Amazon(.com) crisis

The Amazon (rainforest) is in crisis, and it’s something that affects us all and should concern us all. This post, however, is not about that. It’s about something much smaller: My complicated love with the online giant. On occasion I’ll be writing about what it’s like to learn, teach, parent, and live in our hyper-connected “dot-com” world. Like most things, technology is neither all good nor bad, and it’s up to us (the users) to make sense of its meaning.

I always loved going to independent bookstores when I was little; bookstores were a place of discovery and later became a good place to work during school in a more relaxed fashion, whereas the library carried the weight of KNOWLEDGE, silence, and competitive studying (i.e., how long can you stay there and how high is your stack of books?).

A Few of My Favorite Indie Bookstores

Throughout the years I’ve visited and taken refuge in many such spots; here are a few East Coast classics:

  • In Cambridge, MA, go to Harvard Book Store (@HarvardBooks) for a small shop with history (since 1932) and the cozy aisles and smell of paper and print that go along with it. The COOP (@harvardcoop; since 1882) is the opposite- big and grand- and has a snack and coffee bar, to boot. The best spot, in my opinion, is on the top floor at one of the study tables overlooking Harvard Square.
  • In New York, NY, Strand Book Store (@strandbookstore; since 1927) is the Grand Central Station equivalent of a bookstore. Where else can you find “18 Miles of new, used and rare books” in Manhattan? Plus, you can sell your books for cash or in-store credit, to make enough room in your tiny city apartment to keep the literary circle of life going.
  • In Washington, DC, I have always loved going to Kramerbooks & Afterwords (@kramerbooks; since 1976), especially back in the glorious days when I had time to browse books AND sit down for a nice brunch on the weekend. Politics and Prose (@Politics_Prose; since 1984) hosts numerous, popular author events and throws in an Open Mic night on Fridays, for good measure.

Good Guy, Bad Guy, or Both?

There are important concerns being voiced about Amazon’s role in the publishing world. The think tank New America recently hosted a discussion of “Amazon’s monopoly over books and what it means for American readers and America’s democracy.” The panel included perspectives by authors, publishers, and legal and policy experts who raised serious questions about Amazon’s impact on myriad areas, including pricing, privacy, local employment and taxes, and exerting control over books sales and what gets published (Note: The panel is worth watching, but you can also get a summary and analysis here, courtesy of Patrick Oathout). They notably discuss Amazon’s 2014 “war” with the publisher Hachette (explored in detail in this Vanity Fair article), which ended with a tentative “peace”.

But my perspective also keeps me from being so black/white about ‘good versus evil’ here. This discussion obviously predates Amazon; Barnes & Noble was the big bad Goliath not so long ago, even providing inspiration for a ’90s rom-com, and now they are struggling to stay open. The one that used to be close to me closed, and that was a huge loss for the community.

There is also a privileged assumption in these arguments: That there was a book store to begin with, to then go out of business. Just as there are food deserts, there are also areas of the country, both rural and urban, that are literary deserts, creatively quantified by Unite for Literacy in their “Book Desert Map”. While it could be argued that Amazon prevents bookstores from investing in these communities, the lack of bookstores in these areas predates Amazon. The ability to purchase books virtually and have them delivered to you removes some of the impediments of geography (though not cost). As the same Vanity Fair article about Amazon’s fiasco with the publisher Hachette notes:

If Barnes & Noble had taken its books to lonely highways where previously there had been no bookstores, Amazon was taking books to places where there weren’t even highways. As long as you had a credit card, and the postal service could reach you, you suddenly had the world’s largest bookstore at your fingertips.

And it almost goes without saying: As a working parent, Amazon is a life saver.

During a recent career coaching challenge I had to pick one “luxury” expense that made me happier. Honestly, I chose my Amazon Prime subscription. The availability, pricing, and customer service are impressive. I cherish the ability to sort and research products from the comfort of my own home versus spending gas and time I don’t have just to have the equivalent of a visual assault at a big box store. And all for $99 dollars? It’s a siren song that’s hard to resist. Finally, I get a wee dose of satisfaction every time I make a purchase through smile.amazon.com, knowing that a small percentage goes toward my preferred charity- currently, it’s the Alzheimer’s Association.

Back to books: the digital options tend to be easier on the wallet and help me fend off clutter, as I live in an apartment and have to actively combat my “gatherer” tendencies; they also help with the part about not destroying the other Amazon (made of trees). But digital reading also makes it harder to concentrate, a critical skill for deep reading, and may actually be changing the structure of our brains toward one more adapted to shallow, non-linear thinking and mindlessness. I have noticed these “jumpy” tendencies in my own reading as of late, which makes me think that the digital option may end up causing me more issues than it solves.

— — — — — —

The supermarket has always caused me more anxiety than joy; you’re unlikely to find me browsing the aisles in a leisurely fashion. That feeling also goes for stores oriented toward baby gear and toys- a more recent part of my life, if you don’t count my own childhood. I’m all for small business in any of these areas but, for me, the one that I crave, that recharges my mind and soul, is a bookstore with character, preferably with light music in the background; bonus points if I can also grab a coffee/tea/hot chocolate.

A discussion has been bubbling under the surface about how, in helping to shutter some of the big box bookstores, Amazon may have provided new opportunities for indie bookstores to provide “a local touch” for shoppers. And just this month, The New York Times published an article on the more “holistic consumerism” boosting the growth of independent bookstores, which registered “growth of over 30 percent since 2009 and sales that were up around 10 percent last year, according to the American Booksellers Association, the indies’ main organization with more than 2,200 stores.” While the younger generations might be fueled by technology and “e-” everything, there is still an underlying hunger for the sensory experience of feeling the paper pages as you browse in an environment that feels like community, and makes you feel like you’re a part of something not virtual, but real.

So I’m making a commitment to:

  1. Buy more hard copies of books, especially if I think it’s a book that will be a good reference/keeper/gift; and
  2. Buy more of those books from brick-and-mortar stores.

Why? So that I can be a more mindful reader. So that my daughter will still be able to share in that excitement of going to pick out a book. So I can still find a place to relax and learn (you know, once I actually start getting out of the house again to do that). So I can do my small part in supporting authors and the global flow of people and ideas. And because, as beautifully expressed by acclaimed author Harper Lee, who passed away just last week, “some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.”

Amazon, I still care for you, deeply. For diapers, you’ll always be my go-to love. But as with any healthy relationship, we’ve got to set some boundaries and stay true to our core values. Don’t you think?


Originally published at www.practicalpassionista.com on February 21, 2016.

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