cheaper on Amazon’…”

“…Or buy them at an independent bookstore and have a much more enjoyable experience,” I say.

“Exactly.”

We walk in silence for several minutes.

“Do you think Borders ever had a chance?” he asks. “Between Amazon’s prices and the Independent Bookstore experience?”

As sad as it is– because, who ever wants a bookstore to fail? – and for a whole host of reasons, I have to admit Borders’ fall seemed inevitable. And that got me thinking: the enemy of the independent used to be big-box bookstores, like Borders, and, now, the new competition, Amazon, has aided in their demise. There was a time when independent bookstores would have cheered.  The time for cheering has passed; the industry as a whole is too uncertain to wish any member ill. Whether we like it or not, Amazon, B&N, publishers and independents: we are all in this mess together.

But even so, in a twisted, counter-intuitive way, do independents owe Amazon a thank you? The answer is, of course, no. But the irony didn’t fail to amuse me.

After all, between Amazon’s prices and the independent bookstore experience, how could Borders ever have stood a chance?

(Photo from Main Street Books, Davidson, NC)

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4 comments
  1. Claire said:

    What do you think this means for B&N? How will they survive?

    • Erin said:

      Hard to say. It looks like they’re putting most of their energy into promoting the Nook. Nowadays, they’re store looks more like Best Buy when you walk in. There’s also been rumors that Apple is looking to buy B&N, which would be interesting on several different levels (Apple has a history of NOT buying obvious companies, so this would be a big step for them). But that may just be a rumor.

  2. Bobbi said:

    Great post Erin. :) I was sad when our Borders went out of business, the coffee was great. ;) And the employees that were layed off.

  3. Amanda said:

    Maybe it’s just your Borders. I thjought my Borders was very homey when it was still around. The one at the mall was more like you described, but the one that had it’s own building was very nice and well organized and nobody walked around yammering on their cell phones. My community was very sad when they went out buisness because it really was a nice place to go to for a megastore.

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