I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there. They find browsing through physical books to be a meditative experience, and they enjoy some of the ancillary benefits of physicality (authors’ readings, unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day). And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.
What rankles me, though, is the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo, especially when they argue that readers who spurn indies are abandoning some kind of “local” literary culture. There is little that’s “local” about most local bookstores. Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house, an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community. Sure, every local bookstore promotes local authors, but its bread and butter is the same stuff that Amazon sells—mass-manufactured goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan. It doesn’t make a difference whether you buy Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs at City Lights, Powell’s, Politics & Prose, or Amazon—it’s the same book everywhere.
Wait, but what about the bookstores’ owners and employees—aren’t they benefitting from your decision to buy local? Sure, but insofar as they’re doing it inefficiently (and their prices suggest they are), you could argue that they’re benefiting at the expense of someone else in the economy. 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. Each of these is a cultural experience that’s created in your community. Buying Steve Jobs at a store down the street isn’t.
But say you don’t care about local cultural experiences. Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read. This is the biggest flaw in Russo’s rant. He points to several allegedly important functions that local booksellers play in fostering “literary culture”—they serve as a “gathering place” for the community, they “optimistically set up … folding chairs” at readings, they happily guide people toward books they’ll love. I’m sure all of that is important, but it’s strange that a novelist omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.
And that’s where Amazon is unbeatable. Again, Bezos will sell you two hardcover books for the price you’d pay for one at your local store. And then there’s the Kindle, which turns the whole world into a bookstore, and which has already been proven to turn ordinary readers in monster book-buyers. Amazon has said that after people buy a Kindle reader, they begin purchasing e-books at twice the rate they’d previously purchased print titles. (And they keep buying print titles.) Amazon has also been instrumental in helping authors create more books. With the Kindle, it launched a self-publishing system that allows anyone to sell a Kindle book. There’s also its Kindle Singles program, which transforms stuff that the book industry wouldn’t otherwise be able to sell—shorter-than-book-length magazine articles, essays, and fiction—into material that can be sold for money.
So, sure, Amazon doesn’t host readings and it doesn’t give you a poofy couch to sit on while you peruse the latest best-sellers. But what it does do—allow people to buy books anytime they want—is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it.