Monday, December 19, 2011

book it

The Eleven had a discussion about bookstores at almost the same moment that Manjoo (or David Plotz) hit the ‘post this article’ button at Slate. Within days of our discussion, and not directly related, X commented on the overall crappiness of Amazon’s recommendations engine, particularly for books. If you gather nothing else from my input, know this: Manjoo is so wrong about the quality of Amazon’s ability to recommend to me another book based on my previous searches or purchases.

I remember trying to relate to X the parallel between what I heard from a local bike shop owner years ago, and the super bookstores (Border’s and B&N). What drew this attempt was a conversation between a good friend of mine and the ‘wrench’/owner of a higher end bike shop in Omaha. That conversation was driven by my friend’s observation that there were quite a few more quality bike shops that had opened in town over the last decade, and that there must be a load more people riding bikes. Said owner pointed out, based on his 30 years in town, that there were no more people actually riding bikes than there were ten years ago – more shops didn’t indicate more riders. Now, I don’t know why people were opening more shops if the size of the pie wasn’t growing, but I might put forth that there was a growth in the visibility of cycling (they’d just opened a wonderful city-wide set of bike paths) and entrepreneurs wanted to get in on the initial rush of excitement. The big bookstores strike me as a similar phenom: they overran the landscape because they felt there were more people reading (why? I’m not sure). Regardless, I never felt people were reading more books post-Border’s/B&N building explosion than they were prior. I’d bet that most of us can see that in ourselves, probably in our families, and if you ask around at work or your friends, the amount of book reading is probably way down across the country.

Amazon, bookwise, is simply another step up the accessibility ladder for book buying – a new rung, but not an actual representation of an increase in reading (any more than digital music delivery indicates that person A actually listens to more music). They no doubt have data that show an increase in book buying, though I’d be curious to really have someone get deeper access to the data’s “who” and “what”, before I’d be totally convinced that reading has exploded. Even with the Kindle and/or Nook, I don’t actually buy the premise that people who don’t read will suddenly become bookworms because of electronic access. Most people don’t even have the time or desire to read long-form journalism; and what of books? Probably not. Access doesn’t necessarily correlate to doing. I also wonder if Amazon’s other businesses props up the bookstore portion of their revenue.

Now, independents. I’ve long missed the local record store, and this is pretty much the same path, different medium. As we decided during our talk about independent bookstores, we both like having those people that love books to do some of the filtering for us. If it’s a store that doesn’t fit our style we can always go to a different local. That filtering is far better, at least for me, than trying to maze my way through Amazon in search of a nugget that might appeal to me. On a trip to Richmond earlier this year I bought four books at two different shops that were are all excellent, and I didn’t know anything about them prior to grabbing them from the shelves. But, that’s not the biggest plus for me. What I miss from record stores and smaller bookshops is actual human gathering – even if we don’t ‘talk’ to each other, the engagement with the clerk, or some other person, is far preferable to an online life. And for that, I’m willing to pay more.

As David Plotz aptly pointed out while discussing this on the podcast, if your position is that Amazon does it for cheaper, delivers to your house, and ‘picks’ books for you, then fine – they win hands down. I have no argument. But, when I think about books I will always choose to hang around the old Olsson’s books in D.C., Kramarbooks, or a Powell’s before a Barnes and Noble, or shopping via Amazon.

No comments: