Thursday, December 15, 2011

Emptying the world

Both are pieces that I just found out about and read today, but kudos to this fellow for rebutting that one on the issue of Amazon versus what bricks and mortar bookstores. Manjoo's piece is predictable and short-sighted, for reasons it's not too hard to point out. Predictable because whenever corporate America wants to get its way, you can count on a cadre of intellectuals to patiently explain to all of us why the behemoth should get everything it wants. Short-sighted because the case rests almost entirely on Amazon's cheapness.

Now, we all like to save money. More and more, we need to save money. But low cost is not the only value worth preserving. Accepting that it is has caused the collapse of manufacturing in this country and the narrowing of retail options. An economic death spiral, in other words. So it's good to see Doig point out the value bookstores bring to the community.

Of course, as some will say, "communi-wha?" There are lots of places where his argument will fall on deaf ears.

Like farmers’ markets, bookstores are an example of what urbanists refer to as “third places” — places that usually exist to sell something but that also contribute to a city’s public realm, like coffee shops. “In this way, ‘literary culture’ may also translate to ‘urban culture,’ and the appreciation urban residents have for the inherent qualities of urban life,” says Mike Lydon, principal of the Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning firm. “One might describe Amazon as the fast, cheap, standard, virtual suburban big-box model, while the indie bookstore is the urbane alternative that is seemingly rising alongside the rediscovery of America’s urban neighborhoods.” He may be right: after a long decline, the number of independent bookstores stabilized in the last few years and has even ticked slightly upward, according to the American Booksellers Association.

Not everybody sees the need for "third places" because not everyone is invested in there being a public realm. For a lot of suburbanites, exurbanites, and people who want to be as such, life is home, car, work. The idea of spending time in a place you don't own in order to soak up some kind of cultural aura is alien to them. Which is why nihilistic pundits will always find a willing ear. (And a paycheck, but that's a different story.)


susan said...

Amazon is also a disturbing business model because of its abysmal treatment of workers. This is something they definitely have in common with Walmart and other big box stores but may be worse because most people have no idea of their practices.

All the same, I must admit to being a regular customer of and the Book Depository since we left Portland. There are no decent bookstores in Halifax and book prices here are even more outrageous than they are in the US. There are a few second hand places but you know what the stock in most of them entails and the largest one in town is one of the scariest firetraps I've ever seen. I wish there were more bookstores based on Powell's example of selling second hand and new books together. I don't think any other big book store does that but it was great to find all of an author's work together on one shelf. Nowadays only Amazon and their private sellers can provide that service and that's why I purchase books from them.

I agree with your 'third place' theory and just wish I was well enough off (and had the energy) to open a Powell's type store here. I know such a place would do well.

Ben said...

I've been known to use Amazon here and there too. Especially if I don't think I'll be able to find something in meatspace.* But there are things it can do and things it can't do, plus other things it won't do.

I think Books on the Square has started to do the thing you talked about of shelving new and used books together. Of course they're not big enough to have the Powell's kind of selection. Or a cafe.

* No, thank God, "meatspace" isn't a word I actually use.