My friend Carole Horne, general manager of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA, told me a story about this man who came into her bookstore last summer to browse. He thumbed his way through their “recommended” section, then came up to the cashier seemingly empty-handed. Nope. He put a five dollar bill on the counter and said that he was going on a trip and would download his books but had spent a lot of time browsing and felt like he owed the shop some money.
The story is definitely a mixed bag, but there still is a measure of good in it. The guy recognized the intrinsic worth of the local bookstore. This time he forewent its paper products that would weight down his luggage. But he did value the expertise of independent bookstore buyers, the taste of those who curated that special section of books worth his attention, the opportunity to look into familiar books to see if they appealed and browse unknown ones to find a treasure. And at least it translated into some value for the store as well.
A worse story. This week I was picking up a book and a calendar (yes, I still write down my appointments in little white squares) at nearby Brookline Booksmith and noticed a shopper jotting down titles on a list next to people’s names. Wanna bet that list is going home to a computer and amazon.com?
The WORST story. Quite simply, the Amazon app. For those of you who haven't heard or read about it, Amazon has created an app called, “Price Check.” People go into stores, enable the app’s location feature, scan products using their phones and are immediately offered 5 percent off 3 identical Amazon purchases for up to 5 dollars. In other words, the app is turning brick-and-mortar stores into unwilling showrooms where consumers can check out the product and leaf through a few pages before they click a button to save five bucks (plus, don’t forget, the sales tax!)
Right now, Price Check (or as I see it, the Death Star) is using consumers as its foot soldiers to do reconnaissance on products like electronics, toys, music, sporting goods, and DVDS. Then, with a click, it sucks up this market. How long before books, the product that defined Amazon, will follow? Then how long before all our favorite bookstores will no longer exist?
People in all parts of the book business know something about death by a thousand cuts. But writers—especially kids’ book writers, especially nonfiction kids’ book writers—know that losing local bookstores is more like the Sword of Damocles. The pricelessness of booksellers has been written about so often, I’ll just print the keywords and you can fill in the blanks: know their stock, standards, take chances, word of mouth, hand sell, actually read, actually care.
Let's not lose all those beautiful keywords for five dollars and some sales tax.
Come on everybody, it’s the Christmas buying season. There will be one more next year and the year after that. Let’s always have a place to browse; surely that worth a lot more than five bucks.