Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jocks vs. Nerds

"When deep-space exploitation ramps up, it will probably be the megatonic corporations that discover all the new planets and map them. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Denny's. Every planet will take on the corporate identity of whoever rapes it first." - Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Don't let the title of my blog post fool you. Yes, I fall into the "nerd" camp, but this won't be a revenge of the nerds story. It won't be about staying true to yourself even when you're not popular, overcoming adversity, or realizing that someday you will inherit the earth. In this story, the nerds lose.

Last week, Amazon* took a beating with their "anti-local business" discount program. Only to them, the "beating" was more like an infant punching tiny fists into their ankle. Many authors, booksellers, and publishing folks had reactions to this, but the one that I'll point to specifically is Richard Russo's New York Times op-ed. Russo's daughter works at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, but his personal connections to bookstores are deeper than that. He discusses what he calls the "literary culture" that come with bookstores, and I'm inclined to agree with him. I'm also inclined to agree with his statement about Amazon's personal investment in what it means to be a bookseller:

"Maybe Amazon doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe because it’s simply too big to care. In a way it’s become, like the John Candy character (minus the eager, slobbering benevolence) in Mel Brooks’s movie “Spaceballs” — half man, half dog and thus its own best friend."

The thing about Amazon is that it's a monopoly disguised as our savior. It has its hand in every area of book publishing - no longer just a seller, they are a distributor, publisher, and author platform. Eventually Amazon will realize they can't be everything - or at least can't be everything with the same level of success. But what they will always be, I think, is a venue to sell books. I won't pretend that I'm not biased here. I don't buy my books from Amazon because I like to support local businesses.

No, I'll rephrase that.

I don't buy my books from Amazon because I live in a city where local businesses still thrive and I'm physically able to support them. Plus, I'm not a fan of large corporations. (While I'm not against them in a militant sense, it's unlikely you'll see me in a Starbucks or chain restaurant if there is a local option available.) The thing is, I don't think this makes me a better person. It just means I'm lucky enough to be able to practice what I preach as often as I can. Not everyone has that luxury.

I know that for many people in other parts of the country physical bookstores are not available. For those who had Borders instead of Barnes and Noble, even access to chain stores can be nearly impossible these days. Then there are those who can't bring themselves to care about "literary culture" because they are too busy working three jobs in order to pay their bills and feed their families. Maybe you live ten minutes away from your independently owned local bookstore but spending full retail price on a trade paperback just isn't an option for you. Or, simply, you love the comfort of shopping online (which you can do from the websites of many of your favorite local bookstores, by the way). Not supporting your local physical bookstore doesn't make you a bad person, and I understand the many conveniences Amazon has to offer. (As a tiny New Yorker who can only buy as much as I can carry, I take advantage of having things delivered directly to my apartment quite often.)

That's why I was taken aback by a counterpoint piece that Slate published with the sensationalist headline "Don't Support Your Local Bookseller." Rage-inducing as that is by itself, I know that the writer, Farhad Manjoo, most likely didn't write his own headline and that titles are meant to grab attention and aren't indicative of the content of the piece overall. Except in this case, the author is saying exactly that. In fact, it supports such an unpopular opinion that part of me wonders whether it's satire, while the other part of me can see it's a blatant attempt at self-promotion. Then there's the part of me that knows in either case, it was written for the sole purpose of getting a reaction. So, fine. I'll bite. 

(It should be noted - if not written in all-caps - that Slate is an affiliate of Amazon.com.) 

Manjoo highlights many of the points I made above about Amazon being pretty great for people a) with no other option, or b) who don't consider themselves part of a "literary culture" and just want to buy books. I 100% agree with him on this. Not everyone considers themselves part of the literary class - those who prefer reading to other things have been historically considered "nerds," after all. We are in the minority.

But he goes on to argue that Amazon is not only part of the literary culture, but is actually helping support your local community by providing cheaper models of the same books you were going to buy anyway. He says:

"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."

Putting aside my continued shock of seeing someone so flagrantly anti-bookstore, I'm more confused by what Manjoo is trying to say with this. The same case could be made for a lover of Applebees who thinks that eating at chain restaurants instead of more expensive family-operated ones could free up some cash to support your local bookstore instead. Or, put from the perspective of a pro-Wal-Mart shopper, one could save enough on groceries, clothes, and appliances to send money to starving children in Africa. It's a weak argument at best, and it brings me to the next point that the Slate piece misses. 

Bookstores are about much more than selling books. 

If all you want are books, then Amazon is just as satisfying as going to a bookstore. Those who drive to a store are usually looking for more. You can't host an author reading/signing at your local Amazon, meet with your writing group on their comfy couches, peruse their shelves, and meet fellow book-lovers in your community. Your local Amazon doesn't care if your child has a place to go to hear Story Time readings (even if you don't buy the book) so that you can run errands for an hour. 

Manjoo refers to Richard Russo as a "bookstore cultist" and admits to not understanding why a novelist, in his op-ed on bookstores, "omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books."

"Literary culture" is not just for the literary elite, which is the image Manjoo is trying to paint with his pro-corporate brush. He's trying to argue that we "bookstore cultists" miss the point of bookstores and are merely part of an Occupy mentality who hate corporations. He doesn't understand what bookstores mean, or that they even have meaning. Who needs a sense of community when there's nothing to buy? 

Manjoo fails to see that you can sip your soy latte and be a member of the NRA and shop at Whole Foods and vote Republican. Not everyone needs to be one thing, and not everyone has to want only one thing from their bookstore. Manjoo isn't just telling us to respect Amazon for what it is. He's saying it's the only way to shop, and that even if you're able to support local businesses, you shouldn't because if you do you're nothing but an out-of-touch, overly romantic hippie who doesn't get how business works. 

So nerds, we lose again. Because being able to look outside yourself and still see value in the thing you love is totally lame. Isn't it cute how we thought we could compromise and that we'd be able to live in harmony with the popular kids? Sadly, no matter what we do, we cramp their style by merely existing. 

Corporate America, you win. Rich kids with your fancy cars and your head cheerleader girlfriends, you win too. Don't provide us with a more convenient option - become our only option. Put us in a headlock and steal our lunch money because, hell, you'll probably invest it for us and make us better for doing so. 

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right? 

No middle ground to see here, folks. 

*Footnote: This post is a response to Slate's anti-bookstore article and should not be read as an attack on Amazon as a corporate competitor. Choice is a good thing. Competition is healthy. People who propose eliminating competition are not. 

14 comments:

  1. Well said, Sarah! Well said!! Freaking love this post!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Last week, I bought a book from Amazon. Sunday night, I bought two books from Barnes & Noble. I don't really care where I buy books. Most of the time, Amazon is more convenient. (And I guess they get all my Kindle money too.)

    Maybe in the future I will buy a Nook. I do appreciate having a bookstore that I can physically visit.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I saw that headline linked in today's PW email but could not bring myself to click it. I understand your sentiments about saving a buck when you need to, or if you don't have the option for a local bookstore, but my local is so incredibly wonderful, they bring in the best authors (for FREE - just have to buy their book to get it signed) I would be crushed if it went out of business.

    Not everyone can do this, but the loss of bookstores is felt by a community and eventually we all lose out. I keep my book wish list updated on amazon, but I'm usually shopping indie. Take that, Amazon!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I appreciated your approach to what is obviously a hot-button topic. I'm more of a library person (in part because I'm a tightwad and in part because I don't want to own a book unless I absolutely love it), but when I do buy books, I almost always buy them on Amazon.

    Because I live in the middle of nowhere, and there isn't a bookstore, let alone an indie bookstore, within about fifty miles.

    Also, like you mentioned in your footnote, competition is a healthy thing. If there are enough consumers who get utility out of buying books at their local bookstores and being a part of the literary culture, then those bookstores will make it - and they'll probably adapt and grow and become even better bookstores in the process.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Very well said, Sarah.

    I think we learn all we need to know about Farhad Manjoo from his line "It’s not just that bookstores are difficult to use." Difficult to use? If Manjoo can't navigate the aisle of a bookstore, decipher the alphabetical organization of the inventory or, perhaps, operate the front door, he shouldn't be given access to a computer and credit card either.

    Manjoo is clearly not "using" a bookstore correctly. He isn't reading the blurbs on books and then going to find the books of the authors who wrote those blurbs, he isn't asking the sales clerk or shop owner - people immersed in the "real-life literary culture" - what they recommend based on his other interests, he isn't sipping his coffee as he chooses a book at random to read the first chapter or stopping in to hear an author speak about why and how she wrote a book.

    Bookstores existed and operated and imbued civilization with culture long before Amazon came along to sell us toasters and pants and computers and, yes, books. The "literary culture" isn't just an item, it isn't the Steve Jobs biography, it's our society's memory and conscience, and the bookstore has, for centuries, been the place we go to again and again to be reminded of who we are.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "you can sip your soy latte and be a member of the NRA and shop at Whole Foods and vote Republican. Not everyone needs to be one thing..."

    BUT

    "Rich kids with your fancy cars and your head cheerleader girlfriends, you win too. Don't provide us with a more convenient option - become our only option. Put us in a headlock and steal our lunch money because, hell, you'll probably invest it for us and make us better for doing so."

    So, ex-cheerleaders with wealthy parents (who apparently are financial wizards intent on taking over the world, all) cannot be part of the soy latte-drinking, NRA card carrying, multi-faceted individuals you champion? I know the latter statement was a metaphor, but still.

    -An indie bookstore patron, proud cheerleading coach, and disenchanted Glass Cases reader with zero investment banking proclivities.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @SoWeBeatOn - I'm sorry if you misread my comment, but the jocks vs. nerds theme of my post is supposed to mirror my point that Manjoo's article is trying to put us into these "either/or" camps, rather than celebrate that consumers are more complex than that and can allow room for both types of stores.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I am fortunate enough to have one local bookstore and many indies including a rare and out of print boutique in my city. I do not have much money for books and tend to buy direct from authors or publishers, but when I do need to go out to find something I make the rounds. I do not like Amazon and other "bargain" conglomerates for much of anything. I know how they cut prices on their goods and I do not support such practices. So, I faithfully and lovingly tour the local shops or hop online and have a copy sent directly from the people who put it in publication. Authors generally get a higher royalty on those orders anyway. Just one nerd doing my part to spread the love.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Sarah,
    I don’t think I misread your post, but perhaps I didn’t make myself plain. Or maybe I misunderstood Manjoo’s article. Obviously, you don’t have a problem with cheerleaders (or jocks), but you do seem to have beef with anyone “pro-corporate.” I find myself somewhere in the middle, which you champion, but where is the tolerance for those like Manjoo? Can he not be a man complex enough to believe “[Amazon] has done more to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books” and also a man who supports other types of locally owned stores that sell locally created product?
    I don’t think his suggestion, to buy at Amazon to free up money to spend on local experiences, is the same as your argument that Appebee’s lovers could eat there and then support local bookstores with the money they save. In Manjoo’s article, his point goes to the product. Books are books are books, wherever you buy them. So why not buy them as cheap as you can and then spend a little more to eat local produce or support local arts? Of course, this logic doesn’t account for the human component – the local owner/employee that needs the sale to feed her family. Then again, the other side of that coin – that the Starbucks barista you pass on your way to the local coffee haunt is also a local and trying to feed her family – is not considered in your argument, either.
    Manjoo might not share your (and my) sentiment that bookstores are about more than the product on the shelf, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong that the selling of product is what keeps a business afloat. You say he doesn’t understand what bookstores mean or are about. Maybe I don’t, either, because while I enjoy aimlessly perusing shelves and sitting in on an author reading, I thought that any business owner’s main goal is to turn a profit.
    My distaste goes to you derisively calling him pro-corporate, as though anyone who is pro-corporate cannot also be a civic-minded lover of his or her community who is able to “look outside themselves and still see value in the thing they love.” Isn’t that its own form of either/or?

    ReplyDelete
  10. @SoWeBeatOn - Thank you for elaborating and I think this might be just be a case of agreeing to disagree. But I will say on a personal level, I'm not anti-corporation. Like I say in the post, I prefer to avoid them when I can, which I admit is not all the time. I don't doubt that Mr. Manjoo supports local businesses in other ways; it's his call for others to stop shopping at bookstores, specifically, that I have a problem with. No one is saying Amazon shouldn't exist (not even Richard Russo in his op-ed), but it seems Mr. Manjoo wants bookstores to cease operations entirely.

    ReplyDelete
  11. You could replace "Amazon" with "Wal-Mart" and have the same argument. (One difference is that no one sees the people shopping in their pajamas at Amazon, so they don't have that same image problem.) Thanks for sticking up for us nerds.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Oh my goodness, brilliantly written. This is so sad how things move these days. I shop at my local farmer's market, my local bookstore, my local clothing shops. I try to support my community as much as I possibly can, and I sometimes wonder if it makes any difference. But then I step back and see that it DOES make a different - to me. I get such a richer life because of these things. I just hope and wish and pray that these things do not disappear. I hate all-or-nothing attitudes, and that's exactly what Manjoo did in his article.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm really late reading this post but I'll comment anyway. I'm really only opposed to corporate when it comes to books, but that's probably because I live in Portland, Oregon and am within 15 minutes of Powell's City of Books. I love the fact that while Borders was closing down Powell's was opening a new location literally across the street from the main store downtown. I usually point my out of state friends to their website as an amazon alternative because they will most likely have multiple editions of whatever book you're looking for. Stepping down off my Powell's soapbox now. Great post.

    ReplyDelete
  14. You know, Sarah, I wouldn't be surprised to see Amazon someday opening a retail presence. One could argue the local landscape is being terraformed for things to come. Borders is out of the game, Barnes & Nobles is struggling. What if Amazon struck a deal with Starbucks to open sales kiosks at their locations? Or better yet, opened the Amazon Cafe, serving coffee, good old print books, and a fanfare of digital media and products. A good hybrid. Twenty years from now, as generation post-Z grows up, we may be left lamenting our good old literary sailboats as those digital powerboats rumbles by. That new generation wouldn't know any better. Ah, what it was like to sail those literary winds, thought the old man as he fed the pigeons ...lol,

    Best,

    Rashad.

    ReplyDelete