“When deep-space exploitation ramps up, it will probably be the megatonic corporations that discover all the new planets and map them. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Denny’s. Every planet will take on the corporate identity of whoever rapes it first.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Don’t let the title of my blog post fool you. Yes, I fall into the “nerd” camp, but this won’t be a Revenge of the Nerds story. It won’t be about staying true to yourself even when you’re not popular or realizing that someday you will inherit the earth. In this story, the nerds lose.
Note: This post is a response to Slate’s anti-bookstore article and should not be read as an attack on Amazon as a corporate competitor. Choice is a good thing. Competition is healthy. People who propose eliminating competition are not.
Last week, Amazon took a beating with their “anti-local business” discount program. Only to them, the “beating” was more like an infant punching tiny fists into their ankle. Many authors, booksellers, and publishing folks had reactions to this, but the one that I’ll point to specifically is Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed. Russo’s daughter works at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, but his personal connections to bookstores are deeper than that. He discusses what he calls the “literary culture” that come with bookstores, and I’m inclined to agree with him. I’m also inclined to agree with his statement about Amazon’s personal investment in what it means to be a bookseller:
“Maybe Amazon doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe because it’s simply too big to care. In a way it’s become, like the John Candy character (minus the eager, slobbering benevolence) in Mel Brooks’s movie “Spaceballs” — half man, half dog and thus its own best friend.”
The thing about Amazon is that it’s a monopoly disguised as our savior. It has its hand in every area of book publishing – no longer just a seller, they are a distributor, publisher, and author platform. Eventually Amazon will realize they can’t be everything – or at least can’t be everything with the same level of success. But what they will always be, I think, is a venue to sell books.
I don’t buy my books from Amazon because I live in a city where local businesses still thrive and I’m physically able to support them. I don’t think this makes me a better person. It just means I’m lucky enough to be able to practice what I preach as often as I can. Not everyone has that luxury.
I know that for many people in other parts of the country physical bookstores are not available. For those who had Borders instead of Barnes and Noble, even access to chain stores can be nearly impossible these days. Then there are those who can’t bring themselves to care about “literary culture” because they are too busy working three jobs in order to pay their bills and feed their families. Maybe you live ten minutes away from your independently owned local bookstore but spending full retail price on a trade paperback just isn’t an option for you. Or, simply, you love the comfort of shopping online (which you can also do from the websites of many of your favorite local bookstores). Not supporting your local physical bookstore doesn’t make you a bad person, and I understand the many conveniences Amazon has to offer. (As a tiny New Yorker who can only buy as much as I can carry, I take advantage of having things delivered directly to my apartment quite often.)
That’s why I was taken aback by a counterpoint piece that Slate published with the sensationalist headline “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller.
” Rage-inducing as that is by itself, I know that the writer, Farhad Manjoo, most likely didn’t write his own headline and that titles are meant to grab attention and aren’t indicative of the content of the piece overall. Except in this case, the author is saying exactly that. In fact, it supports such an unpopular opinion that part of me wonders whether it’s satire, while the other part of me can see it’s a blatant attempt at self-promotion. Then there’s the part of me that knows in either case, it was written for the sole purpose of getting a reaction. So, fine. I’ll bite.
(It should be noted – if not written in all-caps – that Slate is an affiliate of Amazon.com.)
Manjoo highlights many of the points I made above about Amazon being pretty great for people a) with no other option, or b) who don’t consider themselves part of a “literary culture” and just want to buy books. I 100% agree with him on this. Not everyone considers themselves part of the literary class – those who prefer reading to other things have been historically considered “nerds,” after all. We are in the minority.
But he goes on to argue that Amazon is not only part of the literary culture, but is actually helping support your local community by providing cheaper models of the same books you were going to buy anyway. He says:
“After all, if you’re spending extra on books at your local indie, you’ve got less money to spend on everything else—including on authentically local cultural experiences. With the money you saved by buying books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few productions at your local theater company, visited your city’s museum, purchased some locally crafted furniture, or spent more money at your farmers’ market.”
Putting aside my continued shock of seeing someone so flagrantly anti-bookstore, I’m more confused by what Manjoo is trying to say with this. The same case could be made for a lover of Applebees who thinks that eating at chain restaurants instead of more expensive family-operated ones could free up some cash to support your local bookstore instead. Or, put from the perspective of a pro-Wal-Mart shopper, one could save enough on groceries, clothes, and appliances to send money to starving children in Africa. It’s a weak argument at best, and it brings me to the next point that the Slate piece misses.
Bookstores are about much more than selling books.
If all you want are books, then Amazon is just as satisfying as going to a bookstore. Those who drive to a store are usually looking for more. You can’t host an author reading/signing at your local Amazon, meet with your writing group on their comfy couches, peruse their shelves, and meet fellow book-lovers in your community. Your local Amazon doesn’t care if your child has a place to go to hear Story Time readings (even if you don’t buy the book) so that you can run errands for an hour.
Manjoo refers to Richard Russo as a “bookstore cultist” and admits to not understanding why a novelist, in his op-ed on bookstores, “omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.”
“Literary culture” is not just for the literary elite, which is the image Manjoo is trying to paint with his pro-corporate brush. He’s trying to argue that we “bookstore cultists” are merely part of an Occupy mentality who hate corporations. His thesis seems to be: Who needs a sense of community when there’s nothing to buy? He misses the point of what bookstores mean to a community, or that they even have meaning.
Manjoo fails to see that you can sip your soy latte and be a member of the NRA and shop at Whole Foods and vote Republican. Not everyone needs to be one thing, and not everyone has to want only one thing from their bookstore. Manjoo isn’t just telling us to respect Amazon for what it is. He’s saying it’s the only way to shop, and that even if you’re able to support local businesses, you shouldn’t because if you do you’re nothing but an out-of-touch, overly romantic hippie who doesn’t get how business works.
So nerds, we lose again. Because being able to look outside yourself and still see value in the thing you love is totally lame. Isn’t it cute how we thought we could compromise and that we’d be able to live in harmony with the popular kids? Sadly, no matter what we do, we cramp their style by merely existing.
Corporate America, you win. Rich kids with your fancy cars and your head cheerleader girlfriends, you win too. Don’t provide us with a more convenient option – become our only option. Put us in a headlock and steal our lunch money because, hell, you’ll probably invest it for us and make us better for doing so.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? No middle ground to see here, folks.