Why Brick and Mortars Still Rule the Book World, and Why We Must Shop at Them Even If It Costs a Couple Extra Bucks and Few Extra Minutes

By | on April 18, 2011 | 33 Comments

JE: For years, on Bainbridge Island, there was this great little record store called the Glass Onion. The dude who owned it was named Jeff, and he loved his job. Basically, by buying a record store, he bought himself into a low paying job for life. Or so he thought. He was smart, passionate, and informed in a dizzyingly wide array of musical genres, and always managed to be on the cutting edge, without necessarily looking like a guy who lived on the cutting edge. Is this sounding familiar yet?

I’d go into the shop, and I’d say Jeff, what have you got for me? And he’d ask me what I was feeling like. And usually, I’d tell him nothing in particular. Surprise me. Jeff would hold court. He would preach music, he would champion artists exhaustively. People would be standing in line at the counter waiting for him to shut up, so he could ring them up. But even so, they’d be listening. We’d get a little history, some context, some good old fashioned subjectivity. And in the end, based on my conversation with Jeff, I’d walk out with great music. Rarely, did Jeff fail me, and even when I didn’t connect with a purchase, I always had a deeper appreciation for the music because of our conversation.

They tell me search engines can do this, too. But isn’t a search engine going to result in a somewhat  one-sided conversation? If I like this, then I’ll like this. Don’t we lose something with the disappearance of that second voice? Without that conversation, I cringe to think of the music I might not have experienced. Today, I’m still cringing at the thought of the music I may be missing, since Jeff closed his doors a few years back, because, well, music was mostly a digital affair. It’s cheaper, they say. You can get your product quicker, more conveniently, it won’t skip after repeated plays. You don’t have to buy a whole album. You can skip the parts you don’t want.

But what did we lose? In the past eight weeks, I’ve visited more than forty independent bookstores all over the continent, and every one of them had its own personality, and virtually every one of them was owned by an impassioned soul, who had bought themselves into a low paying job by buying bookstore. Oh, and virtually every one of them was a pillar of their community, who put their money right back into said community. And guess what else? All their employees were impassioned people, who happened to be local, and happened to like working for a low wage, if only because it allowed them to work around books, and to spread the word about books and authors, and none more so than the those who otherwise might fall under the radar, or the search engine.

Think about that the next time you click “buy” online to save a couple bucks. Ask yourself: what have I lost, what has my community lost, in the name of convenience? You wanna’ live in a town with wide boulevards, no sidewalks, and box stores on both sides? Then don’t spend your money at indiebookstores, or indie hardware stores, or indie grocery stores. Don’t seek out conversations. Just keep clicking and saving, and serving yourself in the name of convenience.

The last time I saw Jeff in the grocery store, the dude looked kinda’ crazy. A little unshaven. Sorta’ googly-eyed. He started talking to me in the cheese aisle, and talking fast, too. Like I was the first person he’d seen in months. He followed me all the way to the hardware section, then to the frozen goods, then to the produce, then back to the cheese aisle, because he was talking so much that I forgot my cheese. He wouldn’t stop talking. He couldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t get rid of the guy. Honestly, I thought he was gonna’ follow me to my car. I thought I was gonna’ have to give him a ride home. I thought he was gonna’ make me come inside.

So, you see people, THIS is what happens! I don’t wanna see Betsy Burton of The Kings English in Salt Lake City following people to their cars because she’s got nobody to talk to about books! I don’t want Morley Hoarder of Eagle Harbor Books stalking me in the pet food aisle! Or Deon Stonehouse of Sunriver Books! Or Chuck and Dee Robinson of Village Books in Bellingham! Or anyone else. So, please, dear reader, take an extra few minutes, spend an extra couple bucks, or we may soon have an epidemic on our hands. And if you see Jeff coming, run like hell!

Cheers,

JE

PS- And just for the record, most indie bookstores now sell e-books, so this isn’t purely an ink and paper vs. digital proposition we’re talking about, here. This is about how you want your community to look. Boxy is as boxy shops.

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33 Responses to “Why Brick and Mortars Still Rule the Book World, and Why We Must Shop at Them Even If It Costs a Couple Extra Bucks and Few Extra Minutes”

  1. April 18, 2011

    Rebecca Reply

    oh my, as a bookstore owner I’d like to hug you and personally promise never to follow you around, ever!!!! Hahahahahahaha…………….and i pledge the same to all of our customers. :)!! Shop Local!!!!!

    Rebecca
    Hockessin Book Shelf

  2. April 18, 2011

    Robin K. Blum Reply

    Great article. I hope that consumers will learn the value of the indies before they’ve all completely gone under. Greg, you’ve got it right…imagine the French eating Velveeta to save a few euros…

    Robin K. Blum
    In My Book

  3. April 18, 2011

    Roger Reply

    There are just not enough of us around to support them, sad to say, I always head to see Larry at his store, Atlantic Beach NC

  4. April 18, 2011

    Johnny Evison Reply

    . . . ha! well, the truth is, rebecca, i’d always be happy to have a bookseller follow me around, even if they were without a bookstore anymore . . . just making a point at poor jeff’s expense!

  5. April 18, 2011

    Johnny Evison Reply

    . . . don’t buy it, roger, there are still enough of us around to support any local enterprise within reason . . . consider that i’m still spending $4.32 a pop to rent dvds, and my local video rental is still chugging (okay, maybe limping) along . . .it’s a consumer decision, plain and simple . . .

  6. April 18, 2011

    Keith Reply

    i used to visit arborio records in state college, pa. my parents forbid me to go because it was a notorious drug den but i went anyway — whatever their side business, this was the place you went to stretch yourself. i remember buying dead kennedys on vinyl, head-shakers like “rembrandt pussyhorse” and the like and loving them, “waiting for jimmy to kick” and shit like that playing on my brother’s record player. i was dazzled by the gulf between the hair-band crap showing on mtv and the raw stuff i was picking up at arboria. the fact is, brick and mortar keeps the big corporations honest, because it prevents them from shoving that created-by-a-committee “art” down our throats. as long as there is brick and mortar, there will be an informed component of the public, however small. and worth noting — the smaller that group becomes, in my experience they tend to become more and more vocal to balance things out. articles like this one are evidence of that.

  7. April 18, 2011

    Johnny Evison Reply

    here, here, keith! keep ’em honest!

  8. April 18, 2011

    Anonymous Reply

    Nice column, Jonathan. The physical experience of finding and connecting with new books, music, and movies seems to be disappearing. I admit to using Amazon from time to time (that’s where I ordered your book!). But it’s good to be reminded that, without our patronage, we’re steadily losing sources of passion and knowledge. Not to mention the personalized give and take between two people who love the same things. Plus, if everything eventually closes, in favor of the internet, we’ll have no reason to get out of the house! Brick and mortar = community. Internet = isolation.

  9. April 18, 2011

    Johnny Evison Reply

    . . . i guess that’s the point, kristi, it sometimes just takes effort . . . but speaking more directly to your point, most indie bookstores have online storefronts, so you can support them with a click . . . again, you might have to pay a couple extra bucks, but in doing so, you’re helping preserve your community, and those extra bucks will go right back into the community . . .

  10. April 18, 2011

    Greg Olear Reply

    Something I learned on my book tour, JE, that you guys will find interesting: in France, it is illegal to sell a new book for less than five percent off the cover price. What this means is, a big chain or an Amazon can’t undersell the indies into extinction. The result: there’s a bookstore every other block in Paris, and Amazon has only three percent of market share.

    People were also stunned at how cheap books are in the US. Our national mania for PAYING LESS has turned into a kind of disease, you know? I think the indies in literate, artsy towns are here to stay; it’s the rest of the country that’s in trouble.

  11. April 18, 2011

    Christine Reply

    And as a bookstore owner I pledge to CONSTANTLY follow you around if you move to Brooklyn. 🙂
    Thanks for this awesome piece, and for spreading the word.
    Christine
    WORD, Greenpoint, Brooklyn

  12. April 18, 2011

    Kristi Wallace Knight Reply

    I had kind of a bummer experience the other day at Powell’s. I’m a naturally introverted person who prefers not to “bother” the store employees (in other words, I just don’t want to talk to anybody), so I love having the computer to look up where the book I want is. Unfortunately, it wasn’t there. As I was having one of my “ultra-introvert” days, I decided to give up and go home. On the win side, when I got home there was an email from Powell’s in my inbox telling me they had free shipping on everything that day, so I ordered the book and it showed up a few days later.

    I love the serendipity, the happenstance of bricks-and-mortar. But when I already know what I want, it’s really difficult to not just push a button and wait for it to come to me.

  13. […] Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA, is my local bookstore, and I LOVE!!! them! They posted this article on Facebook, and I couldn’t agree more. Why Brick and Mortars Still Rule the Book World, and Why We Must Shop at Them Even If It Costs a Cou… […]

  14. April 19, 2011

    Christie Reply

    You rock, Jonathan. Thanks for doing this.
    Christie
    Gallery Bookshop, Mendocino CA

  15. April 19, 2011

    Johnny Evison Reply

    . . . the pleasure is all mine, christie . . . fuck if i’m gonna’ live in box store universe! . . . i refuse to live in a world without character, where nobody is watching out for the little guy . . .

  16. April 19, 2011

    Johnny Evison Reply

    . . . yeah, but then consider that most booksellers utilize amazon’s search engine almost daily to track down titles, etc . . . but yes, of course IB is on top!

  17. April 19, 2011

    Jason Chambers Reply

    And really, Amazon was third until yesterday, when my Powell’s link died. I just haven’t had time to fix it yet.

    Every direct book link on the site goes to Indiebound, to whom we send about 2000 readers every week, so we’re not doing too bad.

  18. April 19, 2011

    Wendy Morton Hudson Reply

    Great post – ironic that there’s a big Amazon search field right on the left hand side, though happily it’s below the IndieBound link…

  19. April 19, 2011

    Ulharper Reply

    sorry guys. It’s not just a few bucks you’re saving. Hard back $27.99 compared to the ebook at $9.99, and it comes to you immediately. And here’s something that people forget. There’d be more brick and mortars if Borders and Barnes and Noble didn’t murder them. And not to sound like the bad guy, but does it really make sense to keep offering my money to horrible books just because they’re in a store. If the book is mediocre but still satisfies an itch, then that is another reason for an electronic book. Just sayin.

    • April 19, 2011

      Jessie Pate Reply

      This is how I feel most days. As a newlywed going to graduate school to change careers, I haven’t got the money to fuel my book habits solely at an indie store. There is a HUGE difference in price when you look at indie stores vs Amazon, or even a B&N or Target that offers 30% discounts on cover price.

      Of course, half of my book shelf was fillled by books acquired at library book sales or secondhand stores (which drive me crazy with their lack of organization). Does that count for something?

    • April 19, 2011

      Amy Reply

      That doesn’t make any sense, Ulharper. First, you can wait until the book comes out in paperback and is more like $15. Second, as the post notes, most local bookstores sell e-books on their websites (you just can’t get them on your evil, closed-system Kindle) for about the same price as Amazon.

      Third, what? Big box stores “murdering” local bookstores is a problem for local booksellers and communities, not a “win” for B&N and Borders. And it’s not really all that different from the online phenomenon. You know how you can go into the B&N in, say, Atlanta and the B&N in Santa Cruz, CA, and feel like you’re in the same place? That’s shitty. No one likes that. Those places offer many of the same drawbacks as online. They aren’t as well curated, the staff can’t always help you out as much and doesn’t always know you as well, etc.

      And, again, you can buy e-books from local booksellers just as easily as you can from Amazon. I don’t know why you would buy a mediocre book from either (what kind of itch are you scratching?), but you can satisfy your itch for mediocrity and support your community at the same time.

    • April 19, 2011

      Ellen Scott Reply

      but you can order your e-book from most independent booksellers– unless it’s a kindle…

  20. April 19, 2011

    Wendy Reply

    As the co-owner of a bookstore which specializes in used, out of print and antiquarian hardcovers, thank you for this piece! For many years, we have depended on the Internet for our survival, simply because we don’t have enough people walking in to pay the rent!

    Wendy
    Dave Shoots, Bookseller
    Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

  21. April 19, 2011

    T Mastersheinrichs Reply

    Its funny when you hear people complaining about stores closing, having to drive farther & farther to do their shopping, about losing their jobs, about low pay, about no benefits. But hey, they save $ buying made in China/foreign country. We vote with our $ on what kind of world we want to live in & what our children will inherit. If you love books, good books, then you have to decide, local bookstores (local=good streets/schools/community & real jobs) or internet & box stores (less income, more cost & no community). As a hopeful author, I dream of having my launch in my local Indie Book Store.

  22. April 19, 2011

    Supersue66 Reply

    I have worked at my local Barnes and Noble for 17 years–first as a receiving manager, and now as an Assistant Manager. I work retail only because I love books. I make much less money that I should because I choose to work in retail because I must be surrounded by books. The folks who work in my store are all lovers of books; we love to talk to customers about books and recommend titles. When people say to me “oh, I’ll just buy it online” I say, “I can do that for you here. Remember to shop local!” Then they realize we all live in the same place, and spend our paychecks in our city. If we don’t have jobs, then that’s so many more people spending less in our city. Yes, it is a national company, but we all work and spend our paychecks in the same place–our home town. I do get really tired of people automatically saying “I’ll get it at Amazon.” I rarely buy online for anything–I prefer to support the local economy, even if it means paying an extra dollar or two. I even buy my wine at a local wine shop, instead of the grocery store that marks it down $3-5 cheaper. And I spend all my book buying dollars at my store. We support our community through our bookstore–bookfairs, local events, and so much more. If we were to leave, it would leave a huge hole in my city and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to live here if that happened.

  23. April 19, 2011

    Elissa Reply

    As a marketing professional for an independent publisher my experiences with some indie booksellers have been less than welcoming. Apparently some indie bookstores want support but don’t want to give support to indie publishers. I was booking events for an author who is a criminal justice professor, well known in her community and an excellent writer. The owner of the indie bookstore in the author’s hometown told me she would not book the author unless I could guarantee her she would sell 100+ books at the event. Who can guarantee a thing like that? These same indie bookstores who don’t want to support local/regional authors but want to have support and respect for being indies are the same stores that fall all over themselves to have a NYT best selling author come to their store while snubbing unknown authors right in their own backyard.

  24. April 19, 2011

    Johnny Evison Reply

    . . . i will say this in defense of B&N, though . . . there are communities who are not fortunate enough to have indie stores, and B&N brings them the goods . . . also, i have met some very passionate employees of B&N and borders, not to mention a few disgruntled borders folks, who were not happy with certain bookselling policies . . .here’s the bottom line, and i’m planning a big post on this when i can find the time . . . in order for us to have a healthy ecology in publishing, ALL of these elements need to co-exist peacefully, and acknowledge that each serves a function . . . everything can’t be divisive . . . the onus is on the big boys, here, to take a long look at some of their aggressive practices, but in the meantime us little folks gotta’ set the tone . . .

  25. April 19, 2011

    Marcia Stager Reply

    Although not an idie store I remember taking my 3 young chidren to Walden Books. They loved browsing and then selecting based on their interest and the way the book felt and looked. The sales clerks and manager there took an interest in kids and always inquired as to what they reading, interested in, and looking for. Anything that gets a child interested in reading, in my opinion, deserves kudos

  26. April 20, 2011

    Firstusedbooks Reply

    Great article, but too late by a decade or so. I’ve owned a used bookstore for 23 years, experiencing the last 10 years a gradual decline in the amount I can draw from revenue to support my personal expenses. When my lease expires in two more years, I doubt that I will be able to find an affordable location to continue. I do love chatting about literature with customers. Rather than chasing ears in supermarkets, I expect I’ll have to join a reading group or two.

    Peter
    First (Canadian) Used Books
    Vancouver, B.C.

  27. April 20, 2011

    Ulharper Reply

    I think I underestimated the small indie bookstore and I’ll tell you why. The indie stores where I live don’t offer electronic books at all. Period. Doesn’t exist. And the smaller online stores simply don’t have the search tools that amazon has. To add to it, the search tool for the kindle device is pretty good. It keeps you locked in, in contrast to some of the ebook stores which are truly bothersome. But then again I do have a bias. I’m an author who for quite a while tried to get readings at local bookstores and was turned down by every single one…for years. B and N was the only local store to accept me and they don’t even do it anymore.

    So I think the indie store is better than I thought, as my writing group meets in a brilliant one, but even there, when discussing an author event, there were a lot of stipulations and reason why it couldn’t happen. And no it has no online bookstore.

  28. April 21, 2011

    Booklover Reply

    I love books. Just entering a bookstore, seeing all the books lined up ready to be picked up and read, is a way to release stress. Talking to others about books is more soothing and therapeutic than any pill. Layers of worries and problems are held prisoners at bay, while I search for the books to take home. I am fascinated to encounter others like me who share this love for reading. Indie bookstores and also Barnes & Noble, have staff who are intelligent, work for less, but give so much more. Dedicated people who fill such an important role. I rather my children go with me to a bookstore than search for books in a cold, flat screen. I want them to be involved in their reading. I don’t want to wake up one morning and gaze at little androids sitting at the breakfast table. No way!

  29. April 22, 2011

    BookPeople's Blog Reply

    […] Evison wrote a wonderful piece on why brick & mortars matter, and we love him for it. If you haven’t read his novel West of Here, we recommend […]

  30. May 22, 2011

    Barbara Siepker Reply

    Jonathan,
    May I copy your blog and use it in my monthly email newsletter?
    Barbara Siepker
    The Cottage Book Shop
    cottagebooks.com 

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