Those Evil Online Booksellers

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times about the effect of online book sales on small bookstores– especially the effect of resales on authors and stores.

I admit that I have bought my fair share of new books from Amazon, or gone to a box store like Borders or Barnes and Noble.  I don’t buy many used books, unlike my Dad, who loves Alibris almost as much as he loves his own kids, but I’m not an academic, either, so I’m not chasing down obscure or out of print books most of the time.  And I have no doubt that this has had a real effect– I can see it in what ought to be the book mecca– Harvard Square.  Now those wonderful days I spent as a kid and teenager mooching in the paperback sci-fi & fantasy aisles at as many as three stores are gone.  The Harvard Coop is run by B & N, and there’s one general-interest bookstore (ONE, people) left in the square.  I try to buy there as often as possible, but it really is over the river and through the woods for me, so it’s someplace I have to make a trip to get to.

But here’s the thing– and it’s something the article doesn’t address.  They’re talking about good, well-run small bookstores.  The ones who put care and deep thought into their selections, and who pay attention to inventory and what people come in asking for.

Even living in Boston, I sometimes have trouble finding a book that I need.  The only reliable “small” bookstores, i.e., non-chains, are Booksmith and the New England Mobile Book Fair, aka King Tut’s Tomb.

Otherwise?  Well, I live in a neighborhood in Boston that does have its own bookstore– except it’s a specialty bookstore, and tends to carry mostly nonfiction and fiction works with an African-American or Hispanic bent.  Which is fine for learning new things, but when I need to find something specific that someone’s expressed a wish for, this isn’t the place to find it.

And the other nearby Bookstore, which I desparately want to be able to shop at because it’s a sweet little store in a “downtown” where I can buy meat from a butcher, veggies and spices from the middle east produce vendor, cheese from a specialty shop, nice tchotchkes from a nice lady in an airy, bright corner store.  But the last three times I’ve gone in there, looking for non-obscure books, she hasn’t had any of them.

This last time I needed a book (and yes, shame on me for leaving Christmas shopping until the week before Christmas, but hey, crazy lady with a job, here) I deliberately didn’t order two books from amazon on the theory that both had been well-reviewed and therefore would be available in an area bookstore.  Boy.  I was wrong.   One of the books I wanted to give as a gift was a cooking/travel book that was on everyone’s bestseller lists a year ago, and came out in paperback this summer– it was well regarded in the literary press, and was in the line of those Anthony Bourdain books that sold like gangbusters.  Seemed safe to believe most sellers would carry it.

The other one, Dear American Airlines, which is both funnier than David Sedaris and more poignant and heartbreaking than Wally Lamb, has gotten good reviews in major papers, and even ended up on some “best of the year” lists.  And yet, when I asked the proprietess if she had either, she gave me a look and said “never heard of them.”  She looked them up in her computer, and said, “Oh, no, I’ve never carried either of them.”  I found it hard to contain my surprise as to the latter book, so I said “Really?  The Miles book had a very, very good review in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review.”

Okay.  Look.  I can understand that not everyone reads the Sunday Book Review.  There are lots of better things to do with your time, really.  But if you’re a bookseller?  Especially one on the East Coast?  Especially one in Boston, where the books on the train are still an excellent survey of real fiction and nonfiction?  Well, I hope you’ll agree that my flabbergastedness (is that a word? I declare it so.) was reasonable when she answered me.

“Oh, I don’t read that.”

And that, right there, is the problem with many smaller brick and mortar bookstores.  If I have time, I will go to the trouble of ordering something ahead of time to go pick up– or will plan ahead enough so I have time to go to multiple indie stores in one day.  But if I go in needing something in particular, or I’m in the mood to just browse, and the seller’s one of those people who thinks it would be “fun” to own a bookstore, well, you’re just not going to have what I’m looking for  or will be interested in buying if you’re only buying off the recommended list from your distributor, or whatever Oprah’s featuring this month.  I have encountered this problem more times than I can count.  Good books that get good reviews in major book review publications, and they don’t even have one copy– consistently, every time I go looking for a copy.  It makes me sad, because I really would love that square to have a bookstore.  But how could I possibly keep patronizing a bookstore whose proprietress is so clueless?  It’s like banging my head against a brick and mortar store.  I’ve walked out of there empty-handed too often, and me walking empty-handed out of a bookstore is like the sun not rising every day.

Maybe I’m a booksnob.  But if you want me to patronize your store?  Please carry at least some of the seriously-reviewed books of the year.  And if I say something’s been well-reviewed in such-and-such publication, at least have the audacity to lie to me and say you’re fresh out.  Then take note– and go read it.  You might make me believe you did order the one or two copies your small store had room for, and I might actually come back.  I know it takes time.  I know it takes effort and thought.  But if you’re serious about books, and serious about owning a bookstores (two different things, I know), then please, please, do it.

Instead?  The BH had to buy the cook/travel book at the B & N in Harvard Square, and the Dear Amercan Airlines at the Borders downtown.  And a cute little store in a cute little neighborhood lost a customer.


15 thoughts on “Those Evil Online Booksellers

  1. Mary Ann

    I feel so fortunate to live in a town with no “big box” bookstore, but one of the few brick & mortar stores with owners who genuinely care about their clientele. They read the Review, they talk to customers, they even host artist open houses! They work at being an amazing bookstore. When you visit, we’ll go!

  2. phil

    honestly, I use the library more than not and if I do get a book as a gift from someone, after I’ve read it I generally donate it to the library.

    the good thing about the library is the local one is part of a consortium so if I request something, I can usually have it within a week because one of the numerous in the network generally has it

  3. g

    I think we’re ultimately talking about two separate experiences. There’s the experience of “going to find a certain book.” And there’s the experience of “looking for something interesting to read.”

    It’s similar to clothes shopping. Am I seeking out a certain item, like a pink blouse that matches my suit so I can attend the conference Friday? Or am I browsing just to see if there’s something cute I like?

    The experience of going to a brick and mortar bookstore – whether its a big box store or a small independent one – includes the pleasure of browsing; choosing a book by its cover or flyleaf; getting recommendations, whether by an actual human being or by a more contrived “our staff recommends” shelf. It’s about the shopping experience. You discover new books and writers like you would discover a cute new frock in a boutique.

    What I like about online book shopping is that you can target exactly what you want. All books written by Author X immediately come up on your screen for you to choose. Or by subject, narrowed down as you wish. It’s more like a library – except a much bigger one where the books are all available. I generally don’t “browse” at Amazon, or when I do its a very different experience than it is in person.

    Like you, BLC, I live in a big city with lots of bookstores. Even so, I was looking for one of a famous writer’s less popular, earlier novels. I visited some six bookstores before I gave up and ordered on Amazon. Now, I didn’t visit those stores simply for this book; I was already out shopping, so I didn’t make a special trip, but if I HAD, I would still not have the book. (Library didn’t have it either.)

    If you take my experience and move it to a small town – like the one where my mom used to live, with only ONE bookstore – then I think Amazon is a godsend for people.

    I think successful indy booksellers are proactive about connecting with their communities, so that interests bounce back. If I visit a great location, and the local indy bookstore has a shelf of local authors or books about the place, I definately buy there. Or if there’s an art museum in the next block, have a well-stocked art section.

    Whoops, I’ve gone on a bit, sorry!!!

  4. savia

    I just added that Dear American Airlines book to my “must read” list. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Also, I am addicted to Amazon. Not only is it cheaper than buying in a bookstore, but I like getting stuff in the mail because I feel like people are sending me presents 🙂 I know this makes me part of the problem, but…ummm…I recycle and stuff. Does that make it better?

    savias last blog post..A resolution I can live with

  5. Allison

    New reader, fellow swanky women’s college > year off > law school > lawyer who cooks.

    I grew up in Boston/Brookline and miss the Mobile Book Fair very, very much. Sigh.


    Allisons last blog post..Loving life

  6. Susan a

    Yes, I admit it, I have been here before, leaving no finger prints. Today I will comment…
    I live in London. The big boys of books here are Waterstones and Borders. And I LOVE them. Seriously. I grew up in Portugal where the book shops are as rarefied as the air in the Himalaya. There are only small, small bookshops, hardly bigger than my living room where there is normally an old and scary woman eying you since the moment you come in till the moment she manages to kick you out after snarling something at your questions. The books are in hugely high shelves (accessible only with ladders) and locked away behind a counter guarded fiercely by said old hag. Who also sells overpriced tobacco by the ounce. It is lovely, seriously. The smell of tobacco mixed with the moldy woods from the floor and the sounds of the wood bugs munching away. But we pay on average 30 Euros per book- that’s roughly 39 Dollars for any given book in a normal paperback edition. The VAT applicable to books- yes, I kid you not- is 21%.
    In the UK, the average price for a paperback is 6.99 or $12. No VAT. Cheaper than McDonalds. When I moved here, I could have cried, when I could spend a whole Sunday sitting in a leather sofa reading undisturbed by the scores of book buffs that are the staff at these shops. Evil they may be. But, by George, I am ever so grateful!

    Susana (Aka, Bond.jane)

    Susan as last blog post..Blue Moon- Ella Fitzgerald

  7. Bonnie Scott

    Next time you’re in Salt Lake City – skiing, legal stuff, gorgeous western experience, making fun of Mormon Church for Prop 8 – don’t miss the King’s English Bookstore. One of the best in the country. If they don’t have it, they will order it and ship it to you. You can also check them out on-line These people rock – every single one – particularly Ann Holamn and Jan Sloan.

    From a loyal fan, Bonzize

  8. Bonnie Scott

    PS This store has been in business for nearly 30 years and depends on customer loyalty and praise to keep them going, thumbing their noses at the big box stores. They are hanging on by their fingernails so anyone in this nect of the woods should check them out. One of the owners and co-founder, Betsy Burton, even wrote a book about running an independent bookstore, The Kings English, Adventures of an Independent Bookseller.

  9. magpie

    It is sad. How can a bookseller not know what’s in the Times bookreview? That’s all kinds of wrong, in my opinion.

    I’m guilty of Amazon, and, and PaperbackSwap, and Because, I find what I want. I rarely shop for anything in stores anymore. I just haven’t the time or the patience.

    magpies last blog post..The Twelve Months That Were

  10. Allison

    I grew up in a town with a fantastic independent bookseller – Copperfield’s. They were attentive to which books were being well-reviewed, they carried extensive collections of used books, and would always order just about anything you could think of to request.

    Where I live now, the independents are dying out. We have a few used bookstores – one is impeccably organized but a bit slim on options. The other appears to be overflowing with titles, but there is no logic to the shop, making it impossible to find anything. I went in once, in search of Stegner’s “Angle of Repose”, and when I inquired with the woman at the counter, she asked “what kind of book is it?” I replied that I wasn’t sure, but it had been recommended to me, and I tried to describe some of the other works of his I had read. She then asked “well, what is is about?” – all I could muster was a hostile “I don’t KNOW, I haven’t READ it yet.”

    So I do default to the big-box bookstores on occasion. Mostly I just take trickle-down loans from my mother, who reads voraciously and with whom I share similar literary tastes. One of my resolutions this year is to *gasp* join my local library – but I have no idea yet what their selection is like.

    Allisons last blog post..Just call me the “sneezing zombie”


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