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?