Last Thursday I logged onto Amazon.com and ordered Coal River by Michael Shnayerson and two books in the Oxford University Press "Very Short Introduction" series. Even with the typical heavy discounts, the order qualified for free shipping. The following Saturday morning, I received an email from Amazon saying that the books had been shipped. Yesterday, (Monday) shortly after lunch, the books arrived at my front door.
How can any independent bookstore, other than those dealing in very rare, specialized, or antiquarian books, compete with that kind of service and convenience? Of course I love to browse bookstore shelves and racks, and I rarely leave without buying something. But for the past several years most of my book purchases have gone like this: A review on a new book or an essay about a writer's work catches my eye, or I'll need a book or journal for reference. Instead of heading to the bookstore, I click over to Amazon. But not without a twinge of guilt.
In most ways, I was crunchy (Jane would say cranky) before Rod Dreher entered high school, though I'm very grateful for his articulation. I can't help it; I'm wired that way. My preferences are based more on my upbringing and inborn temperament - the influences that shape my sensibilities - than on politics or even moral reasoning. Certain things just feel right while others feel cheap, vulgar, or exploitative.
So I want to support independent bookstores. I would go well out my way to do business with a good independent bookseller if I could find one within remotely reasonable driving distance.
Or I like to think that I would. There are a few small issues that make me wonder.
Yes, independent bookstores are increasingly rare, but I've visited several in various Texas cities and towns, and, with rare exceptions, they don't stock my books. Oh, they'll be happy to order them for you, but books by a minor regional novelist don't justify shelf space that could be more profitably occupied by the works of better-known writers. And of course that's perfectly reasonable from a business standpoint. Independent booksellers have limited shelf-space and they're fighting for survival. They can ill-afford to placate every neurotic writer who comes along.
Then there's evil, predatory Barnes & Noble. They stock my books, especially here in Texas. When I have a new book out, community relations managers from various B&N stores around North Texas call to schedule book signings, which means that my books get time in the front window and on front tables - space that Texas Tech University Press, my fine little publisher, could never afford. Throughout the year, B&N recognizes local writers through author of the month promotions. B&N can afford these little outreach efforts whereas the independents need to score very popular local writers or big-name literary writers from elsewhere in order to justify the time and expense required to put on a worthwhile event. Of course independent booksellers do get behind works by new or obscure writers that would otherwise be overlooked, but their numbers are small, and they can do only so much.
I understand the independent booksellers' predicament. I also want people to buy my books. Whenever readers send me email, I always ask how they found out about my book and where they bought it. Nine times out of ten, they read a review in a newspaper or magazine. Then they ordered the book from Amazon.com or picked it up at B&N.
So, despite the convenience of Amazon.com shopping, I still find myself browsing amid flocks of teenagers drinking five dollar cups of coffee. Maybe I'm petty or mercenary.
On the other hand, I have to say that my frequent business with Amazon.com isn't totally inconsistent with my natural crunchiness.
For decades Union Underwear, which made - you guessed it - underwear (for Fruit of the Loom) was far and away the largest employer in Campbellsville, Kentucky, my hometown. The town bent over backward to accommodate "The Factory." Working lives were spent in the bleach room or on this or that line. Women worked grueling shifts stitching together T-shirts as fast as they could feed material into the machines, then went home to help their husbands with farm work.
Then came the 1990s and NAFTA. The Factory shut down and moved to Mexico. Unemployment in Taylor County shot up to 18 percent. The degree to which the local agricultural and business economies had eroded became bleakly apparent.
A few years later, Amazon.com built a huge distribution center in Campbellsville and put a lot of people back to work. To a rural, Southern, non-union population accustomed to employment at The Factory, Amazon's work environment seemed downright progressive. Amazon.com, of course, saw a very stable workforce in a region where the cost of living is relatively low.
So when I place an order through Amazon.com, I tell myself that, in a minuscule way, I'm supporting old friends, former neighbors, and classmates. On my website and on this blog, I'll link to Amazon, despite the company's annoying practice of prominently hawking used copies just below the listed price of a new copy. (I certainly don't object to the used book market, and I'm thankful for every reader, but given a choice, I'd prefer to earn my tiny royalty.)
And until something changes, I'll continue to root for independent booksellers while doing business with the allegedly bland, heartless, soulless, predatory chain that stocks and occasionally promotes my books.