Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

image credit: Heywood Hill

“Can you get it today?”

There are a lot of reasons to find Amazon unappealing. I know that they have done some valuable work in the sense that they provide a much bigger platform for self-published authors, and even through a veil of retained snobbery, I can recognise that that’s a good thing for a lot of people. It’s pretty clear, though, that they also engage in deeply unsavoury business practices (the Hachette price wars); depressing – though evidently unsuccessful – attempts to break into bricks-and-mortar bookselling; and services like Mechanical Turk, which lets you hire humans to do jobs that computers can’t do, which sounds great until you actually try to sign up for it as a worker, at which point you realise that the tasks are generally painfully menial, you have no way to negotiate with prospective employers, and you’d have to do six hundred of these tasks per day in order to make anything like a decent wage.

They contribute, in other words, to the service economy that we now have, which convinces consumers that anything, any commodity that you can possibly imagine, should be available to you within two hours. Services like Quiqup, Deliveroo and Uber are entirely reliant on this. Amazon drone delivery is a service designed with this in mind. It fosters the idea that you should never have to wait for anything, ever, if you can afford not to.

These are companies that are built on hundreds of thousands of backs, mostly belonging to people who provide unskilled and low-paid labour. It is the only way this particular business model works; the only way that you can get a pizza, or a pair of shoes, physically delivered to you in under an hour is to have an army of people standing by, just waiting for you to order it.

Small, independent businesses do not work like that, and so it always baffles me when a customer – piqued that we cannot, in fact, special-order something for delivery in under an hour – chooses to vent their distress by informing us that they “only shop here to support small businesses and fight Amazon.” You cannot support a small business if you expect it to be doing what Amazon does. If you support a small business, you have to understand what you are sacrificing, and what you will receive in return. As a consumer, you sacrifice a lot of your power: you can only walk out of a small business with whatever is on the shelf at the time; if you order something, you will need to wait – probably no more than 24 hours, because deliveries happen once a day, but waiting is an anomaly for consumers now.

But what you get in return is something magical: people who love what they’re doing. People who will spend half an hour with you, if you are friendly and interested, picking out books that they think you would like. People who will talk to a regular customer about her dog, her kids, her holidays, what she’d like to read next. (Although this deserves a caveat: we’re at work, and just like you in your office, we don’t always have all the time in the world for a catch-up, particularly if you’re regular, but not always a regular customer, if you see what I mean. More on this in another post.) People who know what’s over-hyped and what’s underrated; people who can size you up the second you walk in the door; people who, on their best days, can pluck exactly what you need from a shelf you didn’t even notice. If you have a good independent bookshop nearby, that’s what you’ve got: a building full of witches, of knowledge and instinct and experience. That’s the edge we have over Amazon: you should buy books here not because it’ll make you feel better about your lifestyle, like a smug purchaser of farmer’s market aubergines, but because the results in the long-term are generally better. We can introduce you to authors and books that an algorithm might never have shown you; that sort of thing can change a person’s life.

If you’re not willing to give up immediacy, that’s okay! Some people don’t need or want a high level of personal attention; they want what they know they like, right away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s exactly what Amazon is good for. But if you do earnestly want to support local independent businesses, understand what that means.

(Endnote: I should tell you that there has been one occasion, as far as I know, in the history of the shop, where we exerted ourselves on someone’s behalf to get them a surprising quantity of the same title in the same day. The only way it was possible to do this was to literally walk to Waterstone’s and buy twelve of their copies, walk them back to our shop, and charge the customer. The customer was entirely content with this arrangement. As you’ll have gathered, this was a pretty unusual interaction.)

8 thoughts on “Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

  1. I’m guilty of owning a Kindle (and I do love it for all sorts of reasons) BUT I also support my local independent book shops, particularly when I’m buying Australian authors.

    1. And I think that’s a completely legitimate mix of reading options in this day and age! (I’m guessing, also, that you understand basic retail etiquette 😉 )

  2. Thanks for this post. I also work in a bookshop, and you’ve formulated a lot of my own feelings regarding Amazon, and how it’s changed customers’ expectations.

  3. Ugh. What a terrible position to be in, to feel one must literally afford the competition an opportunity to profit in order to convince a shopped that they are supporting the little guy. Sheesh. It’s very hard to be patient with people when it often seems as though they simply haven’t stopped to consider what they say are values, their own values, especially when it’s your livelihood on the line in the face of their seeming-clue-less-ness.

    1. In the case of the Waterstone’s thing, that was very unusual, and also they gave us a trade discount, which is standard practice if you have to do something like that, which meant they didn’t profit off us (thank goodness). But yeah – I’m perpetually surprised by the underlying belief that bricks-and-mortar bookshops are just a physical version of Amazon. The difference is so substantial.

  4. I live in a bookshop desert – closest independent (or even Waterstones) is 25 miles away – and so I often fall prey to Amazon when I need something quickly. But I absolutely yearn for the benefits of a good shop I could visit and would trade a lot of convenience for it. If I won the lottery tomorrow I would be opening one of my own in the local market town…if only!

    1. I’m always reluctant to criticise Amazon too virulently precisely for this reason – a lot of people do live in bookshop deserts and it provides a lifeline for them! It’s just surprising to me how often urbanites with a relatively grand array of indies to choose from expect those indies to behave like Amazon. Other industries surely don’t get this problem as often – no one expects a sit-down restaurant to be as quick as their local Chinese takeaway, and for good reason; what you lose in speed you gain in deliciousness, or at least that’s the theory.

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