Farhad Manjoo, Amazon, and Independent Bookstores [Controversies]
Following on my post from yesterday, which was following on Richard Russo’s op-ed piece, which was following on Amazon’s “Price Check special,” today Slate’s tech guy, Farhad Manjoo, has his own piece about Amazon and indie bookstores—one that has seemingly pissed off everyone I know.
If there’s one thing to say about this, Manjoo brings the provocation right from the get-go: “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller: Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.”
That sound you hear is the sound of 99% indie booksellers exploding simultaneously. And for that last 1%? Check this:
I was primed to nod in vigorous agreement when I saw novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed taking on Amazon’s thuggish ways. But as I waded into Russo’s piece—which was widely passed around on Tuesday—I realized that he’d made a critical and common mistake in his argument. Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores. Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, “doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.”
That’s simply bogus. As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books. With his creepy laugh and Dr. Evil smile, Bezos is an easy guy to hate, and I’ve previously worried that he’d ruin the book industry. But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.
Yep. “Crushing that precious indie on the corner.”
Before getting in to Manjoo’s argument, I just want to highlight some of the terms and phrases he uses in relation to bookstores and their fans:
“most mistakenly mythologized”
“frustrating consumer experience”
“no customer reviews”
“no reliable way to find what you’re looking for”
“dubious recommendations engine”
“difficult to use”
“my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist”
“hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists”
“allegedly important functions that local booksellers”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that a bookstore must’ve stole Farhad’s girlfriend at some point in time. This is vitriol, or in schoolyard parlance, them’s fightin words.
Manjoo’s anti-bookstore argument mostly revolves around price—the idea that you can get 2 books on Amazon for the price of 1 that you can get at the local bookstore, and jumps from that to the conclusion that the only reason bookstores sell books at list price is because they are riddled with inefficiencies.
He does at least try and understand why some people like bookstores:
I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there. They find browsing through physical books to be a meditative experience, and they enjoy some of the ancillary benefits of physicality (authors’ readings, unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day). And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.
Cause yeah, the experience of visiting a store like Talking Leaves in Buffalo, NY or Square Books in Oxford, MS is pretty much the same luxurious experience you get in any of the 304 Whole Foods locations littered across our country. Exactly.
But this starts to get at Manjoo’s prejudices and where he’s really gone astray . . . More on that in a second, first, here’s one last damning quote about the (non-)value of bookstores:
Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read. This is the biggest flaw in Russo’s rant. He points to several allegedly important functions that local booksellers play in fostering “literary culture”—they serve as a “gathering place” for the community, they “optimistically set up . . . folding chairs” at readings, they happily guide people toward books they’ll love. I’m sure all of that is important, but it’s strange that a novelist omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.
What this all boils down to is Manjoo’s unabashed desire to operate like a rational consumer. If the goal of every entity—business, consumer, etc.—is to “maximize surplus value,” then you should try and wed yourself to the principles of neo-classical economics, in which the free market determines the price (there’s nothing preventing bookstores from discounting, and thus increasing demand), and it’s your job to only purchase things in which you get the biggest bang for your buck. It is absolutely 100% economically irrational to purchase a book you’re willing to pay $30 for for that $30 if there’s a $20 version available through means that don’t entail a lot of opportunity costs. This is the primary consumer advantage for online retailers. It’s just as easy (or even easier) to buy the Steve Jobs bio via an online retailer than it is to drive to a store and buy one, and that way you’ve accrued surplus value.
OK, fine. Tech people and stock brokers and MBAs and some Slate writers think like this and want to live like this. Two things: first off, people don’t behave rationally, especially when it comes to price, and secondly, there are hidden opportunity costs in this scenario that relate to community.
Manjoo, in a myopic fashion that is stunningly boneheaded, equates the “buy local” movement with bookstores supporting local authors. That is foolish and beside the point. One of the primary purposes of bookstores is building a literary community. Sure, you can point to readings (which, unless it’s Richard Russo are generally attended by 10 readers and a few homeless) as a physical representation of this, but it’s actually something much larger. A good independent bookstores is a place where you know you can interact with people who read as much as you do. It’s a safe haven for the literati in a world that’s increasingly rationalized and scary. It’s one of the few physical spaces where you can talk about literature and art after college.
This all sounds sort of dreamy and pollyannaish, but bear with me for a few sentences . . . In a way, a good bookstore is the equivalent of Cheers. Sure, I could buy a six-pack for less than half of what it would cost in the bar, but I wouldn’t get to chat with my favorite bartender, laugh with my friends, or check out the pretty people. OK, this is maybe as shitty an analogy as the Whole Foods one, but the “value” of a store like Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, MI, is the social experience AND the book selection. Manjoo’s focus on cushy chairs and shit belies the gross materialism that underlies his entire worldview. (Which helps when you talk about tech, I suppose. And explains some of that social awkwardness thing.)
The reason bookstore lovers advocate for bookstores rarely has to do with the actual books available. We all know that we can find anything we want in quicker, easier ways that cost less money. The reason people sign petitions to save St. Mark’s is because of the enjoyment you get of people watching there, or chatting with Margarita about crazy Russian writers and the East Village poets. Things are learned in bookstores and in interactions that are not able to be learned in online experiences. And for some people, that value exceeds the $10 that you could save buying Steve Jobs online. This isn’t true for all people, but it is for some. Like, as he admits, Farhad Manjoo’s wife.
Anyway, to parallel yesterday’s post, here are three ideas:
1) If you value this community experience and feel like online retailing (especially the big-A) will eradicate it like polio, you should try and find ways to help your local retailers and rail against the online stores. This is the route a lot of booksellers take, and it is an admirable one based on beliefs. I’m not sure how much of a difference this makes in the end, since technology is molding society and our values, but it’s an option.
2) You can give up. Buy books online and use that extra $10 to meet your bookish friends at a local pub. Invest in anti-depressants and Match.com subscriptions. Pray that you become part of the 1% even as you watch hyper-capitalist companies suck your surplus dry in ways so insidious that you think you’re actually signing up for them.
3) Maybe there’s an evolution that could take place. The U.S. Government and other municipalities should make it easier for bookstores to become nonprofits or get grants or find ways to support their base costs. Maybe bookstores and libraries or museums or cafes or bars or other community spaces could join forces in creating spaces for post-grad thinkers to share ideas and passions and books and whatever. The idea of a bookstore a la 1990 starting up in any mid-sized town and surviving is difficult to imagine, but there are always places like Writers & Books and whatnot that can combine bookselling with writing with the love of books with the idea of desiring social interaction.
Oh, and as a friend (who is also writing about Manjoo’s “boneheaded” article) pointed out just now, this article reeks of link bait. Manjoo could be gaming us all, hoping we get pissed so that the read rate on his articles spikes leading to more money for him to spend on $.99 books at Amazon, thus maximizing value.