I worked at an independent bookstore right around the time that the Harry Potter series was taking the publishing world by storm, midnight parties and all. And that meant that our slang term for our most hated enemy came right out of the box: The Company Which Shall Not Be Named. Also known as Am*zon, when we were forced to write it out and we were too lazy for the full name.
Over the last few years, there’s been an increasing awareness of the struggle faced by brick and mortar bookstores, particularly independents. They’ve got a lot to come up against, including, of course, the rise of Amazon, which makes it possible for customers to get books at steeply negotiated discounts. Some stores that are a critical part of our cultural heritage are closing, like Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe, one of the last Black-owned bookstores in New York City.
In the battle to win over, and retain, customers, we always said we had an edge that, okay, I’ll say it -- Amazon -- did not. Actually, we had two edges.
One of my favorite booksellers in my favorite bookstore.
The first was personalized service. At an independent bookstore where the clerks are worth their salt and the store is well run, you can have a great experience that includes awesome book recommendations and friendly conversation. Our established customers had long-term relationships with us, and some of them would come in and ask for specific clerks by name to get recommendations.
One of my favorite customers was infamous for being extremely difficult, and the other clerks envied me for having her wrapped around my little finger. I’d found the thing that made her click, and as long as I kept her happy, she was as calm as a cat basking in the sun. When you know your customers, you know what they’re going to like, and you can make the best recommendation possible.
I helped people shop for presents, advised young readers as they took their first steps out of the kids’ section, and, of course, read scores and scores of books, kept up with bestseller lists, and interacted with publisher’s representatives so I could be as knowledgeable as possible. That kind of personalized service costs money, which is one of the many reasons it’s more expensive to run a brick and mortar store; we weren’t just employees, we were investments.
Our other edge, of course, was instant gratification. Sure, you could order online but you’d have to wait for it to show up, and even if you ordered next day delivery, you didn’t get the satisfaction of having the book in your hand right then.
As an instant gratification shopper, this is a huge thing for me. I tend to buy on impulse after long consideration and when I’m ready to buy, I want to buy now and have whatever it is I bought now. The local independent bookstore I used to work at and now patronize is great about having a well-curated selection so that 90% of the time, when I go in for a specific book, they have it. And 100% of the time, when I go in for a specific book, I also walk out with another book that looked interesting or was recommended by staff.
I was trying to get a picture of myself holding three books I wouldn't have bought without a bookseller's recommendation, but Leila kept photobombing me.
Which is why I’m really interested in, and worried by, Amazon’s same-day delivery project. It’s not going to apply to people in the boonies like me, but it is definitely going to change the game in urban areas. Suddenly, a nearly instant gratification factor will be available through Amazon, and that removes an incentive to shop local and shop independent. Why buy in person when you can get it cheaper, and almost as quickly, over the Internet?
And it’s not just books. Amazon really does sell everything I can possibly imagine, from vibrators to mattresses, and their offerings are expanding all the time.
I live in a small town that is slowly dying, where local businesses are withering away and quietly closing, and there are a lot of reasons for that. The economy isn’t helping; businesses here pay high rents, face a dwindling number of customers, and are dealing with problems like higher prices and less favorable credit with distributors. The Internet is also playing an undeniable role, though, because many people are turning to it to buy what they need, and it creates a catch 22 where stores don’t stock things because no one is buying them locally, forcing people to buy things online even if they’d rather patronize a local business.
Services like Amazon Prime and same day delivery remove one of the biggest barriers to ordering things online: the desire to have what you want in your hands as quickly as possible. This is a society where instant gratification is playing a bigger and bigger role in our lives. Thanks to the rise of ebooks (which you can get through independent bookstores, incidentally), I can download and start reading a book in seconds without leaving my home. I can buy music, television, films, and other media the same way.
Everything I want is at my fingertips, and I expect it to be. Increasingly, I don’t need a physical space to browse, but I also lose a lot from the closure of physical spaces. I lose the experience of discovering something I never would have found on my own. And I lose my community, because each time a business closes, people are out of work, and a gaping hole forms and never fills up again.
We can’t blame the Internet entirely for this, of course. Adaptive businesses are finding new ways to thrive and stay alive; my bookstore has way more author events than it used to, for example, along with other book-centric events to get people into the store and turn it into a community hub. So far, it’s doing well, while the other bookseller on the Coast who handled new books just closed.
But cheap bottom lines and instant gratification are playing a role, and it’s our demand that’s driving companies to provide them. A natural evolution of capitalism and free markets, sure, but also something that makes me deeply sad, because I’m not sure I want to live in a future without bookstores.