What Bookstores Provide

So, apparently Amazon did something? I’ve been kind of busy, head down, eyes on my own paper, but I spent this weekend in San Francisco, a mini get-away underwritten by the Jewish Community Center, which was generous enough to let me tag along when my husband had an appearance there.

On Sunday, we walked about five miles, heading west from Nob Hill to Golden Gate Park, our eventual destination the de Young Museum. We stopped into shops that interested us. Inevitably, one of those was an independent bookstore, the Booksmith, on Haight Street.

Now, I pay pretty close attention to the world of books. I’m a writer and I’m a reader. I know what’s going on in “my” world. But in the Booksmith, there were several books and writers that were new to me. I assigned myself a task: Buy a book that you might not buy, were it not for being in this store. I read the “staff recommends” cards, picked up books and checked out the first line. (Yes, I really do that.) Some books beloved by the staff didn’t pass my first-line test, but they still introduced me to new writers. Eventually, I settled on Richard Hughes’s A Wind in Jamaica, with an introduction by Francine Prose. The book is not unknown to me, but all I know about it is that I should have read it. Also, this particular edition uses a piece of Henry Darger’s art for the cover and THAT is going to get my attention every time.

In the ongoing discussion about self-publishing on the web, one frequent assertion is that traditional publishers have acted as “gatekeepers.” Apparently, this is very bad, in part because they have kept out some good books and published some crummy ones, so they don’t deserve to be gatekeepers. But, beyond that, there seems to be a feeling that gatekeepers are un-American, that they’re trampling on people’s First Amendment rights, which include not only free expression, but the subsidy of that expression. And online booksellers are championed because everything is in stock, all the time, for less money than one pays in a physical bookstore.

But here’s the thing, speaking only for myself: I need a curator. (I also need an editor, but that’s a different discussion for a different day.) I want my choices to be culled. And I want to explore books in a world where serendipity is possible, where I walk into a store thinking only that I want to browse and leave with a book I might otherwise not have purchased. In addition to buying the Richard Hughes book on Sunday, I also picked up an illustrated copy of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Which I already own. But this is such a beautiful volume, I figure I’ll give it to someone.

I live in two cities, both poor. And while my life in one — essentially carless — makes Internet shopping inevitable at times, I’m aware that every Free Shipping! Deeply Discounted! No Sales Tax Charged! item I buy is taking money out of the local economy and sending it somewhere else.

I happened on this passage in the Michael Pollan book this morning: “With food as with so many things, you get what you pay for. There is also a trade-off between quality and quantity . . .” Look, it’s not up to me to take sides. I support all booksellers who support me. Amazon named The Most Dangerous Thing one of the top mysteries of 2024 and I was very grateful for that. But if a retailer is selling an item for less than it costs the retailer — well, what do you think the longterm strategy is?



38 thoughts on “What Bookstores Provide

  1. Nice, thoughtful post, unsurprisingly. Some of what you are talking about is “browsing”, which I notice has a generational cutoff point. Some (not all of course) younger people walk through our store, arms at their sides, not touching anything, which as anyone knows is the way you find a book. If they aren’t touching they aren’t buying. Of course the curating aspect is also important. On our “Favorites” list this year is a book called “The Girl in the Green Raincoat”…

  2. I’ve lived my entire adult life in a very rural part of the country- the closest book store is 43 miles away, so I’ve always been a mail-order book reader (and library patron). The internet opened the world to me, and though I suspect I’m a Harbinger of Doom, my Kindle opened the universe. I am currently buying and reading books that I would never have bought in a brick and mortar store (if for no other reason than a finite budget would not allow me to buy more than an couple of books on any one outing, while I can talk myself into spending $3 per day, every damn day). I have probably read 5x more books in the last 6 months, than I read during the whole of last year, simply because I can get them quickly and easily (and, okay, cheaply).

    I will shop in brick and mortar stores, at probably the same rate as I did before, but for better or worse, I’ve made the e-transition, and I doubt that I’m going back. I do feel guilty, but there it is.

  3. Kathi, you shouldn’t feel guilty. This is a complex issue and your story is a reminder that there is much that is marvelous about e-Readers. I use an iPad. I used to use a Kindle, but I prefer the iPad (not everyone does) and like the fact that I can buy books on it from independent bookstores.

    I just wanted to celebrate the bookstore experience here. And the final question is not rhetorical. I don’t know the endgame for retailers who are currently selling things at below cost.

  4. Henry Darger. I was just thinkin about him because, in preparation for seeing Vivian Maier’s photography exhibit on Saturday, I have been reading about some of her artistic habits and they remind me of Darger’s. The sheer volume of it all for both of them.

    Anyway, I have no idea what the right answer is with books except that my own solution is to buy some books from Amazon and some from indie bookstores and also take out some from the library. I spread my book habit around, hopefully not huring anyone too much in the process. With any luck, I help the industry once in a while as well.

  5. “…two cities, both poor”

    Honestly, have you ever really seen a rich city? Rich sections, but no rich cities. It’s almost an oxymoron.

    On the topic of bookstores, here in Harrisburg, at least on my side of the river, we recently lost the only bookstore left, and that was a Borders. Now BAM has moved back in, and while I like the indies, it’s a least nice that I can go with my daughter and obtain my weekly “biblio-therapy”, which involves simply browsing a book store, sometimes with a coffee in hand, checking out the new titles, and reaffirming that all is right in the world because they’re still selling books. Oh. And occasionally even buying a book. This has always been a needed source of father-daughter bonding, to the point of tradition. She’s 26 now, but I hope it lasts till I die.


  6. I hope book stores don’t go away (small and large) for lots of reasons, and not just selfishly because my ultimate writing dream is for one of my books (just one) to come out in hardback. There are books that I buy routinely that cannot exist in any form outside of printed paper (I’m fascinated with pop-up books, and am a long time collector of paper dolls and other cut-out type activities that I pretend to buy for my Grandkids, but really I buy for myself). On the other hand, my backlist would not be once again available, and dribbling royalties, if not for e-pubbing. And if I were to add to the Delphi saga, surely that book would be e-only.

    It’s definitely complicated.

  7. Great post. David Morrell will tell you that Amazon will continue to sell items below cost because part of their internal mission statement is to run every serious competitor out of business, thus controlling a huge share of the industry. It’s his belief that if and when this happens the cost of e-books will dramatically rise. Hmmm……

  8. I shop at Amazon and I shop at indies. I am a print-only reader for now, no interest in an e-reader at this time. But I am also a small business, who wants to support small businesses. My response to Amazon’s “Day of Bad Citizenship” (as I heard someone call it) was to go out of my way to shop at indie mystery bookstores on that day, and to let them know why I was there. Every single bookseller wrote me a nice note thanking me for my support. My orders didn’t total much, the profits probably wouldn’t pay the electric bill for the day. But I felt like I’d stood up to a bully. And that always makes me feel good. I feel like Amazon and indies can co-exist, print and e-versions can co-exist…. but bullying tactics are not to be rewarded.

  9. Since I was laid-off from my job,, I have re-discovered the library, Previously I was browsing/buying from Amazon or Borders or BN. But I can apply your ideas to browsing in the library. I usually check out the “librarian’s picks”, etc., but have to admit that I often pick a book by an intruiging cover, when the author is unknown to me. Most of the time, it is good! And I always read the first paragraph or two. When I do pick a book that I just can’t get through, I always know this by the second/third chapter. I recommend used bookstores — you can get great deals and it is fun to just be surrounded by those musty but well-read stacks.

  10. Does Boulder count as a city or a town? Because it looks pretty rich to me. But it’s an interesting point, John, because while in San Francisco Mr. L and I talked about how no city, even one as desirable as San Francisco. gentrifies completely. We’ve also started spending more time on the Upper West Side of NYC and there are still projects in that neighborhood. Which, by the way, I think is a good thing. I think everything is better when it’s heterogeneous. More difficult in some ways, but worth it.

    Baltimore and New Orleans, though, are dauntingly poor in places. Baltimore has an unusual problem, in that it’s surrounded by a county but not part of one and therefore can never expand; St. Louis is the only other major U.S. city with this same set-up.

    • The Upper West Side! Once again, I’ve decided I want to be LL in my next life. I’m not sure how a city girl like me ended up in the mountains of Colorado but when my husband once floated the idea of moving again, my reply was that his choices were back to Baltimore or to the Upper West Side. Those were it. I love NYC, and the Upper West Side in particular.

  11. I think the bookstore experience is a valuable one, and thus I’m willing to subsidize it to a certain extent. I consciously make the decision, on a regular basis, to pay more for an identical commodity, because I think that bookstores are worth supporting. What I resent is those who would make me feel bad when I choose not to do so.

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  14. HI. I used to work for Borders and even though it’s been almost a year since that ended, it still seems to me that big, giant bookstores are going to be a thing of the past. Used bookstores are popping up all over in this area of Chicago. By the way, I always had at least one of your books on my Staff Picks wall.
    I really enjoyed I’d Know Your Anywhere.

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