On Returning a Book to Your Local Independent Bookstore

About two hours ago, a woman, her husband, and her daughter (the only one of the trio who lives locally) came in and bought two very commercially available books, Dan Brown’s new crap-ton of bad writing tome The Lost Symbol and Mitch Albom’s self-help is still hip Have a Little Faith. When she was standing at the counter, she shared with me the fact that she could get these books cheaper and that someone named Alice would send her the book in the mail. She waivered, she wafted, she flitted and scrunched up her brow, and slapped the money on the counter. I was proud of her, she realized the importance of supporting a locally-owned business (even if it wasn’t hers and was her daughters’s community). I almost snapped at her husband when he said, “this sale must make your bookstore day” to me. I thought, yeah, you and all the other sales today. Jerk. But hey, mission accomplished, they bought the books.

Wrong. She brought them back, asking for a refund because she could get them 50% cheaper somewhere else.  I wanted to tell her she could go on Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Target.com, Sears.com, etc. etc. and get it for $8.98, but then she would have no soul. After all that worrying, hemming and hawing, she brought them back. I was really disappointed.

Two ideas spawned from this encounter. One, how do you explain the advantages of spending money in a local community when the customer doesn’t live in the community? They don’t benefit in any way from money kept in the local economy. They’re on vacay, and it’s all on a budget. This is one I’ve been working my head round for a while, since 40% of our customers are tourists. I’ve still yet to have an answer. Though, it may be related to my second idea.

Two,  there has been a price war between the major online retailers to discount the most popular books coming out this holiday season (it has even been covered on NPR).  James Patterson, Barbara Kingsolver, et al are watching as the prices of their books drop to below $10, some places as low as $8.98. Many analysts are saying that this will have a direct effect on independents and that independents will not be able to compete with these deep discounts. Yesterday, on NPR, an analyst made the point that if deep discounting becomes the norm, the value of books will go down, and independents will go out of business and we will see more of what happened today with my lovely little out-of-towners.

It is true that books are costing more these days. Even a few months ago, a hardcover book was anywhere from $22.99 to $24.99, maybe $26.99 if it was a biggie. Now, they are $26.99 to $29.99, and $32.99 for a biggie. Where did this come from? It came from the large chains (Barnes and Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million) who need to deep discount in order to stay competitive. However, they can’t make any money off $23-24 books so they negotiate with publishers to have a higher price and they still offer 40% discounts. Most people don’t pay attention to how much they’re paying if they’re getting a discount. So, you have bookstore chains driving up the actual price of the book and online retailers discounting the books until they’re cheaper than what it cost to make them. And then you have the independents, riding the wake between the huge barge out on the water and crashing on the beach, trying to stay afloat.

If publishers lose money, they will publish less authors. (It is already to the point that most publishers don’t take chances on new authors.) If there are less authors then there are fewer books, fewer books, less dissemination of knowledge, and eventually the extinction of printed books. I know this is a fatalist view and a little extreme, but things could change very radically while we’re all on Amazon searching for a good deal.

However, as I said before it’s not only the consumers who are to blame. The chains and discount stores made buying cheap the norm and now it is expected and in fact, engineered. To the chain bookstores, who have large web presences as well as brick and mortar stores, it doesn’t matter if a customer buys a printed book or an e-book anymore. They don’t need to drive people to their stores, they only need the sale.

We are in quite a conundrum here. It is so much more complicated than telling people “buying local helps support the local economy”. Because they may not live in this local economy, and if they buy all their products online or at other chains, what do they care if a locally-owned independent goes out of business? They buy all their things from faceless chains and discount stores.

So what do we do? We do smile, we don’t say “sure, no problem” when they bring it back. We look at them in the face, conveying the message, “I am judging you for your bad decision.” But we can’t say anything without offending someone, because as you have seen, the truth is offensive.

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