Friday, March 25, 2016

In Defense of Books On Amazon

The Raven Bookstore, Lawrence, Kansas
This past weekend, I visited Lawrence, Kansas, and as I do whenever I’m in down, I swung by The Raven Bookstore. I picked up a book and a low-gloss literary magazine. Lawrence is fortunate enough to have three good-quality, locally owned bookstores within highly trafficked one block. While chatting with the clerk, she thanked me for purchasing there, rather than online. I smiled, returned her thanks, and said: “Shopping here is so much more of a sensory pleasure than Amazon or wherever.”

The words had hardly passed my lips before I realized the import. I permeate my blog with buying links to Amazon, who directly provides over half the books I review. I purchase from Amazon semi-regularly, more so since my town’s biggest bookstore basically retooled itself as a tchotchke outlet. Without Amazon’s recommendation features, I probably never would’ve discovered several books that have proven formative in my understanding of modern life.

But I also realize many good critics with unimpeachable reasoning have condemned Amazon for coarsening America’s publishing industry. Novelist/poet Ursula K. le Guin has characterized Amazon as “the BS Machine.” They’re regularly chastened for undercutting individual entrepreneurs, with good reason—though Wal-Mart has arguably done more in that direction, for far longer. Simply put, Amazon has narrowed the publisher-to-purchaser pipeline, at great social cost.

Still, I can’t bring myself to buy it.

Lawrence, Kansas, is wealthy, educated, and progressive-minded enough to have supported its historic downtown while neighboring communities rushed to build malls. This continuity proved foresighted, as malls and big-box retailers collapsed en masse during the Great Recession. Because malls involve massive buy-in costs, they’re prohibitively expensive for indie stores. Entrepreneurs and local owners absolutely require old buildings in classic communities, which don’t exist everywhere, to remain economically viable.

Amazon's first, highly controversial, brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, Washington
Before Amazon, high-minded critics blamed book superstores like Borders or Barnes & Noble for the then-current publishing environment. Before that, it was book racks at airports and drugstores. Or they blamed mall stores. This invariably overlooks one important point: such “downmarket” book-buying opportunities make reading, and literacy, available to people who are too geographically isolated, socially marginal, or poor to visit high-end indie retailers.

Such criticisms bespeak unquestioned economic privilege. As Naomi Klein put it over fifteen years ago, “media types tend to care more passionately about where they buy their books than where they buy their socks.” Some might immediately claim that Amazon sells socks and other staples; books have long-since receded from their retailing spotlight. But that’s consistent with Klein’s overall point, that retail consolidation has overwhelmed most Americans’ buying options.

Big-box discount stores amalgamated purchasing of life’s most important commodities several generations ago. I can enter any Wal-Mart SuperCenter at 2 a.m. and purchase food, electronics, clothing, car parts, and ammunition. Anything I can’t purchase at these stores could, charitably, be characterized as “luxury goods.” Poor Americans in particular, including those who work for Wal-Mart, can hardly afford to shop anywhere else. Amazon is an afterthought for such customers.

Nor is big-box buying exclusive to America’s poor. Levittown-style suburbanism, which made home ownership available to working-class citizens with GI Bill benefits after World War II, are deeply immune to localism, and lack downtowns like Lawrence. Despite empirical evidence that nobody wants new suburban developments anymore, developers keep building them, mainly because they’re cheap. But risky, independent-minded ventures, like the Raven, are priced out of suburbanism just like malls.

Interior of the Raven Bookstore, Lawrence, Kansas
Besides this, we must remember where the purchasing happens, not just by whom. The last indie bookstore in my area folded, priced out by a chain store, when Amazon was still a money-losing experimental venture. Once the chain store had absolute dominion over the local media goods market, it repurposed itself, making books marginal. My nearest large bookstore is an hour’s drive away; my nearest good bookstore, much further.

(In fairness, a new indie opened here later. However, it mainly sells remainders, salted with tables of bestsellers and local authors. It’s interesting, but unprepared to compete more widely.)

No, Amazon isn’t perfect: it uses monopsony power to squeeze publishers, and floods markets with cheap books. And it excludes those who can’t buy on plastic. Dedicated complainers have many populist grievances against Amazon’s business model.

But Amazon makes books available in rural, suburban, and poor areas in ways physical stores just can’t. Complaints about Amazon’s market domination, like complaints about mall stores a generation ago, reek of unexamined economic privilege. In an economy where books have become hard to find, it makes sure literacy is available. That’s something worth defending.

No comments:

Post a Comment