There was a thought-provoking little piece in the WSJ today by a bookstore owner in Tennessee:
The weather in Tennessee has been unaccountably beautiful this summer, with late July temperatures in the 70s rather than the 100s. The drive from Chattanooga, where President Obama gave his jobs speech at the Amazon warehouse Tuesday, to Nashville, where I am the co-owner of Parnassus Books, is a scenic two hours.
I wish he’d come by.
Thanks to the Amazon warehouse, there are about 7,000 new jobs in Chattanooga, many of them seasonal. But to celebrate Amazon as an employer is to ignore all the jobs that have been squeezed out of the economy as independent bookstores and other small businesses have been forced to close their doors, unable to compete with the undercut pricing the online retail giant offers. And with those shuttered bookstores go a big part of our community.
In the time-honored tradition of bookstores everywhere, our store is staffed by readers—people who want to talk about the books they love. We’re not handing out algorithms based on what books other people have bought. These aren’t widgets we’re selling….
Actually, it was more of a feeling-provoking piece than thought-provoking, I suppose. And my feelings were conflicted.
First, I felt sympathy for the person trying to operate a mom-and-pop bookstore in this age. At the same time, I noticed that this person didn’t get into the business until 2011. A former editor of mine retired more than 10 years ago and started an online used book business, so it’s not like this phenomenon snuck up on this person. This is somewhat different from the character in “You’ve Got Mail” who inherited a charming little bookshop.
Second, I felt identification with someone who would rather browse books in person than buy one online. That happens to be one of my very favorite leisure-time activities, when I have leisure time. So it is that I continue to root for Barnes & Noble to hang in there with the real, live bookstore thing.
Third, I felt guilty because, well, as much as I love browsing a bookstore, I’ve always had a preference for Barnes & Noble over the charming little mom-and-pop types. Even though Rhett Jackson was a friend of mine, I seldom frequented his shop. If I went there, it was to quickly find a book and buy it. There’s something, for me, about having the vast space and great variety of B&N to wander in, while sipping a hot Starbucks coffee. (Here’s another confession: When I go to the one on Harbison, the one I frequent most, I actually go to the Starbucks over across the parking lot, rather than getting my coffee in the bookstore cafe. Partly because I can use my Starbucks card there.)
Of course, as I’ve confessed before, I usually don’t actually buy a book at the end of those browses. But when I do buy a book — as I did just this last weekend — I buy it at B&N.
Finally, I felt out-bookwormed by this woman. As you would expect from someone who sells new books, she’s very up-to-date in her reading. I seldom read a book that was written in the last 10 years, or even 50 years — there’s just too great a wealth of old stuff that I’ll never get to, I have little interest in keeping up with the best-seller lists. Since I started reading the daily book reviews in the WSJ, I have gotten a little more interested in recent books — but when I get one of them, it still tends to sit on my shelves for months or even years before I actually read it. I like to let them age a little. So much of the rest of my life has been spent keeping up with the latest, and meeting deadlines. Part of the pleasure of a book is knowing it will sit there and wait for me indefinitely, and be just as rewarding when I finally pick it up.
I use Amazon for all sorts of things. Particularly phone accessories — USB cords, earbuds — which are amazingly cheaper than in a store. Or when I’m shopping for some particular item someone wants for Christmas or birthday, and I don’t immediately find it in the first store where I look — I’ll just stand there in the store and order it over my phone.
But books I want to hold in my hand before I buy.