(posted Thursday, Jan. 16)
Where's the Fleece?
It's truly amazing that Jack Shafer's recent article, "The Great Fleece Panic of '96," takes the New York Times to task for reporting Christmas-catalog and retail shortages, then ends with--can it be?--a sales pitch for where to find L.L. Bean, Land's End, and J. Crew on the Web. True, there were other references at the end of the article for "Buy Nothing Day" and Adbusters, but the premise of Shafer's commentary was that the New York Times ("Tardy Catalogue Shoppers Risk Losing Out" [Dec. 10, 1996]) fabricated a catalog shortage in order to herd shoppers into buying, thereby playing the role of a shameless pawn in the American sales game.
I was not a "tardy catalogue shopper." I didn't wait till the last minute. I dogged the pages of a number of catalogs in November and called in my selections before Thanksgiving in order to ensure ample delivery time. What I got was "out of stock," "back-ordered," or "not available" for just about everything I chose. I thought I was just having rotten luck. The New York Times' "Tardy Shoppers" article, which I read for what it was--a consumer report--was a much-needed reality check.
Mr. Shafer obviously didn't order anything from a catalog before Christmas '96.
Jonathan Chait and Stephen Glass' piece, "Amazon.Con," doesn't jibe with my personal experience. I'm a relatively new Web user. My girlfriend was attempting to find a book for a Christmas present and had struck out at about half a dozen bookstores around Manhattan. I had heard about Amazon, so we went online with my new Power Computing machine. We found the book she was looking for, and found a couple of other interesting books. My girlfriend enjoyed browsing through the lists of Nobel and National Book Award winners, as well as the Amazon "Editors' Favorites" section.
In the end, a couple of days later, Amazon e-mailed us, telling us that the hard-to-find volume was, in fact, out of print, and that the rest of our order was on the way. We got the books in a timely fashion. In sum, my experience with Amazon was good. They didn't work magic by finding books bookstores couldn't, but they did deliver on their promises, and Amazon certainly presents some interesting browsing methods and far better search facilities than most bookstores.
I'm not sure precisely why you favor the overblown megabookstores over Amazon. They both have their place and I, for one, am glad that Borders and Barnes & Noble have some genuine competition. I agree that there is nothing like going to a bookstore on a cold winter morning, but there is also nothing like discovering an interesting new author while sitting in your home in your robe, sipping a cup of coffee. How many books they physically have in their warehouse has no relevance to me.
In your article "Amazon.Con," you compare order time on the phone for a traditional bookstore vs. Amazon.com online, and wait for the UPS driver to show up--while not addressing the question of convenience.
Have you ever had to fight your way through and wait in line at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, or lived in Tokyo, where the closest Borders bookstore is in San Francisco? You ignore the big picture on how the Internet is changing how we buy books, and give me nothing but the impression that Slate (i.e., Microsoft) does not want to share the spotlight with another Seattle native.
The Amazonian Experience
I chuckled at first, reading the "Amazon.Con" article, but then stopped, realized that the first of April was still months away, and that Chait and Glass were serious. Let me illustrate the absurdity of their review.
I walked into Borders Books & Music to find The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, by John Allegro. At first I was astonished that I had to walk through the store to find the archeology section. I then had to read several book spines, using a well-adapted, pseudo-binary-search algorithm I have developed in my brain over the years, looking for the author's name. It was not to be found. I then stood, confused, for a few moments, until a human male confronted me with a question: "Can I help you find something?"
I figured this must be some biological version of a search engine, so I said, "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, by John Allegro," hoping the query was syntactically correct. I was disappointed with the speed at which the engine performed, for he, as did I moments before, searched the archeology section (though with perhaps a less well-adapted algorithm) and found nothing. Then he suggested the religion section, toward which I was led (still on foot). He again browsed the books visually and pulled a tome from the shelf. "Here it is. Is there anything else I can do?"
I grabbed the book, looked at the cover: Yes, indeed, this was the book in question. "Yes," I said. I wanted the scroll translations and a couple of other books on the same subject. I didn't know the titles. "A list of all books by author Vermes, first name unknown, having to do with Dead Sea Scrolls; also, books by Richard Leigh and a guy with the last name Baigent, on any subject. I need publishing dates and, oh yeah, prices." By the expression on his face I knew for sure I had blundered the syntax this time.
Amazon.com is not a physical bookstore, and Borders is not an electronic bookstore. You can't browse titles on a shelf if they're not there, and you can't drink café latte over an asynchronous connection. They're different. My first Amazon order was placed on a Friday and arrived on Tuesday. My last order, placed at about the same time the article's authors ordered, took about nine days. I have paid, with shipping, about the same for books through Amazon as I would have at a local bookstore. But I have found books on Amazon's site that are certainly nonexistent on Borders' shelves. If you gotta order it, you gotta order it.
I remember taking some time filling out the form for my initial order; I don't know how long it took, but I was taking my time, making sure everything was correct. I don't remember it being difficult. And now, after selecting my books, it takes me less than a minute to order. I type in my e-mail address, my password, select "credit card," punch my way through about three "are you really sure?" screens, and my order is in. Amazon remembers who I am, where my books are going, and my credit-card information. It couldn't take me 37 minutes, as Chait and Glass suggest, even if I were typing with the back of my head.
Did I mention I never have to wait in line at Amazon?
Some trick. Some con?