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Shelflife: Problems with Your Order

May the Sales Be with You

By Nick Bergus

There was a time, not so long ago, when the literati viewed chain bookstores as the evil empire. Stocked with mainstream best sellers and books meant to be judged by their covers and sold by underpaid workaday staff, Borders and Waldenbooks competed with indie shops manned by book lovers and furnished with interesting reads.

Now, as the big bookstore chains have blinked out of existence, the spite is directed at the new threat. True believers, it seems, dare not speak its name. In a recent conversation, author Larry Baker (The Flamingo Rising) simply referred to the new retailing threat as “the Death Star,” the moon-size, world-destroying weapon of Star Wars. We all knew he was talking about the moon-size, industry-transforming retailer Amazon.

While independents played on a somewhat level playing field with the brick-and-mortar chain stores, Amazon (and now, to a much lesser degree, Apple and Google) is playing a different game.

Amazon competes “based on quantity, and indies can’t,” points out Sheila Hargrave, owner of The Bookworm in Bellevue. “But we make up for it in other ways. There is nothing like your neighborhood independent bookstore and never will be.”

For all of Amazon’s algorithmic book-recommending wizardry, it can’t match independent bookstores’ customer service. If we lose bookstores like Des Moines’ Beaverdale Books, owner Alice Meyer writes in an email, “we lose a place where bookseller and customer have actual conversations about books and recommend favorites to each other. We lose a place where you stumble across a great read while you’re looking for something else. We lose a place where a bookseller will place an order with a sales rep because she knows that a particular customer might like that title.”

It’s easy to get caught up in nostalgia. Store owners I talked with mentioned the uniqueness of their shops, the experience of browsing through physical books, and the cultural importance of bookstores. For Dragonfly Books’ Kate Rattenborg, however, it’s simple economics. “What Amazon has created is a vacuum to take those sales out of a community, never to come back,” says the Decorah bookstore owner.

Sales go out of state; sales tax doesn’t get paid. And without sales, local bookstores aren’t able to support local schools, bring together new authors and new readers, or stay in business to provide gathering places for bookworms. Book sales are what allow booksellers to do this.

Many don’t connect the dots. In what looks like an attempt to get the best of both worlds, some shoppers, say the bookstore owners I spoke with, show up at their local bookstores, pick the clerks’ brains, and browse the shelves. They then pull out their smartphones to check prices online. The phenomenon, called showrooming, may just be another symptom of what Rattenborg calls “the systematic devaluing of the intellectual value of a book.”

Amazon’s constant use of books as loss leaders, she says, has changed the way we think about books. We now see books as “a commodity that you should be able to get as cheap as possible. It doesn’t value the skill of the writer, the editor, the designer.”

Local bookstores are an important part of the literary ecosystem. And if we’re not careful, we may one day no longer have their showrooms to visit.

Nick Bergus is a multimedia producer and freelance writer based in Iowa City.

Photo by Paul Gates.

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