Kristian Thacker / New York Times

Books on display at Amazing Books & Records in Pittsburgh, Aug. 1, 2019. At a shop that at times functioned as a sanctuary after the Tree of Life shooting, the owner sees his job as “a moral obligation.” (Kristian Thacker/The New York Times)

September 8, 2019

YANG | The Indie Bookstore Dilemma

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Last weekend, I was wandering around in the comic book store downtown, when I noticed a copy of the House of M collection on the shelves, which I’d been meaning to buy for my thesis research. I was already on my way to the register when I stopped myself, pulling out my phone to check the price on Amazon. And the next thing I knew, I put the book back on the shelves.

It’s not the first time I’ve done that. And yeah, I’m not proud of it.

A few days ago, Amazon made the news when it accidentally shipped out a batch of pre-ordered copies of Margaret Atwood’s highly anticipated, top-secret sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale — The Testaments, an entire week ahead of its scheduled release date Sept. 10. The online retail giant claimed that the mistake was caused by a “technical error,” and soon apologized for the incident in a statement.

That doesn’t sound like too big of a deal at first, but there is a strict embargo that all booksellers had to sign with Penguin Random House in order to receive the inventory prior to the release date, which is common practice for big book releases. Lexi Beach, owner of Astoria Bookstore in Queens, revealed on Twitter that the contract she signed required her to keep the shipment of The Testaments in “a monitored and locked, secured area and not placed on the selling floor prior to the on-sale date.” Store staff were also not allowed to read or photograph the book in advance. For booksellers, breaking the embargo would not only mean a hefty fine, but possibly also being blacklisted by the publisher from receiving shipments early in the future.

When the lucky readers who received the copies early from Amazon took to social media to express their surprise and delight, independent booksellers across the country as well as some book review writers fumed. While some media outlets started breaking the embargo and publishing book reviews early, the booksellers could do nothing but keep waiting. The booksellers’ anger was very much justified — Some readers who haven’t gotten their books were confused as to why their local bookstores don’t yet have the book, and either jumped on Amazon to pre-order it, hoping that they would receive it early, or voiced regret for not choosing Amazon over other booksellers in the first place. To make matters worse, the book is over ten dollars cheaper on Amazon.

“It makes us look bad.” Rachel Cass, the manager of the Harvard Bookstore, explained in a Publishers Weekly article. “This is bigger than just this book … They won’t know or care about embargoes. They will just see that Amazon can supply them a book and we can’t. They might not come in next time.”

Many bookstore owners seem to believe that the “accident” was likely not so accidental after all, and called for people to support local booksellers and boycott Amazon. I’m not here to implicate what Amazon did or did not do. Regardless of how the incident happened, it did reveal a drastic power differential between corporations and independent businesses, a divide that’s only been furthered by consumers’ reliance on the Internet. And it is true that while they are supposedly bound by the same rules, the big players can afford to break them since the consequences would hardly make a dent, while the little guys who abide by the rules are still struggling to survive. But something about the situation didn’t sit right with me, and I realized, when the Amazon order confirmation for House of M dropped into my inbox, that there is a better, perhaps more important reason for supporting independent bookstores, beyond the moral obligation of rooting for the underdogs.

The last book I bought at an independent bookstore was Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, back in April at Daunt Bookstore in London. I had wanted to pick it up on a whim after seeing posters for her new book Circe everywhere in the tube stations. When I asked for the book at the Daunt, the shop owner perked up and started gushing about Miller, who had just been there the night before to do a signing, while looking for the last remaining copy for me from the pile of leftover books from the event. I noticed later that there was a notecard inside, on which a staff member had written a long, heartfelt recommendation message. I then sat down in a nearby café and all but devoured the book with my coffee, feeling like I’d gotten way more than just a good novel.

There’s really nothing wrong with convenience and low price, especially when those two things come in a bundle. But as I stared at my order confirmation email, what I felt wasn’t just guilt for not buying it in the store, but also a lack of excitement, the thrill I felt when I first saw the book on the shelves. No matter how good the recommendation algorithm gets, how fast the package gets to your doorstep, it might just never make up for the absence of a human touch.

The war between indie booksellers and Amazon have escalated to something akin to David and Goliath, and perhaps rightfully so. Yet in the end, as readers and consumers, the choice isn’t just a moral one, it’s also about the kind of experience you seek. Isn’t that what reading is like, anyway?

Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.