A New York Times article appeared several times on my Facebook feed this morning, posted initially by my friend Lacy Simons, purveyor of fine reading material at her beautiful Rockland bookstore, Hello Hello Books. It’s written by Maine author Richard Russo, it quotes Lacy, along with Stephen King, and it’s about that behemoth of an online retailer, that all-knowing depository of everything you could ever want to buy, ever – Amazon.com. The anti-Hello Hello Books.
Russo’s editorial is mainly about how this holiday season Amazon announced that it was (in Russo’s words) “encouraging customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores on [Saturday, Dec, 10] and use its price-check app (which allows shoppers in physical stores to see, by scanning a bar code, if they can get a better price online) to earn a 5 percent credit on Amazon purchases (up to $5 per item, and up to three items).” Basically, Amazon wants you to go into small businesses, see how much they charge, compare it to Amazon’s inevitably lower price, and then not only not buy from small businesses, but be rewarded for buying online, from Amazon. It is as if Amazon wants the consumer to use these small businesses, with their well-educated and informed owners, as nothing more than “a showroom for goods you can just get more cheaply through them,” as Simons wrote on her blog.
Russo bristles at this suggestion — as do I. My mother Nancy worked for the Belfast location of Mr. Paperback, a small, Maine-owned, independent bookseller, for 24 years (17 years as manager) a job she just retired from in September. She’s a voracious reader, and a fountain of information on books of all kinds. I’m sure my lack of interest in owning a Kindle, and the fact that our dining room is really mostly a library with a table and chairs in it, can be attributed directly to her influence. Furthermore, my grandfather Joshua owned a small business in Belfast for decades, until he retired in the early 1980s: Perry’s Nut House, the land of taxidermied elephants and homemade fudge. If there are two things I am passionate about, it’s small businesses and books. It’s genetic.
Like brick-and-mortar record stores, bookstores are valuable not just for the goods they sell. They’re valuable as places people go to talk about the things they love, with people who have similar passions. Amazon and iTunes have done a bang up job of putting both traditional record and book stores out of business, and it’s fairly obvious that neither retailer is going anywhere anytime soon. So why the seemingly nasty attack on small businesses, who want nothing more than to sell good books to good people?
I’m not going to pretend I haven’t bought stuff from Amazon. I have. I’ve even purchased books from them! Gasp! But no longer. I’m going to make the same promise I made with music: only from small businesses or online retailers I can trust. For music, it’s both used and new vinyl from stores all locally owned, or from eMusic.com, a wonderful download subscription site with thoughtful editorial oversight and a devoted community of music lovers. For books, it’s from an indie online bookseller like Powells.com, or from a store like any of the Mr. Paperbacks or Bull Moose Books & Music locations, or Bookmarc’s in Bangor, or Longfellow Books in Portland, or Hello Hello in Rockland. Lacy Simons will talk to me at great length about the merits and weaknesses of the new books of 2011. Amazon may offer a cheaper price, but it exists in a cultural vacuum. You get what you pay for.