Eight years ago, when I opened an independent bookstore in downtown Evanston, I faced a lot of skepticism about whether it could possibly be successful.
“Print books are going to be replaced with e-books,” people said.
“You won’t be able to compete with that big-box bookstore right down the street from you,” people said.
But mostly, to express their skepticism about the whole concept of my brick-and-mortar bookstore, people just said one word: “Amazon.”
And yes, in the early days, we saw Amazon stealing sales right out from under our noses. People would browse our enticing shelves, or chat with our friendly booksellers about books we liked, and then, instead of buying them, they’d take pictures and say, “Oh, I’ll come back later for that.” But they mostly didn’t, of course. They just ordered those books for less on Amazon.
Much of my job for the past eight years has been to stand at the front register and explain to customers why we ask them to pay “more” for these books than Amazon does, even though what we ask them to pay is only the price set by the book’s publisher and printed by the publisher on the front cover.
And what I’ve learned from that is, I can go deep into the weeds about my business model versus Amazon’s, and the only impact of that is to make my customer’s eyes glaze over.
So I’ve learned, over these eight years, to focus on another explanation. Here are all the things you get from my bookstore when you buy that book from me, I say, that you won’t get from Amazon: You get a cozy store in your neighborhood that hosts authors and story times; that makes suggestions for your 7-year-old; that carries banned books, bestselling books and quirky books you’ve never heard of; and that is there just quietly providing refuge when it’s raining or you’re having a bad day. And your community gets a homey storefront that helps define who it is.
And despite all that early skepticism, in eight years, I’ve seen lots of encouraging signs of change.
People didn’t give up print books. On the contrary, the percentage of books sold in electronic form leveled off and then declined.
The big-box store down the street from me closed, which made my own traffic surge.
And now it’s not uncommon for customers to show us an Amazon wish list on their phones and say: “I’d rather buy these from you.”
And recently, in the wake of more critical coverage of Amazon’s business practices, there have been more and more people asking themselves: Can I give up Amazon? Should I boycott Amazon? Sadly, their conclusion often seems to be: No. Amazon is just too big. It has tentacles that reach into every aspect of our everyday lives, from grocery shopping, to entertainment viewing, to sending that really convenient gift card for someone’s birthday.
What the heck? Amazon will never notice if you stop spending your money with them, so why not just surrender to their market dominance? As with so many overwhelming problems — Climate change! Politics! The economy! — one person just can’t make a difference.
I know for a fact that you, personally, can make a difference. While Amazon may not miss the dollars you decide not to spend with them, those same dollars coming to me make all the difference in whether I can survive.
So, every time a customer approaches me, phone in hand, to tell me they are ordering their Amazon wish list from me, I can’t help but smile.
That person hasn’t surrendered to the ubiquity of Amazon.
That person is voting with their dollars for the world they want to survive.
Nina Barrett is the owner and founder of Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston and the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against Amazon on behalf of booksellers.
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