For the love of local bookstores
When I was a child living in Boonville, N.C., a town of 600 people, my mother would load us into the station wagon twice a year — at the start of each new school year and at Christmas — and drive 25 miles to the Sears store in Winston-Salem. That store was dinky by today’s standards, but to me it was a place of enchantment. The parking deck was on the store’s roof, and we would descend the stairs into a palace of delights: the odor of roasted peanuts from the confectionary stand at the bottom of the stairwell; the toys calling to us from the shelves off to the left; the racks and racks of clothes in which my siblings and I, to my mother’s chagrin, played hide-and-seek.
Once I asked my mother why we didn’t go shopping at Sears more often. It seemed to me that this store, however diminished by today’s standards, had everything we could possibly want under one roof. “We shop in town first,” my mother said. “This town supports your father, and it’s up to us to help support it. We only go to Sears for what we can’t find here.”
My mother never knew it, but she was a founding member of the “Buy Local” movement.
Times have changed. With the click of a few buttons and a piece of plastic, we can order online anything from flowers to hammers. We can place our order at three o’clock in the afternoon or three o’clock in the morning. We don’t have to find parking, we don’t have to put up with grumpy sales clerks or frenetic customers, we don’t have to pay state and local taxes. We can shop with a glass of wine at our elbow in the peace and quiet of our own home.
Which brings me to the subject of books. Book vendors have led the charge in online sales these last 20 years. Amazon first made its reputation selling books over the web, and its success inspired a host of copycat entrepreneurs offering books new and used via the computer. Click the buttons, pull out the plastic, and a few days later your books arrive at your door. It’s simple, easy, fun. Who doesn’t like getting packages in the mail? It’s Christmas in July.
But there’s a downside to this fun. In the last 20 years, hundreds of bookshops, large and small, have closed their doors in this country. In some cases they fell victim to their bigger competitors like Barnes and Noble. All too often, particularly in those communities too small to support one of the chain stores, these shops were throttled to death by an Amazonian boa constrictor.
Those bookshops which have kept their doors open have done so because their owners are romantic enough to believe in bookselling by hand and astute enough to make a go of their business, however threadbare their operation, by offering a variety of services which can’t be found online: readings, coffee shops, book clubs. Even so, to earn a living selling books in a shop is a dismal proposition in the long run. The independent bookseller faces savage price wars, terrible discounts from most publishers, and constant competition from online companies that never turn out the lights. To remain engaged, the bookseller must have the fortitude of a soldier who, though he wins a battle now and again, is not at all certain of the outcome of the war.
So why should we bother supporting such starry-eyed visionaries? Let’s skip the fact that this bookseller is a member of your community, your neighbor, and look at some financial reasons for giving him your dollar. You enter your hometown bookshop and find the perfect book for your Uncle Fred, an inveterate explorer of the back roads of North Carolina. The book costs $20 and has no discount attached to it. Moreover, you’ll need to pay taxes on the book. You’re fairly certain that you can get the book online for a few dollars less. What’s to prevent you from writing down the title and then ordering the book via the Internet, where it will be both tax-free and discounted?
Commonsense and even a small knowledge of how money works do the trick. That bookseller lives where you do. If you buy the book at his shop, he will take the $20 — he probably paid $12 for the book, plus shipping — and he will reinvest your money in his shop and in your community. He will spend the money you have given him at the grocery store, the restaurant down the street, the movie theater. Furthermore, you have paid taxes on the book, which supports the local and state governments, and he will eventually pay more taxes on the money you have given him through the sales tax in other establishments. Think about it: the more customers like you who visit our bookseller’s little shop, the more money he generates for you and your neighbors. (Eventually, our local bookseller may even have enough money for advertising in The Smoky Mountain News. This paper is free to you as a reader only because local enterprises have decided to invest in it through advertising and so attract readers to investing in them).
The holiday season is upon us. This Christmas, please consider shopping locally. Whether for books or bells, pliers or poinsettias, spend your money on Main Street. Try using the Internet as my mother used the Sears store so long ago, as a last resort to buy what you can’t find in your own backyard.