Why Independent Bookstores Must Win the Fight Against Amazon.com


Most of you have no doubt been made aware of Amazon’s latest thuggish, brutal – and brilliant – idea to squeeze out its competition. Utilizing their Price Check smart phone app, a customer would get a 5% discount on a product that they initially scanned in a retail store before subsequently purchasing it on Amazon. Nefarious, right? But also quite savvy.

Amazon is no stranger to taking advantage of its massive size and its low overheads to crush its competition. Its online nature has allowed it to skip around state sales taxes, and the employment opportunities it brings serves as a deterrent to local legislators who wish to take Amazon down. “Hey, if you don’t want us in your state, there are 49 others that do.”

Like Wal-Mart before it, Amazon is, depending on your point of view, either “making the consumer market more efficient” or “sending us on a race to the bottom.”

Amazon has already seen off one of its chief competitors – the formerly-of-this-world Borders – and has since diversified into selling … everything. And so Amazon’s little price-right stunt hit nearly everyone across the board. Thankfully for them, it was a one-day-only event but the fact that Amazon can now, at any time, declare any day as Promotion Day is vaguely monopolistic and scary for Amazon’s real-world competitors.

Amazon’s brick and mortar competitors still have that one crucial advantage that the company lacks – people. It sounds hokey, but human interaction – having a salesperson tell you just exactly why you need the iGizmo4 instead of the Sprocketizer – makes a difference. But given how easy it is to shop online, coupled with Amazon’s discount, average consumer Joe might just take his business online. And AC Joe just wasted the sales rep’s time, inadvertently making up for Amazon’s lack of human interaction with the real world store’s service.

If Amazon’s online comparative advantage takes off, their only customers would be the chronically impatient who need the it-thing now. Amazon’s Price Check bets on the fact that anything anyone else sells, Amazon has for cheaper; you just have to wait the 4-7 business days for shipping.

Amazon’s victory may very well be (nearly) complete. But I believe that Amazon’s oldest adversary will yet linger, no matter how diminished: the independent bookstore.

It is a sad time for the local, independent, college-student staffed bookstore. So many of its comrades have gone under as the public migrated to Amazon-like entities. Independent bookstores were more expensive given their limited stock and logistical capacity but they (often) boasted an intelligent and engaged staff who gave personalized recommendations and presentations on the differences between Dostoevsky translations.

Yes, many more independent bookstores will (probably) die in the coming years. Obituaries have been written – blaming either Amazon or the rise of e-publishing – and there are those who already speak of the ‘good old days’ when one could thumb through copies of esoterica.

But I believe we’ve already hit the bottom. There are no more independent bookstores to cull because the market fat has been eliminated. The places that still have independent bookstores want independent bookstores despite the pricing advantages of the Big Box or the internet.

Independent bookstores foster a sense of literary community among costumers, serving as a focal point for discussion and – as pretentious as this sounds – intellectualism. The people who will keep these bookstores alive are the same people who would continue to donate to NPR or become members of museums. It is, of course, a sad fact that bookstores like these cannot survive in the free-market wild with an Amazonian predator on the loose, but the independent bookstore has found its ecological niche: as a curated cultural object.

This may be a depressing conclusion for some of you who remember the good old days (was it only a decade ago?) where the independent bookstore thrived in this America. But if you want to keep the independent bookstore alive, we will all have to do our part to treasure the luscious feel of running a finger through bound pages, to waltz through shelves of books we will never read, and to pass on that heady sensation to our children and friends. Call us - the last survivors of the great bookstore apocalypse - kooky and crazy, but we will keep these institutions alive just as we kill and devour a native bird species in November and just as we blow up quantities of explosives in the night sky in the 7th month of the solar calendar. These are cultural things that we do to preserve who we are.

Because there are some things worth preserving in Amazon jungles.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons