Thursday, September 08, 2005

independent book stores

kqed forum (podcast here) recently had a show on independent bookstores. the show was prompted by the recent closure of kepler's bookstore in menlo park.

the forum had a few independent bookstore owners and employees on, and i thought it was rather biased. they were all talking about how great independent bookstores are, how they foster community and are the hotspots for new authors to break into mainstream society. that's all well and good, but when i go to a bookstore, i want to get a book, at a cheap price, and be treated well. i find that amazon does all that for me. independent bookstores are sometimes cool to go to and see what they have on their shelves, to do a sort of browsing that's just more fun in real life than on amazon, but when it comes to buying, and getting recommendations, amazon is quite good.

i want to emphasize the recommendation part: sure, amazon has a huge database and it tracks all its customers' purchases, and i suppose it could sell or do bad things with that data, but in all honesty, i know that amazon sometimes makes good recommendations to me based on that data. i feel i have a good shopping experience online with amazon.

so instead of poo-pooing the fact that amazon doesn't have to charge state sales tax, etc.. independent bookstores should be working on making their products available online (maybe via amazon, or via abebooks), and making the customer experience more meaningful. they need to compete! they need to make me want to visit them. for instance, on the day of the recent harry potter launch, i went to a bookstore that decorated everything in harry potter style, and had activities and games, and it was great for me as an adult, and fantastic for children. if that bookstore were closer to me, i might visit it more often.

i should note that the powell's books guy seemed to be saying things somewhat along these lines -- that the independent booksellers needed to get their act together. really they do: they used to be able to get away with doing next-to-nothing, and now they need to do something, and why not, they have a big advantage: they have location on their side.


Neha said...

I think you have a point -- that independent bookstores need to work a little bit to retain business. but this is a bigger issue, omar. it's walmart versus the local mom-and-pop -- these stores will be put out of business, quite easily, and then we won't even have the option of going somewhere *besides* amazon. if borders decides a book is too controversial to carry, then there won't be anywhere in a small town to get it. if barnes and noble decides an author said something that offended the senses of the more conservative among us, then that author won't have anywhere to go on book tour to promote his book and will sell fewer books.

diversity is in the best interest of all of us! tragedy of the commons. though i think it would be really nice if independent bookstores got more comfy couches. that's one thing amazon can't offer :)

omar said...

but isn't that the great thing about the internet? previously, you didn't even HAVE a place to go to get most books if you lived in a small town, and sometimes even in a big town. now it's easy to find content online. that author who can't get walmart to sell his book -- he can put it online, and a growing number of people will have access to it. i don't think the problem is that walmart is going to control what we have access to. then again, i don't have a good sense of US subburbs -- maybe they are covered with big chains, with no small stores. but i doubt that. there will always be niche areas where small stores can innovate.

actually you're hinting at a bigger problem. what happened to the town hall? communities coming together? can it increasingly be the case that we hide outselves away online and at home and don't engage with people in the outside world? then is it mass media that is controlling what we are exposed to?


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