Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Who needs independent booksellers?

When I decided consciously to continue the boycott of Amazon that I had drifted into without noticing, part of my reason was anger at what the online retailer was doing to booksellers, independent and conglomerate alike. Amazon is one of the main factors driving bookshops out of business. Is the drawn-out but apparently inevitable disappearance of those booksellers regrettable? I’ll admit that, in answering that question to my own satisfaction, I may not have been entirely consistent.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve resisted the idea that it’s an ethical duty to favour small, independent, local businesses, such as corner shops, family-run operations or the self-employed entrepreneur, over large corporations, chains, multinational enterprises and retail giants. If we have no choice but to live in a capitalist economy, then why shouldn’t we take the benefits of capitalism — economies of scale, minuscule profit margins, price competition, customer service — along with the uglier essential features of the system: exploitation, low wages, long working hours and unfulfillable lives?

One might be personally sympathetic to the small business-owner, the corner grocer or the individual craft-worker, but sympathy can’t change the fact that the current of capitalist economic development is against them, and will remain so as long as we retain an economic system grounded on private ownership of capital. We might expect things to be different after the revolution — but the revolution still seems a long way off. In the meantime, why favour a shop assistant in the next street over a factory worker on a different continent? Can mere proximity make one more deserving of the insignificant effect of my purchasing power than the other?

Buying books is an activity of a different kind from stocking up on groceries or household items. Or at least it was until Amazon came along. The main reason why I’d tend to buy my everyday essentials in a chain supermarket in preference to Henry’s Corner Shop is that I could expect them to be noticeably cheaper in the former. But there was never much price variation between the Stoke Newington Bookshop on the one hand and Waterstones or Books etc on the other. If I went to the bigger outlet first, it wasn’t because I was hoping for a bargain, but because there was a better chance their more extensive stock would include the book I was looking for. On the less frequent occasions I went to Stoke Newington, it was primarily to browse, not intending to buy a specific book.

Competition held the independents’ prices at a level comparable to the larger sellers’, so price wasn’t a reason to prefer the latter to the former. Amazon changed that. It had the resources to discount books more deeply than either the chains or the independents were willing or able to go. And I, among millions of others, took the bait. I began to buy most of my books from Amazon (who not only offered the lowest price but could supply any title quicker than it could be ordered through even the largest chain stores) particularly after I moved to France in 2005/6. It was much cheaper to order English language books from than from any French site, including, so that’s exactly what I did.

Around the same time as I moved, the economist Tyler Cowen wrote an essay, “What are independent bookstores really good for?” for Slate, in which he argued that independent bookstores were not fulfilling a particularly useful function and that their decline in the face of competition from the likes of Barnes & Noble and Borders was not something to be particularly lamented. Typically, the independents don’t provide any greater literary or specialist expertise than a chain store, their main advantage for the reader or browser is that they may confer the appearance of hipness, of being “more literary or more offbeat” than the norm, and they will usually carry a more limited stock than the larger bookseller.

But when it comes to providing simple access to the products you want, the superstores often do a better job of it than the small stores do: Borders and Barnes & Noble negotiate bigger discounts from publishers and have superior computer-driven inventory systems. The superstores’ scale allows them to carry many more titles, usually several times more, than do most of the independents; so if you’re looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore.

So, if Cowen was right, maybe I should be no more concerned about the threat to the survival of the independent bookseller than about the economic troubles of the newsagent down the street? At the time, I would have believed that. If I had read Cowen’s short essay when it first appeared or in the next few years, I’d quite likely have nodded my head in firm agreement. I hadn’t yet realized just how destructive a force Amazon had become.

Barely 5 years after Cowen’s piece was published, Borders had closed forever. Barnes & Noble seems to have struggled for several years before it was acquired by Elliott Management in 2019 and brought under the control of Waterstones’ CEO. I’ve seen some speculation (such as this post from Melville House in 2013) that independent booksellers have been better able to withstand the Amazon onslaught than the big chains. Of course, it may just be that the tribulations of the independents are less visible. It’s easy for the collapse or protracted insolvency of a small outlet to pass unnoticed. In any case, that was before the pandemic hit. The New York Times reports:

According to the American Booksellers Association … more than one independent bookstore has closed each week since the pandemic began. Many of those still standing are staring down the crucial holiday season and seeing a toxic mix of higher expenses, lower sales and enormous uncertainty.

Vox, too, cites the ABA, who say that 20% of independent bookstores across the United States are “in danger of closing”.

If huge operations like Borders and Barnes & Noble are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the book economy, including Amazon’s predatory practices, then we need to decide whether we’re prepared to live in a world where the only substantial supplier of books is a monopolistic universal retailer who finds it more appealing to “colonize the moon” than to cater to readers. If we aren’t happy to live in that world, independent booksellers now appear to be the only kind of enterprise capable of providing an alternative. We need to keep them in business.

Tyler Cowen may have had a good argument against indie bookstores in 2006, but the world, and the market for books, are unrecognizable now, compared with what he could have foreseen then. No doubt I’ll still buy books from Waterstones and Hodges Figgis; maybe even Easons, if I’m in a branch and they have a book I’ve been looking for. But I’ll also be making more of an effort to support my local bookshops. It’s a question of survival and not just for them but for an essential part of our culture.

Posted by Art on 01-Nov-2020.