Sunday, November 01, 2009

Book Wars

I read on the worldwide Internets the other day that there’s a book war going on. Even in a recession, online retailers (sometimes known as e-tailers) like Target and Amazon - among others - are at each other’s throats trying to see who can take the biggest loss on each copy sold of new novels by a handful of the big names in popular fiction. One of these authors is Stephen King, whose 1000+ page doorstop, Under the Dome, bows on November 10th; and I’d be interested in this subject even if there weren’t a new Stephen King book coming out, but since there is, I’m even more interested - because I’m going to buy the book the day it comes out.

The only question is how much money I’m going to spend on it; a secondary consideration is which seller of books is going to benefit from my purchase; and I’m going to leave off with whether or not certain places that peddle books actually deserve the quasi-romantic appellation bookseller, and focus instead on why I should or should not support any of these places where I might obtain the new Stephen King book. (There are other authors with new books out this fall that will be sold online at deep discounts - namely, for $9 or less - by Target and Amazon and others; but Stephen King is the only one of those authors who interests me. Others with new novels that you can get online for cheap include John Grisham, Michael Crichton, James Patterson, Dean Koontz, and Barbara Kingsolver.)

And if you know me at all, then you’re probably thinking that I’m going to say that you should go out and support the local guy - right? Head down to that neighborhood bookstore and put some bread in the pocket of the small businessman who lives in your community and shares your love of a good book. Well...kinda. If you live in Seattle, or are within thirty or so minutes of the Elliott Bay Book Company, then yes - you absolutely should get out and support the local guy; and the same goes for anyone who lives in New York City and can get to the Strand. You people have viable local options that give you the full bookstore experience, complete with newsstand and new releases.

We don’t have that at non-chain places here in Indianapolis. I’d probably have to order the new Stephen King from a place like Bookmamas. On the other hand, I could walk right into Borders and get a copy for somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty percent off the list price. And yes...Borders is a chain; but it’s one that is struggling to stay on its feet - due in part to the recession, but also in part to flagging CD and DVD sales, and to other factors including disastrous mismanagement when it was (briefly) owned by KMart and to an online partnership with Amazon that just never really worked for Borders.

And quite frankly, it’s the best we’ve got in Indianapolis, as far as bookstores go. Some people prefer Barnes & Noble, but I just don’t understand this. Those stores are horribly laid out and way too crowded - even when there are no people in them - and their selection, particularly of literature, leaves much to be desired. (A couple of notable exceptions include their selections of books by Virginia Woolf and Charles Bukowski. I admire both writers, but will always check Borders first; and really, when I say that Barnes has a better selection, what I really mean is that Barnes carries both the first and second Common Reader by Woolf and a larger selection of Bukowski’s poetry. All of his prose, and all of the other books by Woolf, can be found at Borders.) This criticism applies both to their shelves of books and to their newsstand section.

After all, part of the charm of a bookstore is in browsing new items to see what's new and what might be interesting. Little mom and pop places don't give you that, and neither does a place like Barnes & Noble that does not feel cozy and at least a little bookish. (To be fair, the new Borders at Castleton Square doesn’t feel this way, either - it feels like browsing for books under the Friday night lights at a football stadium.) On the other hand, I almost never go into Borders and come out with a book; usually it's a magazine or nothing. When I do buy books, it's usually at Half Price Books, where the books are used - as they are at Bookmamas. But Half Price is entrenched, and has corporate backing; and because of those two factors, they have both a greater supply of incoming books to consider for purchase and more latitude to purchase books in quantities sufficient to keep their selection both fresh and robust.

So I’m torn as to where to spend my money on this new book. Part of me really does want to support the little guy in just about every way that I can and that is financially reasonable; but as long as we don’t have a major indie bookstore here in town, I don’t want to see Borders go away, either. What I am sure about is that I’m not going to go with the ultra-cheap online option - that undercuts the entire concept of bookstores in every way, and I don’t support that at all. (Maybe, as penance for having bought books for 45% off at Best Buy in the past, I’ll just suck it up and order a copy at full price from Bookmamas.)

And no...I don’t own a Kindle.

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