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What Slate’s Farhad Manjoo Doesn’t Get About Independent Bookstores

If, like us, your Twitter feed is on fire today with more colorful versions of the sentiment, “Screw you, Slate,” allow us to explain what’s going on: Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, has published a piece in which he argues that we should all abandon independent bookstores for Amazon. The column is response to Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed, in which the author criticizes a particularly disgusting promotion that had the online retailer rewarding shoppers for finding a copy of a book they wanted to buy in a local bookstore, scanning the barcode, and buying it on Amazon instead.

While Manjoo concedes that this particularly customer-poaching strategy was a poor idea, he doesn’t agree that consumers should support independent bookstores — which he calls “cultish, moldering institutions” — over the Internet giant. Aside from being cheaper (because they can afford to buy books in bulk and don’t have to pay overhead on retail space) and boasting a wider selection (because Amazon’s warehouses are more spacious than any individual store), Manjoo believes that independent book sellers just aren’t very user-friendly, suffering from “no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine.”

I find it sad, actually, that Manjoo — a generally sharp and smart technology writer — finds clicking around on Amazon to be more fun than browsing the shelves of a real-life bookstore where (gasp!) one might actually interact with other book lovers. It also seems specious to argue that Amazon customer reviews are more useful than the advice of an independent bookstore employee or owner, who presumably has more knowledge of and enthusiasm for literature than your average unknown dude typing angrily in his parents’ basement. A bookseller, for example, would probably not opine that Jane Eyre is “a longer story of 456 pages in which really could have been written well in half the length.”

Manjoo also discourages the idea that bookstores create or enhance local literary culture. “Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house, an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community,” he writes. Curiously, he makes no mention that many local bookstores host readings, signings, and book clubs, fostering the kind of real-world celebration of and dialogue around literature that Amazon just can’t offer.

Those points aside, where Manjoo really proves he doesn’t get it is in comparing the enjoyment independent bookstore fans get out of visiting their neighborhood shop to his own experience at Whole Foods. “In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy,” he writes.

For many indie bookstore lovers, myself included, part of what is important about supporting these businesses is that, unlike Whole Foods, they’re small, and we can get to know the people who own them. Not only do we believe in contributing to our local economies (Manjoo makes a bizarre aside about using the money we save on Amazon to go to museums and concerts, as though we don’t already do that), but we would also prefer to see our cash go to small business owners (and their employees) whose values are more in line with our own. We realize that big corporations are hurting America. We don’t like that Amazon censored gay books and donates to conservative causes. We don’t like that their low-overhead business model cuts into the book-sector job market. And we don’t like giving our money to a company that thinks incentivizing the demise of independent bookstores is good business.

Image of one of our favorite independent bookstores, Brooklyn’s BookCourt, via Shelf Awareness

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