The battle between local bookstores and mega-seller goliaths like Barnes & Noble has always existed, but the war really hit home when a recent marketing ploy by Amazon.com made national headlines. The strategy was simple, directing consumers to go into a brick-and-mortar store, scan an item for purchase using a new Amazon phone application for comparative pricing, walk out of the store to purchase the item online with Amazon, and receive a five percent discount on the purchase.
Enraged merchants nationwide shared their dismay with the online giant as the competition, which had long sense been a real concern for small town stores competing against ever-growing globalization, suddenly felt the sting up close. The biggest concern: small town stores had become mere showrooms for consumers to browse and find what they wanted only to make their purchases online.
Then local bookstores got a decree of hope on December 12 when author, Richard Russo, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled, “Amazon’s Jungle Logic,” which chastised the online, bookselling monolith and likened the company to the “John Candy character (minus the eager, slobbering benevolence) in Mel Brooks’s movie ‘Spaceballs’ — half man, half dog and thus its own best friend.”
Yet, it was a response to Russo’s piece that struck a nerve with me. It was a column disgustingly titled, “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” by Farhad Manjoo, which appeared in the December 13 edition of Slate Magazine, which made me cringe.
First, let’s be clear. Slate Magazine is an affiliate of Amazon receiving a cut of all sales generated from links to Amazon from their own website. So in some ways Amazon can be seen as some quasi-employer for Manjoo since part of his pay stems from Slate-generated Amazon sales. Yet, it is Manjoo’s utter disregard for the “buy local” mentality coupled with his complete disillusionment toward a small-scale, communal economy that really hits me the wrong way.
In the column, Manjoo goes on a lengthy tirade against what he dubs “cultish, moldering institutions,” the “least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores.” At one point Manjoo even has the gall to say that anyone who prides themselves on promoting a vibrant book industry and thus a literary culture, “should thank [Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder] for crushing that precious indie on the corner.”
Reading those words I could actually feel the heart burn pushing up my throat, my right eye beginning to twitch, my fists clenching, my anger growing to rage, because in those words I could see the mentality that threatens the stores I love: tiny brick-and-mortar, mom-and-pop, locally owned bookstores. In those words, lies the reason why the shops I love stand such little chance competing in a global economy fueled by online sells. The fact is, it has become easier and cheaper to just go online.
But, that’s missing the point.
There’s a reason why the Cashiers Bibliophiles, our local book club, orders all of their books through Chapter 2, and that reason is quite simple: every dollar spent goes right back into our state, our county, and our village. It’s as simple as the need a penny take a penny, have a penny leave a penny philosophy in that as a community and as caring neighbors, we work to be self sustaining.
When my first book was released it was an indie bookstore, Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville, that opened their doors to me for a launch event and treated me like Rick Bass; when I had a reading at City Lights in Sylva, Chris Wilcox and Eon Alden handed me a copy of Daniel Woodrell’s “The Outlaw Album,” because they knew I’d been waiting on its release, and they spoke proudly of me when telling customers I was a writer from right down the road; when I went to Park Road Books in Charlotte for a signing, it brought a smile to my face to still see snow in the parking lot where the bookstore had blown flurries for a snow ball fight for kids when “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author, Jim Kinney, had visited the night before; and this past weekend in Asheville as I walked into Malaprop’s bookstore, my chest swelled when I saw copies of my book in the window during the holiday rush, when the store could have undoubtedly sold more copies of Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” biography.
The reason for all of this is simple: these bookstores, their owners and employees, care. They care about me, they care about our children, and they care about our community. They are as close to me as blood.
You see, that’s the world I live in, Manjoo, and that’s the reason your argument is not only offensive and asinine, but just doesn’t hold up.
I live in a place where the local merchants are my friends and neighbors, where the simple fact of whether or not they have food on their table depends largely on the dollars spent locally. I live in a place where my local bookstore owner can’t wait to tell me about the latest book he’s read, where store owners get a kick out of watching a kid smile when they get their next read, where I’m a lot more likely to see that same bookstore owner cutting his grass than I am to ever see Amazon-mogul Jeff Bezos step off of a private jet into my neighborhood.
And the simple fact is, Manjoo, if that’s not the world you see, if that’s not the world you’re living in then, perhaps, you’ve had your head in a book just a little too long.
(“Behind the Brick and Mortar” originally appeared as a column in the Crossroads Chronicle and subsequently took first place in the 2013 North Carolina Press Association (NCPA) Awards for “Best Serious Column.”)