A really dumb article about bookstores

Pub date December 15, 2011
WriterTim Redmond
SectionPolitics Blog

You never know what you’re going to get on Slate, which tends toward the neo-liberal and sometimes libertarian, but I just read a particularly awful piece by technology writer Farhad Manjoo, who thinks that local bookstores are economically inefficient and should just go away:

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine.

For a tech writer, Manjoo has a remarkably shoddy understanding of economics:

After all, if you’re spending extra on books at your local indie, you’ve got less money to spend on everything else—including on authentically local cultural experiences. With the money you saved by buying books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few productions at your local theater company, visited your city’s museum, purchased some locally crafted furniture, or spent more money at your farmers’ market. Each of these is a cultural experience that’s created in your community. Buying Steve Jobs at a store down the street isn’t.

He conveniently ignores that fact that money spent a locally owned, independent business stays in the community — and thus creates more local economic activity and more jobs (not to mention tax revenue for local government). Money spent at Amazon goes to an out-of-town operation that doesn’t even pay state sales tax. You want to read about the well-documehted economic value of shopping at a local story, you can find plenty here and here and here.

And let’s talk about the One Percent — would you rather that your money helps the owner of a small local store buy food for his or her kids, or see the money go to one of the richest people in the world?

But there’s another point here. Like local coffee shops, local bookstores are places where people gather and have actual human interactions. I see my neigbors there; we talk about what we’re reading. When I’m done with books, I can sell them back — and someone else can buy them, used, and I can use the money to buy another new book. Which is a pretty efficient economic system.

And there are things you can’t put a price on: At Red Hill Books, the allegedly inefficent, overpriced local bookstore in Bernal Heights, the employees know me and my kids — and when my daughter, who is a voracious reader, finishes one series of books, they know what to recommend next.

That’s not a “recommendations engine” — that’s a live person.

If Farhad Manjoo wants to live in robo-world where a machine tells you what to eat, drink and read, fine — but I still think human beings, inefficient as we are, do a better job at selling books.