I’m a guy who hates to shop, but for my whole life I’ve loved shopping in bookstores and record stores. I gave up on record stores years ago, but I still shop at bookstores, but not as much as I used to. Yesterday I visited my local indie bookstore and bought a hardback The Man Who Invented the Computer by Jane Smiley just to support them. I could have bought it at Amazon and saved $12 in discounts and taxes, but I thought I’d help my store and state.
Well, no good deed goes unpunished as my mother-in-law used to say. I get home and read the reviews on Amazon and they aren’t good at all, including many claims of poor research, inaccuracies and even fraud and scandal. Of 24 customer reviews 12 gave it 1 star, 5 people gave it 3 stars. If I had been shopping at Amazon those reviews would have stopped me from buying the book. Now this isn’t the fault of my bookstore, but it does point out a major advantage of shopping online.
The main reason to shop at a bookstore is to see books before you buy and allow yourself the pleasure of discovering something new and exciting. But shopping at a store literally means judging a book by its cover.
I’m in three online book clubs and a hot topic in all of them are ebooks. Some folks are pro, and others are definitely con. But we all lament the disappearance of bookstores, and feel guilty that we buy books online or via those new fangled contraptions like Kindles, iPads and Nooks. But I’m wondering if we really should feel guilty?
Quite a few club members, especially those living in small towns, say going to a bookstore is expensive and time consuming. Others are housebound and feel online shopping and ebooks are a godsend. Me, I like to study reviews before I buy. And despite what everyone says about personal customer service, I’ve never met a sales clerk as knowledgeable as good reviewers.
Another thing to consider, among my bookworm friends who love shopping for books locally, many of them actually treasure the used bookstores and looking for good deals.
But I hate the idea of just letting bookstores disappear like record stores. I’ve read that Germany protects bookstores from online sales and ebooks by outlawing discounting. This makes books more expensive, but protects bookstores, publishers and authors. I’ve also read that other countries have various ways of mandating price controls. This is great for saving jobs and keeping businesses afloat, but it’s not very free market. Should we reevaluate our ideas about free markets? I don’t know.
What if online sellers had to sell books for the same price as local bookstores and charge the same sales tax, so books were equally priced no matter where you bought them. I’d still say Amazon was a better place to shop because it’s so much more informative.
I’d also prefer buying used books online. I bought three used books this week, The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker, The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd and I, robot – the illustrated screenplay by Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov. I would have to shop for years before I would have even seen copies of any of those books in local used bookstores, but they were a few keystrokes away with ABE Books. I also bought an ebook, Aegean Dreams by Dario Ciriello because it was only $5.99 on the Kindle, versus $14.44 for the trade paper at Amazon.
At the Classic Science Fiction Online Book Club, we’re voting on the books we’re going to read for the next six months, and one of the major considerations is availability and price. Members are scattered all over the world, and few want to buy new copies. Most of the books we’re nominating can be found at ABE Books for $4-5 used, including shipping, and some can be had as ebooks for $5-10, or new for $8-20. Some of the members with ebook readers say they will buy the ebook edition if it’s priced closed to the used edition. Others with good used bookstore nearby are finding copies for less than a dollar. But see the trend? New hardbacks and trade paper editions have to compete with online discounted books and used books, so it’s not just ebooks hurting new book sales.
One member found this list of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Bookstores that include online and local bookstores. There’s a huge variety of options for shopping online. Some stores on the list do have a physical buildings to visit, but they also do business online. How does an old fashion bookstore compete?
And maybe that’s the clue. Maybe online is just a new kind of bookstore.
The times are changing and more and more people are seeing the wind is blowing in a new direction. There’s a new documentary, Press Pause Play about how technology is impacting artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers and other creative folk. It’s scary to them because they don’t know how they can earn a living when the traditional methods of marketing their work are disappearing.
We are living in evolutionary times. I’m turning 60 this year, and many of the people that I know lamenting the loss of bookstores are my age or older. Have the young already forgotten bookstores? Our nephew while giving directions to his apartment today said to turn past that building where you mail stuff. Will concepts like the post office, book store, record store, phone booth, and video rental store even be known to the young in a few years?
It’s weird to be an anachronism in your own time.
JWH – 10/2/11