Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

“We can buy it online for $15”: Or, Did the Old Couple Deserve it?

Here’s the scene. An old couple walks into the store and asks for the new Sarah Palin book. I calmly walk around the counter to the table where it’s displayed. The husband asks, “Is this the seven dollar price?”, I respond, “No, it’s $28.99.” He counters, “That’s for the shipping?”, I fire back, “No, it’s the publisher’s price.” He turns to his wife, who quietly (but not too quietly) tells him, “We can buy it for $15 dollars online.” He turns back to me and tells me “We can buy it online.” I want to say, “But if you bought it here, you would be supporting a local, independent business”, but I just say “Oookay.” Then he says, completely unnecessarily, “It’s cheaper”. Instead of saying, “Right, because online retailers devalue books so much that it creates assholes like you, who come into independents and act completely class-less and rude”, I say “Right,” and turn back to my computer. They look around for a while and then say, “We’ll see you next time.” To which I didn’t respond, “Yeah, because you really contributed to that.” 

So many things bother me about this conversation, but the first thought, the throbbing problem in my head is: do they deserve my anger? They are old, not 45, maybe 75 and maybe they don’t know better. Then again, maybe they do know better and don’t care. Whatever. I’m not concerened with motive here. I just didn’t feel like they deserved to be lectured on the importance of local economy, the many problems with shopping online,  and the egregious rudeness of telling an indie bookseller that they can buy it cheaper online. Perhaps it was because I thought it wouldn’t change their mind, they still wouldn’t buy the book and they probably would never return, having been yelled at. Maybe they’ll buy a book some other time. That’s the forgiving side of my thoughts.

The other side is full of red rage and anger. How dare they come in here and tell me that it’s cheaper online, as though I’m not aware of it. And to tell me they’ll see me next time, well they may not. Because they would rather buy their crappy Palin book online, they are taking away money from their local economy and if more people gain that attitude, you won’t see me next time, because we’ll be out of business.

Momentary tangent: How is it that people who “go green” by not using plastic bags or bringing reusable ones think they are changing the planet through their own individual actions do not apply the same logical process to where they spend their money? It is the perspective that one’s individual choices and actions can greatly impact a social, environmental, whatever-al change. But they don’t apply it to local economies, why?

All this bothers me, puts me in an irascible mood and I become more prone to be critical towards other customer’s comments and actions. Not good for the friendly bookseller persona.* A facet of my profession I’m not cultivating very well anyway. Grr.

*I promise that the next blog post will be a review. I have done a lot of ranting lately, and I’m tired of it. However, I have recently finished a couple of books that I want to review here, so they are in the works. Mostly, I was responding to biblioklept’s insinuation that I don’t keep up my blog that much and  only had “recent(ish)” posts. Thus, I have blogged more and are now recent without the -ish. Also, thanks to biblioklept for the kind write-up and to The Hannibal Blog  for linking to my review of Wolf Hall, even if we did not agree.

On (not)Selling a Book

There are many categories of books that a bookseller encounters. I’m not talking about a book’s classification: fiction, non-fiction, kids, memoirs, etc. I’m talking about category of personal perspective. These categories (for me, and maybe I’m the only one with them) are (in descending order, with examples): a book I truly and completely loved and only going to sell to someone really discerning and interested (Virginia Woolf or Jonathan Safran Foer); a book I enjoyed and has mass consumption value and will rant and rave about in order to sell (David Benioff or Elizabeth Strout); a book that has received rave reviews but I have not read (Barbara Kingsolver or Paul Auster); a book that has received terrible reviews and have not read (Malcolm Gladwell or John Irving); a book I have not read and know nothing about (Jon Meacham or Thomas Friedman); a book I will show the customer to and not comment upon (Sarah Palin or Stuart Woods); and a book that I will actively encourage a customer not to buy (Tucker Max).

I really only want to focus on this last category. Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is the only book I have ever talked someone out of buying.  It is a terrible “memoir” of a college-age misogynistic barely-human attempting to sleep with women, get drunk, and cause fights. I don’t really care about the drunk fighting and mischief, it’s really the rampant woman-hating.  Women don’t have names, are referred to as sluts and bitches, or their various orifices. I don’t agree with it and I refuse to say anything good about it. If someone chooses not to listen to me, that’s their prerogative.  I don’t, however, offer my opinion unrequested. I’m all for freedom of choice, but if you ask me, I’m going to let you know. And I’m not glossing over it. I may even read a portion out loud.

Now, before you get angry and puffed up about censorship and free speech, let me say this: if you ask a bookseller for their opinion, you’re going to get it, fully raw with fairly extensive reasoning. And even when you don’t ask, you’re already getting it, by the books placed strategically around the store, what’s in the window, what’s on sale, what’s face-out or piled up, opinions, opinions, everywhere.  So I find nothing wrong with sharing my opinion about a book that’s less than quality.

Most booksellers think it’s important to be honest about a book. Maybe not 100% honest, if I have minor problems with a book, I’m not going to share them with a customer that’s interested. If a book got a bad review, it’s likely I would tell them (how likely depends on how chatty I feel). It’s important for people to know, as much as we can lead them, what they’re getting into. And this includes not selling them something that we think/know is fairly crappy.

On this topic, one of the (many) things that bothers me about book-buying online today is this: who can you trust to find you a good book online? Sure, you’ve got your newspaper reviewers, but you don’t know whether they got paid or received some incentive for that review. Or maybe you don’t go for corporate sellout reviewers and rely on personal blogs or Amazon.com customer reviews, but they aren’t any more trustworthy than the media reviewers. You don’t know what other books that person has read or why they liked them (okay, maybe that’s a little unfair because if you’re a consistent reader of a blog, you do know what they have read and liked). I feel that (in addition to paying less money) customers buy books online to feel the independence of choosing their own books and not being told by a bookseller what they would like. I believe this trend is increasingly prevalent in younger customers, accounting for the lack of young (20-30) readers that come into my shop. They don’t want advice, they want to decide for themselves what they like and why. The problem is, your choices are guided by other people, a large group of people who have a vested stake in your choice, they are the publishers. And they care even less about whether you like or dislike a book, their money has been made. To them, you are a sale, an amount of money. Even before the transaction stage is reached, there are choices made about the books available to be bought. The books that are chosen are the ones that will sell the most, that is, those that have the most mass appeal; they are not too academic, too romantic, or too scientific. They are the lowest common denominator.

At least with a bookseller, you can look them in the face, talk to them, find out other things they’ve liked and have a conversation. You can also (almost) guarantee that if a bookseller tells you about a book he/she liked it, because we don’t have to read books we don’t like, no need to waste the time. The personal interaction, and customer independence, is something that gets lost in the discussion of the changes in the bookselling industry.

Bookselling is a capitalist enterprise.  Don’t forget it.