Lament for a Bookstore (not)


Business ethics isn’t just about ethical decision-making by businesses: it’s also about the values implicit in (or jeopardized by) free markets, and the role of commerce in the good life. Hence the relevance of this article by Tony Long at Wired. Long’s commentary is a lament over the death (which Long says is imminent) of the small, independent bookstore. It’s also not very convincing in its attempt to get me to share Long’s concern, though it serves as a good example of why rhetorical questions aren’t a good way to make an argument.

Now, just to be clear, I’ve got nothing against small, independent bookstores, or small independent anythings, for that matter. My favourite pub is small & independent. My greengrocer is small & independent. My favourite coffee shop is small & independent, and outshines Starbucks in every way (friendlier staff; better coffee; better food; free internet; you name it…).

Anyway, Long has a special love of small, independent bookstores. Witness:

Is there a more agreeable way of passing a few idle hours than roaming through the haphazard stacks of a slightly musty, idiosyncratically stocked, independent bookstore?

This is clearly a rhetorical question; Long isn’t looking for an answer, because he thinks the answer is an obvious “no.” He’s wrong. Wanna know what’s more agreeable than what he proposes? How about finding the book you’re looking for, efficiently (perhaps on-line?), and then having time left over to, I dunno, spend time with friends and family? Or to go to the gym? Or to read a book?

Long assumes that the success of other kinds of book sellers all comes down to money & convenience, and that that’s a bad thing:

OK, maybe it’s more convenient and a little bit cheaper to do your book shopping at Amazon. But at what cost to your quality of life? …. Is saving five bucks off the latest best seller by buying it online really worth another boarded-up storefront on your local commercial thoroughfare?

Again the question is rhetorical; again the answer is supposed to be obvious. And again, Long is wrong. No, saving five bucks isn’t worth another boarded-up storefront; but why think that’s the thing my $5 is buying? Why not say it’s $5 that I could spend buying a beer for a friend, or donate to a favourite charity, or use to buy a ticket to a craft fair? The point is we don’t save money just to save money; we save money to spend on other things, and at least some of those things are just as noble and worthy (if you want to make those sorts of value judgments on other people’s behalf) as haunting the philosophy section of your favourite old-school bookstore.

So, basically, I think Long’s argument amounts to this: ‘I like hanging out among dusty rows of books, and I would rather find books serendipitously than find something that I have reason to think I’ll like or need. So, you should too. The success of on-line bookstores like Amazon and big-box stores like Wal-Mart is reducing the availability of the aesthetic experiences I value, so you shouldn’t give Amazon & Wal-Mart your business.’

Long has every right to his opinion, & to seek out the aesthetic experiences he values. Me, I’m off to my favourite on-line bookstore to click-to-buy a copy of this book (a gift for a friend; I’ve already got a copy), then off to the pub for beer with some buddies.

(See also comments on this by Andrew over at Rebel Sell.)

UPDATE: Thanks to Joan for sending me this related story from The Guardian: The Best Sellers. It’s a story about small bookstores that might well survive, because they deserve to, and others that won’t because they don’t.)

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