I have a guilty secret, and it is implied in the above headline.

Yes, I have long known of Amazon’s poor labor practices, hardball price reduction tactics, manipulation of publishers large and small, pressure on independent booksellers (though their numbers are fortunately growing), and potential for Armageddon once they have eliminated all competition. I also know similar unsavory facts about the meat processing industry, but I still had a hamburger for dinner last night. A psychologist might call it human nature.

Up until now, my solution for scrubbing away the ugly film that covers both activities has been the same: alter small habits without attempting a complete overhaul. Buy a book at an independent bookstore every time I found myself in one. Order beef and pork from our local CSA, let the kids meet the farmers and pet the cow so they learn where food comes from. Reduce the bad stream, gradually increase the good one. But Amazon and the bulk chicken breasts from the grocery store persistently remained.

My defense for using Amazon has been convenience, not price. I would happily pay more for books if it kept publishers and writers in business, but with writing myself, four kids, a wife’s profession, the list goes on and on (right?), it is the ability to order books online that drew me. I knew what I wanted from reading reviews and talking to friends. I was just using Amazon to save me a trip to the store, a trip that would take time and use gas.

Why not order from another site? Ignorance and laziness, but more on that in just a moment.

I had been following Amazon’s feud with Hachette, but considered it background noise, more of the same, until the front page story in the business section of the Sunday New York Times. The piece is chilling, and not because of the business or legal arguments. No, it’s the story of Orwellian company man Vincent Zandri that disturbs. Company towns ultimately didn’t work so well for coal miners and factory workers, but here is Zandri safe and pampered in his Amazon cocoon, watching Amazon movies, reading Amazon books, spending Amazon’s cash, winning Amazon’s awards.

Full disclosure: this is perhaps a good time to mention that I have one of those too. Best of 2012. I’m not shy about it; it is the most prominent award I have won (not that it has much competition on my virtual shelf). Has it made me keep shopping at Amazon when other writers long departed? I’d be a fool to try to claim it had no effect. Amazon also named my book best of the month, and while I’m sure I have sold many books through the site, compartmentalizing this business tie is much easier than the recognition. Every author sells books on Amazon (as long as they aren’t fighting your publisher). But the awards felt strangely (and you may find this hard to believe, coming from Amazon) personal. Jon Foro, an editor at Amazon, wrote up a blurb about why he liked my book. He is clearly a book person, loves books, liked mine, enough to recognize it. Every new writer loves those that love them. Even the wicked, and all that.

But the effect of Jon Foro’s support and an award layered in tarnish should not be overstated. Convenience had been the real king. But last week, fears of the future finally won out, fears of being a company-man creating “demand-weighted units” rather than a writer who tells stories, and so I resolved to figure out how to trade cost for peace of mind while maintaining convenience: could I go online, buy a book, know it came from an independent bookstore, and make sure that Amazon was not involved at all?

This is both harder and easier than it sounds. It is hard to go online and just buy a book from “an independent bookstore.” AbeBooks used to be that, a clearing house for indies, but it was purchased by Amazon several years ago. Likewise Indiebound catalogues books and stores but does not make sales. In the end, after searching and asking on social media, I decided that there is no such beast, no co-op of independents that markets one website, ships books from the closest member, share profits amongst all. Maybe there should be? (And if you know otherwise, that such a place does exist, please tell me.)

But avoiding Amazon is easier than I make out to be as well, if you choose an individual store rather than try to buy from “an independent bookstore.” Barnes & Noble looks like the little guy in the fight, so you can always go there. Or Books-A-Million or Hastings. But many true indies have invested in IT in recent years, and buying there is seamless. You can try Powell’s, of course, the grand-daddy and the destination of my yearly pilgrimages growing up. But also, as friends reminded me on social media, Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, Parnassus in Nashville, Labyrinth in Princeton, The Strand or Book Culture in NYC, the list goes on and on. Frequent each of them in succession, as a round robin, and you have done your part to promote culture in America.

The bottom line is, I have no excuse, and neither do you.

Back to Indiebound for a moment. When one searches for a book there, one finds all of the promo copy, videos, reviews, lists, etc that one would find at Amazon. But you also find a list of independent bookstores near you, and I encourage you to look because you may be amazed what you find.

Indiebound first told me to go to Talking Leaves, and for good reason. Jon Welch, the owner, has been a pillar of the Buffalo lit scene for decades and a leader and spokesperson nationally for indies. Jon is a promoter of the arts, runs a writer series at Larkinville, his stores anchor two city neighborhoods, and he is a friend of writers. He has also been a great supporter of mine, hosted my first signing. I can’t say enough good things about him or his store.

But Indiebound also told me to go to Book Corner in Niagara Falls, and, despite having moved back here seven years ago, I swear to you that I had never even heard of it. The mystery of how this was possible was deepened upon my visit, because Book Corner is the largest used book store in hundreds of miles. Opened in 1927, owned and operated by the Morrows, father and son, since 1962. Three stories, new books on the cavernous ground floor, nonfiction used in the basement, fiction used upstairs. One Morrow (son, I believe) greeted me gruffly when I entered, provided this general lay-of-the-land without me having to ask. How obvious was it that I had never been there before? Or does he have the kind of memory that captures every customer?

He had turned on the lights downstairs so I was welcome to browse down there but if I wanted to go to the second floor he would have to go first because perhaps they were not on yet upstairs. I took three of my sons to the basement, dodging spiderwebs attached to the curling posters of castles and punk bands that wallpapered the stairwell. “What is that smell?” one asked. “That’s the smell of old books,” I answered, and it was true, endless looping rooms of books wedged into every available horizontal and vertical space. I dropped the boys in two alcoves devoted to children’s books while I sorted through History. What Mr. Morrow lacks in dehumidifiers he makes up for in selection: a definitive collection of mass market hardcovers spanning the last sixty years. I spotted David Halberstam’s new Korean War book for six dollars and then, having only covered (at most) two percent of the basement’s selection, returned to my sons to help them sort through seven walls of options. “Bridge to Terabithia” for one dollar. A 1959 hardcover edition of Hardy Boy’s #1, “The Tower Treasure,” for three dollars. My eleven year old also chose Hardy Boys #18, “The Twisted Claw,” because he liked the title. Fair enough. We left with a stack of books for less than twenty.

How had I never heard of this store before? What will you find when you check Indiebound?

44 thoughts on “How I Resolved to Stop Buying From Amazon, and What I Discovered After

  1. That secondhand bookstore sounds like an Aladdin’s cave of delight. I can just imagine how thrilled the kids were with their discoveries. In Dublin, Ireland we have a whole floor of used books in Chapters bookshop. It’s a great way to spend a lot of time and very little money.

    Hadn’t known anything about Amazon’s shenanigans. Thank you for a very informative post.

  2. Sorry Brian. My time to shop is limited and I often have a bigger selection of many things on Amazon than in the local retail stores – plus I can read reviews and write my own. I have a CostCo membership, but I usually go there with a big list of things I want that I can buy in bulk. CostCo, at least the one in Montgomery, AL, doesn’t stock Sweet and Low in 1500 packet boxes, and it would be a hassle to drive 24 miles round trip when I noticed the box on the high shelf was nearly empty. Amazon puts it on my porch in 2 days. Amazon puts my toilet paper on my porch and saves the same 24 mile round trip, It makes my TV worth turning on since I got my Roku – from Amazon. We could enjoy Doc Martin, a BBC series and much more with my Prime membership. 77 orders in the last 6 months, and that doesn’t include digital/Kindle. Now I hate Wal-Mart, and your blog and the link to the Sunday NY Times article make the 2 sound similar. Amazon is, as you say, convenient; Wal-Mart is not and their parking lot is dangerous. Maybe in 5 or 10 years, I will think like you do, but I don’t have the kind of book stores here that you describe, and if I want a print version, Amazon is an easy place to find a “used” book cheaper, and “good” or “very good” usually is hard to distinguish from new in some cases. I am an unashamed Amazon customer and booster. I was even able to get the shampoo my wife insists I use when the local retailer we would usually buy it from had none in stock.

    • Kim – I would only say that I still shop online plenty as well, for lots of things other than books, but I have found that plenty of sites offer similar-enough deals for my furnance air filters and hiking pants, and Powells will sell you plenty of used books that are just as easy to find as you do at Amazon.

  3. I appreciated your article, but it may be impossible – Amazon Web Services powers so much of our daily lives, including Netflix, Yelp, and the government! See this: It’s Actually Pretty Much Impossible To Quit Amazon http://huff.to/1kNEN7q @HuffPostTech

  4. This is a great post. Would that more book buyers start avoiding Amazon. That’s easy to start with, but you move on to the Amazon affiliates (whom you may not know are affiliates) and you rule them out. What’s left? Yes, all the independents, whom we should all support. In terms of a metabooksearch, Biblio.com remains the sole standout. They support the book trade like no other. Let’s go indie, either through each one or through Biblio.com

  5. Kim, you do have a store, and no excuse either, if you want to buy books locally (in person or online). Check out Capitol Book & News on Fairview and get to know owners Cheryl and Thomas Upchurch who have invested in the local Montgomery economy for over 30 years. You might be amazed by what you discover.

    • I do know of the Upchurches and miss their weekly column and their sense of humor in the Advertiser. They survive because they are great people with a loyal following and are the best source for things uniquely Southern. I have no excuse except $ and a Kindle.

      • Just for the sake of discussion, let’s imagine that the community you serve decided that what you offer within your community is better had online for the sake of convenience. The $ that are spent with you are now being directed impersonally to some other person in some other city, some other state, some other corporation that is propelled by different goals than those within the community that you live. The local services of government have fewer $ to to meet the needs of the community and over time, there are fewer and fewer options locally or online to find the assistance that people need from the services you provide. You have found another line of work, since out of convenience, people sought what you provide from an online source. Funds within the community have evaporated within the normal channels that circulate because of local taxes, wages, benefits, tithes, and donations becoming more scare.

        Sadly, many of the reasons Amazon is able to undercut the prices of local merchants of every type are myriad. The philosophy with which they run their company is oftentimes objectionable in how they treat their employees, the pressure they put on vendors, and the unreasonably favorable treatment they have received on Wall Street.

        Reach out to your local community and establish relationships with your friends and neighbors who bravely endeavor as entrepreneurs in a market economy that has been extremely brutal for a number of years. It doesn’t do anyone good for one to think that they live an isolated existence and that their $ don’t have a local impact within the community. If the community suddenly abandoned you and what you do for a living, you might reconsider substance over convenience.

    • You make a very good point. In a way, as a Clinical Psychologist, I don’t have to worry about this. Most people don’t want to do psychotherapy over the Internet, but I have heard of one situation where Skype is being used. I do have to deal with 3rd party panels and insurance companies who have preferred providers. I am not so much being undersold, or having business taken away form me as having insurance companies telling me what they will pay and limiting co-pays, so I almost never get full fee. I do use many local merchants. Thanks for your point of view; it is valid and made me think. It’s is probably not fair for me to hate Wal-Mart for what they have done to local small businesses, especially in small towns and not feel the same way about Amazon. My favorite saying about fair is that it’s something that comes to town once a year in the fall.

    • Isn’t this what the blog is all about? The most heartening thing about this discourse is that it is so different from the comments on MSNBC articles where people comment who can’t spell and argue with each other primarily through name calling and put downs. This shows that it is a group of thoughtful (and intelligent) people that are commenting. I am looking forward to your next book. I can’t remember titles or author names sometimes without going to my Kindle library (Sorry), but an English teacher who taught in Iraq and Afghanistan published a book with several papers written by soldiers during their tours. I probably got the title off Brian’s books to read list. Achilles in Vietnam is also a good book for those who have read Brian’s book; it is written by a psychiatrist (Jonathan Shay, MD, PhD) who treated RVN vets with severe PTSD. He has written a 2nd titled Odysseus in America and addresses the trials of homecoming. The same will be true for Iraq and Afghanistan returnees I’m sure.

  6. I’m interested in this line of thinking for many of the same reasons you are, but I’m curious about cost for newly released used books – 80% of what I buy (released in the last 5 years, paperback edition) but contemporary American authors. I buy these books for professional and personal reasons and mix up my purchases, some indy and mostly Amazon. Because that’s the only thing I can afford. To “make up” for it, anytime I’m at an author event (which is often), I buy a new copy, sit in the front row, ask questions, and get the book signed. Rationalizing? Or just living the way I can afford to? I’d say the latter. At the end of the year, my second largest business expense (second only to travel) is books. I feel I’m doing my part. I could spend that same amount of money and buy new at indys and have half as many books, be half as well read, and be half as in tune with my colleagues when I travel. That’s not something I think I can “afford” professionally, to be honest. So if you were to keep pondering this topic, I’d be curious how you’d address these kinds of issues. I’m glad to read your initial discoveries, but I do think it’s more complicated than this. Insanely complicated, as I know you know.

    • Katey – our buying habits generally match (genre and bookseller), and I think our expenses rank out similarly as well. Is the mix of Amazon & indies rationalizing? I would now say so, because B&N and Powells both do free shipping at a certain total order price point, and have similar deals on new books, honestly. Michael Pitre’s new Fives & Twenty Fives is $20.08 pre-order at B&N and $19.89 at Amazon. I said I would trade cost for peace of mind, but as I looked, I’m not sure it will really be that much more expensive, if at all, if you order books in groups to get the free shipping.

      • I forgot to say anything about a company that is now owned by Amazon, but gives me my best “reading” experience – Audible. I listen to one book, read another. Some books are incredibly well performed and the listening experience is very rewarding and enriched beyond the printed page. Examples: Will Patton with the James Lee Burke books and especially his reading of Stephen King’s Dr. Sleep; Humphrey Bowers on any of Bryce Courtenay’s novels. Hard to beat $23/mo. for 2 selections and $4.95 sales give me a chance to try new authors.

      • For new books, I agree. But I buy 90% used paperback because that’s what I can afford. If I only bought new, the number of books I bought per year within the same budget would be reduced by 75%.

  7. Try Half Price Books on-line. They have really good prices, and do have some new books, and like new as well. They will then steer you to Thriftbooks.com, and other indies. I like giving new life to books that have been donated and might be sitting on a shelf in Denver or Las Vegas or… I just found four used books I had wanted a friend in another city to read. I ordered them for her, they came from four different locations, and she has had Christmas in July! I love Powell’s, too. A caveat about Barnes and Noble–they have discount prices on-line. Their store fronts do not price the same way, so a new release that might be $14 on-line, could be $24.95 in the store. That’s dumb, IMHO. This is a good post, and I am sharing it! :)

  8. As a former librarian, and now publisher and public library trustee, I encourage everyone to explore their local public library as a source for the books that they need. I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised at how much you can get there–and it’s free! (Yep, you pay taxes for your library, but why not get your money’s worth?)

  9. I encourage everyone to explore their local public library for the books that they need. You’ll be pleasantly suprised at how much you can get there–and how much they’ll do to get things for you–and it’s free! (Yup, you pay taxes for your library, but why not get your money’s worth?)

    • Just to be clear, in that analogy, I’m the wicked! (but let me check my New Testament to be sure I set that up right…)

      But thank you, you are very kind, not only about the book, but to read and respond to all this as well.

  10. I’ve never had an Amazon account and hopefully never will. The thing is, I work at an independent bookstore and get 95% of my reading material for free. Unless I was willing to wait a few years and get them used or remaindered, I could never afford to buy all of the books I read. It would be a tough choice but I’d like to think I’d stick to my principles.

    Fun Fact: Your post inspired me to stock up on “The Long Walk” at our stores and I’ve found that Baker & Taylor and Ingram are sold out (no worries; we got more from Random House, and the warehouses have ordered more). I picture hundreds of indie buyers across the country loving this post and wiping them out.

      • Authors appreciate that I recommend books I like to Books & Books customers, and on my blog (and as a buyer, make sure we keep their books in stock on the shelves). That’s author support through customer dollars.

        If I take it to the next level and *gasp* spend the pittance I make as a bookseller on your book, then you know I really loved it.

  11. You’ll never convince those who are told that Amazon is screwing them and reply, “Pass the K-Y Jelly.” Even those with doctorates. But for the rest of us, here is a way to use Amazon for “showrooming.” It works best for used books.

    Find the book you want on Amazon. Copy the ISBN. Then click over to thriftbooks.com and enter the ISBN in the search box.

    I have found that if an Amazon third party seller wants 83 cents plus $3.99 shipping, the price on ThriftBooks will be $4.82, including FREE shipping. In other words, the same price. And often from the very same seller.

    A little more work, yes, but if you truly want to stop feeding the beast . . .

    BTW, Brian, I noticed you use the construction “a writer that told stories.” I realize it’s an increasingly common locution these days, but it is technically incorrect. It should be “a writer WHO told stories,” because you are a human being and not a thing. Or have you internalized Amazon’s worldview and come to see yourself as merely a thing, just another demand-weighted unit? ;-)

  12. OK, maybe Zandri’s not the sort of fellow you’d befriend or author you’d read, but did you miss the part where he’d been reduced to returning bottles and cans so he could eat? I don’t approve of a lot of what Amazon does either, but I stop at sneering at those who make needed money using its publishing services. And he seems quite realistic about what Amazon is too. I don’t see the “Orwellian figure” that you do.

    • Andrea – I hope I don’t sneer at Mr. Zandri. I don’t intend to, and my apologies to him if it came out that way. I don’t begrudge any writer their choice of outlet or platform or medium (we’re all just trying to put words on the page) and that applies to Zandri as well. I didn’t miss the parts you describe, and neither of us (unless you know Zandri personally, I don’t) know how he feels about the NYT article, or whether all of that is a fair representation of his experience or feelings. I know how these things can be amplified for effect in the editing process.

      If I do sneer (I’d prefer to say “take issue” or “have concerns” or “fear” I guess) it’s in a future where we apply his situation to everyone. He himself is not Orwellian, but the idea that all of us would work for one company that both published and sold all of our books (and gave us awards and free movies) fits the definition I think. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable fear, either – Amazon is actively working towards it now, has succeeded at several steps of that process already. I just think we need lots of publishers, lots of bookstores, lots of readers, lots of writers, lots of editors, lots of ideas, and we’re generally trending in the wrong direction right now.

  13. I’m happy to know that you’ve discovered some local booksellers and perhaps rediscovered the pleasure of going into a bookstore and browsing, even when you think you know what you want. As a staff member at an independently owned (for over 30 years), individual bookstore in Northern California, I can tell you that we take orders by phone, by email and on our web site, and can get almost any book from just about every publisher in a matter of one to two days. If you can’t get to the shop to collect it right away we’ll hold it or mail it to you. And, if you can’t quite remember the title we’ll take the time to find it for you. And call you back with the info. I’m not exactly sure why you distinguish independent bookstores (in quotes, as though they are some sort of mythical beast) from individual stores.

  14. There are many indie booksellers listed thousands of them, on Alibris.com and Biblio.com. Just pay attention to the names and addresses of the sellers. Some are giant “used book factories” run through donations to thrift shops, etc. – mostly the ones who sell books for $.01-1.00. There are other sites, but Alibris and Biblio are two NOT owned by The Big River. I was recently forced to close my 27-year-old indie UBS…. But I still list books online! I. Fact, just shipped one off to The Netherlands. Hurrah! A sale!

  15. Also important to remember: many publishers these days are offering book sales through their own websites. If you can’t make it to an independent bookseller, you can often order straight from the source.

  16. In the uk we have Hive, order online and pick up from a local indie store within a day or two. We also have water stones, foyles and daunts but I admit to a subscription of indiespensable from Powells too. I think that makes me both greedy and spoiled!

  17. Amazon is to authors what iTunes is to musicians and songwriters. The consolidation of information “gatekeepers” into just a shrinking handful of multi-national conglomerates is a defining characteristic of our economy. All market incentives push corporations in this direction. All business schools teach their students the virtues of going for the throat, min/maxing everything conceivable, and considering other people only in terms of “marks vs. sharks.” The structure of the current system make these developments inevitable. There are only three options: go along with it (the easiest by design), boycott the giant corps that are crushing the independents (only buy from indie bookstores, indie music, farmer’s markets, etc.), or endeavor to affect meaningful change to the broader system (and deal with the corrupting embrace of politics, and/or police, pepper-spray, and prison). And to put this into a global perspective, all of these are decidedly “First World Problems.”

    Even as you boycott Amazon.com, you still eat hamburgers. Approximately 80,000 acres of the (other) Amazon rainforest are destroyed daily for the purpose of cattle ranching. Almost 30 million acres every year, and growing. Most of us still fill up our gas tanks, giving more and more of our money to the fossil fuel industry. (Do you imagine that Amazon.com is as dangerous a threat as the extraction and energy interests?) Do you eat bananas? When you choose one brand of certain kinds of fruit over another, you are really deciding which murderous mercenary group to pay. Speaking of murder, do you drink coffee? Have you ever purchased a diamond? How about handing your money to giant pharmaceutical corps? Do you buy products in consumer packaging that eventually ends up in the Texas-sized (for now) non-biodegradable garbage dump floating on the ocean? Do you enjoy eating salmon, or tuna? Do you use any of those convenient iDevices/tablets/phones manufactured by Hon Hai (aka Foxconn) in Shenzhen, China?

    In other words, nibbling at the edges around this progressing catastrophe of human wreckage will only get you so far. It’s like wanting a pill in between the “red” and the “blue” one. And like tithing 10% to a charity, it helps people sooth their consciences while they feel even more ownership over the remaining 90%. In many ways, this is used by the powers-that-be as a sort of safety-valve; a method of containing the smoldering outrage so as to continue on relatively unmolested.

  18. As someone who purchases mainly kindle books from Amazon – yes, I am an addict for electronic books and — yes — I get out-of-copyright books elsewhere – I am wondering exactly what Amazon is doing wrong in everyone’s opinion. It started off as a company who could ship what you wanted, books etc. As mentioned in the original article – it is a convenience tool. It is true that they undercut publisher prices. On the other hand, the electronic versions can’t be given away the way hardcopies can, or resold by your favorite used bookstore without anything going to the publisher or author. Believe me, I used to love used bookstores and wish I still did! I could probably save a lot of money! But are publishers really on the right side of this argument? Are they really getting ripped off by Amazon, or is it that their profits are a bit lower? How low is too low? etc. I am willing to be educated.

  19. I read digitally only because it’s the only way I can due to physical limitations. Since agency pricing, which put my preferred retailers out of business when they couldn’t get contracts signed with the publishers, I have purchased only from Amazon because they’re the only retailer that has figured out the customer service end of things. I will also say that I have no fondness for the companies that colluded in the price fixing of books so if I tick them off by buying from Amazon, fine.

    That said, the Vincent Zandri story did give me some pause so I went looking for more info and this is what I found: http://vincentzandri.blogspot.com/2012/04/hate-amazon-well-read-about-what-random.html

    Basically the story is that he believes Random House ruined his writing career. Is it any wonder that he’s pretty fond of Amazon? To go from returning bottles and cans for grocery money to a very comfortable living? It’s not surprising when the whole story isn’t told in a particular article but I think this adds balance to what you call an Orwellian story.

    Secondly, I’m happy that you found a store that you enjoy such as Book Corner but can you tell me how buying used books puts any money in the pocket of the author and publisher? I’ve never was a big buyer of used books as I always preferred to make sure the author was getting a cut of my purchase.

    I don’t particularly care about the dispute between Amazon and Hachette. I figure it is just two corporations playing games but if it is true that Hachette is wanting to go back to no discount agency pricing, I’ll be back to boycotting Hachette and their authors just like I did until they settled with the DOJ.

    • Jayne – I think the answers to your questions are generally in the links you read (though Packer has a good article in the New Yorker about how before the Big Five got with Apple to collude prices, Amazon had 90% of the market and was fixing prices below cost), I would just say for myself that I buy few used books for the reason you said. In this particular case, the Hardy Boys are classics, and unfortunately, Mr. Halberstam is deceased. But even so, I generally believe in supporting local businesses, so if buying used does that, then they stay open to sell new books and support current authors as well.

  20. My wife and I have enjoyed finding books since the early 80s at Half Price Books here in Texas. This past week, our youngest girl was able to find a book she wanted online at another location store (not in Austin) and the store mailed it to me wife. Most recently, during their coupon week, I was able to get Patterson’s Zoo (trade copy) not only at 1/2 price, but 50% off that :-) They have a nice selection of Konrath’s work too (paperbacks).

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