Dear Indie Bookstores: Stop Judging Books by their Covers

When you’re driving, sometimes you encounter some very important people–read, jerks–who break all the rules; they go fifty miles over the speed limit, weave around you in closely-packed traffic, and almost cause four car crashes before they speed out of sight. Some people get mad at these rude drivers and let out a stream of nasty, name-calling expletives. I, along with other optimists in the world, prefer to believe that they have a good reason: their wife is having a baby, perhaps, or maybe they’re rushing someone whose finger just got bitten off by a rabid wild monkey to the hospital.

Well, something similar is going on in the bookselling world right now. Readers are going to the physical, brick-and-mortar book stores, talking to friendly and well-read booksellers, getting book recommendations, perusing the shelves, reading through a few pages, and then writing down the ISBN number–or taking a picture of it on their smartphones–to purchase it much cheaper on Amazon.com. As it stands right now, whether indie or corporate (like Barnes and Noble), booksellers are pretty much united in a hate war against Amazon. Not that I can totally blame them, because Amazon is using some dirty tactics themselves. If you haven’t heard about it yet, Amazon has designed a Price Check app and they’re encouraging all consumers to go to a physical store on Saturday, December 10th, take a picture of the bar code, and compare it to Amazon’s listing price. (For further details on this, read the Wall Street Journal article.) Just for doing that, Amazon will take an additional five dollars off up to three purchased items. As one rightfully outraged bookseller puts it, Amazon’s app is essentially “spyware” using other people’s stores as their own “showroom.”

The result? Feeling that their businesses are threatened, bookstores are lashing out. Not just at Amazon, but at readers. Whatever you prefer to call them–whether “thrifty shoppers,” “smart shoppers,” or “unloyal customers”–these readers are now also labeled as the enemy; they’re given hostile glares in the store and are bombarded with pointedly unpleasant articles, shaming them for their activities.

I have to make a confession about myself before I continue: when exploring a bookstore, I often write down the title and author of new books I’m interested in and then leave a few hours later without making a single purchase.

Some of you are probably feeling the hair on your back raise in outrage (not that I’m accusing you of having a hairy back) and you’re already calling me all those things that you normally call those obnoxious, rude, jerky drivers that you encountered on the road today. For a moment, I ask you to suspend your anger and consider that I belong to the second party: those people who have a really good reason, if asked. Consider my reasoning first.

I currently live in the suburbs of Philadelphia and for as long as I’ve lived here–read, age five–there has never been an independent bookstore. When I lived in NYC this summer, there was one on practically every corner and I couldn’t resist purchasing something every time I walked into Three Lives or St. Mark’s Bookshop. However, home has only ever had the options of Borders and Barnes and Nobles (now reduced to only the latter). My annual total of book-buying purchases are split about 50/50 between Barnes and Noble and Amazon Kindle books.* Some extreme indie bookstore supporters might criticize me for not driving into the city for all my reading needs and frequenting an indie bookstore there. On occasion, I will, but frequently I won’t because:

  1. It takes forty minutes to get to the closest Philly indie bookstore
  2. Parking costs a minimum of twelve dollars
  3. I have such an appetite for books that I would never have the time to travel that far for books as often as I need them

And this ravenous bookworm appetite is what brings me to my next point: though I might live by Erasmus’s motto, “When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes” (in fact, I’ve completely deleted my clothing budget this year in favor of more reading material), but as I’ve dedicated myself to working within the book-loving publishing industry, I can’t quite afford to buy every single book I want to read. That leaves me with only one alternate choice.

Do you want the NYC Public Library to go out of business?

That’s right. You guessed it. I’m talking about the tried and true, free public library system.I love my library, but due to budget cuts, it’s under constant threat of closing. To keep afloat, the hours of operation have already been slashed and my favorite library has unfortunately been transformed into a “Popular Fiction library.” When I asked a librarian what this meant, exactly, she told me that they would add more couches, a coffee machine, and reduce the book collection to include primarily popular titles and authors (read: much beautiful literary fiction got booted and Stephen King now has a whole bookcase to himself. Hence, the source of my undying resentment towards him). All of this was to be done, she explained, so that the library was “more like a Barnes and Noble.”

So this is my dirty little secret: I go in bookstores and write down book titles. Then I go home and log on my computer. I put all of those titles on my goodreads to-read list. And then I go to the library and get free hard copy books, free audiobooks of the best and newest fiction for my 1.5-hour commute, and free kindle loans. I pay late fees often and gladly, because it’s less than buying the books and it supports my local library at the same time.

So, Dear Bookstores, hear my plea: I understand that you have to prepare for the worst. But sometimes, consider holding off on those expletives, give a reader a break, and believe that she’s writing down those book titles to support her local library.

*I love my Kindle and the ebook reading experience and am not ashamed of it. I also love Barnes and Noble and having their massive store nearby to browse. I think splitting my purchases between the two is pretty fair.

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3 thoughts on “Dear Indie Bookstores: Stop Judging Books by their Covers

  1. Gretchen O'Donnell says:

    Wow. That IS a dirty tactic on Amazon’s part. The closest bookstore I have is an hour and a quarter away, so I do use Amazon – though this news about them makes me really irritated. We have a fairly small library in town, too, so, again, I often just buy…but perhaps I should re-think that. Thanks for your post!

  2. hannahkarena says:

    Wow, an hour and a half is really far. I know a lot of indie bookstores are having a bigger initiative of putting their books online and are even selling google books–same price as the books listed directly on google, but some of the money goes to the store, which is nice. I found a list of all the participating bookstores here: http://www.indiebound.org/google-ebooks. You could pick your favorite!

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