Balancing the Books

It’s been a long and thrilling affair, but circumstances have changed and I have decided that it is time to break up.  It is a momentous decision; I am, after all, ending one of the most significant relationships of my adult life.  Breaking up will be hard to do, but if I am going to keep my conscience intact I am left with no choice.

I am breaking up with

I remember the first time I ordered from Amazon.  It was a whimsical picture book about two hippopotamuses called George and Martha.  The year was 1997, and the book was a gift for my then-boyfriend.  I recall the ease and delight of the purchase: I was in my campus office in Washington, DC, and with a few clicks of the computer mouse the order was complete and the book was on its way to James’s apartment in New York.  Wow!  So easy!

I was an early fan of Amazon, buying books and CDs, writing reviews, enjoying the sense that there was a new place—the Internet in general, and Amazon in particular—for book-obsessed folks like me to share opinions and foster a new and enthusiastic brand of community.

As the years passed, and the consequences of e-commerce began to be felt on local bookstores, I made an effort to balance my Amazon shopping with purchases at other bookstores.  But all those impulse buys, or those more obscure titles I knew I was unlikely to find in an actual store?  Point, click, you’re done.  I knew that Amazon’s success was in direct proportion to the decline of independent bookstores, but like most Americans addicted to comfort and convenience, I forged ahead with my computer mouse and my credit card, consequences be damned.

It was the demise of Borders that finally got my attention.  I loved our local Sand City Borders.  Of course, before Amazon came along, Borders and Barnes & Noble were considered the “bad guy” corporate chains victimizing the small independents.  And that was likely true.  But our local Borders was also a gathering place with a huge selection, a pleasing environment, a place to browse at leisure with a massive inventory of periodicals, plenty of items of local interest, a cafe, and clean bathrooms.  Now it is gone, its building a ghostly husk.

Meanwhile, Amazon has grown into a corporate giant, whose every latest press release sends terror and dread through the corridors of traditional publishing.  With Kindle, their e-reader, they are attempting to lower standard prices for books in such a way that a new generation of readers may think that a $25 book should only cost $10.  That is like saying that a dinner and a glass of wine in a nice restaurant should only cost as much as a latte and muffin at Starbucks.

This is where we are going as a culture, and I am as much to blame as anyone.  Independent bookstores of America, I am truly sorry.  To make amends, I have decided to limit my book purchases to local bookstores.  On the Monterey Peninsula, I especially like River House Books, at the Carmel Crossroads Shopping Center.  They are friendly, knowledgeable, have a great selection which is beautifully displayed, and will order any book in print.  They do not offer the kinds of discounts found on Amazon, but by ordering in person, I am less likely to buy books on impulse.  And the tax stays in California, which, God knows, certainly needs it.

I know I am swimming against the tide.  (Though I am not alone.)  Not long ago, Amazon produced an iPhone app that would allow shoppers to scan the titles of books in physical bookstores, to calculate how much they would save by buying the book through Amazon.  That is not a fair business practice, that is predatory capitalism.  But the opposite can also work: I still visit Amazon to read reviews and decide whether or not I wish to read a particular book.  But now, my list in hand, I go to a physical bookstore and buy it.  (Or I borrow it from the public library.)

Is my little action, my break-up, meaningful in any way?  That is a question we all have to ask, in the face of global warming and economic injustice and other serious problems our “leaders” are too busy raising campaign funds to address.  I believe in following my gut:  Don’t analyze, don’t rationalize, just follow through on the impulse, that persistent voice of inner intuitive wisdom, to make the world a better place, no matter how small or how inconsequential one’s choices may seem.  Does it all add up?  I don’t know.  I do know that my formerly beloved Amazon is now part of the wild and sick imbalance in our society, pursuing corporate decisions that do terrible harm to the ecosystem of books and writers and readers that is my natural home.

And if the day ever comes when the small, local, independent bookstores become so powerful that their sales dwarf Amazon’s, well, a change of mind to redress the balance is just a point and a click away.  Sometimes love is like that.

(Thanks to my wonderful husband Jeff for the photograph of Borders.)