Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Support Indie Bookstores

The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you.”

Somerset Maugham 

After my recent missive on summer reading recommendations I came to realize I’ve been short-changing independent bookstores I usually link book references to Amazon, just as an unthinking default, because the Internet Age has programmed us to do that. As with most conditioning, it takes an awareness of why we do certain things and then a conscious effort to undo that thinking and adapt different behavior. Independent bookstores have always struggled against big-box retailers like Barnes & Noble and other chains; the prominence of online conglomerates that can well afford to offer discounts and free shipping further endangers them. Although not everyone can afford to pay a little more to support their book-buying habits through independent bookstores, every little bit helps. We can wean ourselves off ordering books on Amazon to divert some of the money we’d spend anyway to support local, community merchants who appreciate our love for reading.

My own book-buying habits focused on local, independent bookstores in my youth, but migrated to big-box bookstores later, and ultimately brought me slowly into the Amazon fold. I’ve frequently mentioned the independent bookstore in my hometown, Books on the Common, which, in the formative days of my youth, supplied me with a steady stream of science fiction and fantasy literature I avidly devoured. I still dropped in during breaks from college, though I found places like Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble offered a wider selection as well as other book-related items. During my time at West End Games and the subsequent “Desperate Freelancing Years” when money was tight — and I needed material for research (before the advent of a fully operation internet or anything like Wikipedia; though neither are always reliable...) — I still shopped at big-box bookstores, but also relied on a discount bookseller, E.R. Hamilton, which now has an online presence far more convenient than the newspaper catalogs they used to mail. In more recent years I’ve relied more on a regional used bookstore, but also gravitated toward Amazon when other brick-and-mortar venues just didn’t have the books I sought.

The past few years — and certainly during the covid pandemic — I came to rely on online vendors to supply books, games, even groceries and other essentials to help manage our isolation and even to avoid the long drives to brick-and-mortar stores in the hopes they might have what I was looking for...and frequently did not. It’s become far more convenient to “window shop” online, where we can often get discounts or better deals, where we can instantly see if something’s in stock or backordered. It is, sadly, the path of least resistance.

I fear in this Internet Age we gravitate to the biggest online suppliers, those with the best and largest inventory, lowest prices, and fastest shipping. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the exponentially increasing pace of our world, of our dwindling patience, and our conditioning toward instant gratification the internet and all our personal electronic devices offer. I’m also of a generation programmed to scrimp and save whenever possible, to look for the best deals, buy things on sale, and use coupons. When I can’t easily find a product in person, I search Amazon; even if it’s just to get some idea that’s out there and what it might cost. Online shopping offers the best means to look for deals, compare different products side-by-side, and fulfill orders quickly with little fuss.

It’s a habit I need to break...at least for books. My change of heart comes from one of the few positive instances of the internet broadening my horizons. Several British history authors I follow on social media advocate buying from independent bookstores. When I went to look one up, UKBookshop.org, I noticed they had an American affiliate. Bookshop.org is an online venue that supports independent bookstores in the U.S., including the one in my hometown, and even one within a 30-minute drive of my current home. While certainly not as comprehensive as Amazon, as far as older releases are concerned, it covers most of my bases (including carrying a few games). I’ve replicated my book wishlist from Amazon at Bookshop.org for future reference...and refer folks wishing to send me a gift there for book purchases (not necessary, but always appreciated).

Bookshop.org offers some of the same utilities as Amazon but with benefits going to brick-and-mortar stores. I can maintain and share a wishlist. Many titles offer used book options. I can search by a number of parameters. The absence of user reviews (beyond a book’s qualified promotional blurbs) and algorithm-generated “suggestions” are not features I miss.

Could I find better prices elsewhere? Certainly. Do I want to? Not in this case. I want to make a conscious choice to support independent bookstores, just as I’d prefer to support local game stores (though I frequently support Noble Knight Games — local to Madison, WI — as a small business with excellent customer service). Rather than link to Amazon for merchandise I recommend here at Hobby Games Recce (when I remember to link) I’m steering readers to Bookshop.org; unless, of course, I can directly link to a publisher or manufacturer who sells it themselves.

Having suffered through a succession of game stores in our town that came and went, along with the closing of a longtime used bookstore in Culpeper years ago, I’ve slowly come to realize the significance of supporting local and small businesses. Larger online platforms like Bookshop.org help, allowing patrons to purchase books to support a particular physical store...or send their proceeds to a general fund divided among all member merchants.

I realize advocating people purchase books from independent bookstores and not from the most affordable merchant comes from a position of privilege. Not everyone who loves reading has the financial means to indulge in that habit (or buy books, as opposed to e-books). Goodness knows I’ve been there in my “Desperate Freelancing Years.” Used bookstores and discount sellers like HamiltonBook.com can help. But for now I’m thankful my family is fortunate enough to have the means to pay more for quality items and experiences...or make small but meaningful statements in where we shop.

I’ve explored Bookshop.org, loaded up my wishlist with various titles from Amazon, and plan on making my next book purchases from there. Go out and find an independent bookseller — online or in person — and, if you are able, give them your business to help them survive and support their community.

The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching toward infinity.”

A. Edward Newton 

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