Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Book Buyer's Dilemma

Recently,  I read the views of Richard Russo, Anita Shreve and a number of other authors whose work I regularly read and enjoy on what they perceived to be the beyond-the-pale tactics and rampant commercialism of Amazon seeming actively to encourage buyers to browse in a real bookshop before ordering online.  The response to their  dismay was divided between the horrified and the 'get-a-life' brigade, but the debate rings a very loud and discordant bell for me, touching on a dilemma I cannot solve.

In early November my husband and I went on a pre-Christmas browsathon at Waterstones, the one big surviving bookstore in Glasgow.  We had a lovely breakfast and looked at so many books, leaping up and down the stairs between biography, children's, spiritual, new titles, music, sport.  We bought two books to a total of about £20, but came away with a list of other titles.  Yes, reader, you've guessed at the dilemma.  Arriving home, we went on line and had Mr Amazon send us another £80 worth.  By doing so we saved about £17.00 but I felt uncomfortable.

Books and reading have played a massive role in my life; my father's insistence that books were the key to learning, his habitual gift of a book given as a reward or recognition, or when I was poorly; his agreement to pay for any book I needed at uni. while showing reluctance to underwrite my chocolate egg habit, the joy he got from discussing with me the books we had both read .... all of these early interactions with books have underpinned my life, my relationships with others, my values.

This Amazon dilemma is the second wave of trauma for my book-buying generation.  Do you remember the many departments and subsections of John Smith in St Vincent Street?  Was your preferred browsing zone the equally quaint Thins on Edinburgh's Bridges?  How did you feel when John Smith was drowned by the tidal wave of Waterstones, Borders, Ottakars?  As you sipped a hot chocolate while perusing possible buys, or rifled through the '3 for 2' piles in one of the 'new' stores, did you worry that you might have played a part in the downfall of the old favourite?

Hardly had I overcome my guilt by nearly bankrupting myself, weekly, in the massive branch of Borders, The Fort, than there came the news of its closure .... a victim, perhaps of the amazonian strengths of online booksellers.  And so to a further dilemma.

I use Amazon for most of my online buying: not only books, but camera lens, hedgetrimmer, snow shovel and dyson have arrived at our door in the past year, courtesy their swift delivery.  No matter what the item, I check there for a comparison and cannot remember the last time they were not the cheapest!  Sometimes it is only because of their pricing that I feel I can afford the item.

But, as I disclosed on the topic of charity, I am no stranger to hypocrisy.  I absolutely love bookshops, the piles upon piles of titles, the knowledgeable staff, the books I've never heard of which suddenly grab my attention; the classics in brand new, extortionately priced but beautifully illustrated editions and formats (there's a new 'Secret Garden'!)  Then there's the opportunity to read a few pages over coffee:  is it my type of novel? Or look through three books on Venice; which is the best?   In a small, out of town bookshop I became involved in an ad hoc discussion with two other book buyers who then recommended titles to me, as I did to them ... wonderful!   Will all of these pleasures be lost to us in the near future if people like me indulge ourselves in the shop then buy cheap at home?

Waterstones, and I am sure the small independent survivors (to whom the likes of Waterstones is no doubt a continuing torment), do their best to fight back by giving a high profile to their 'special' prices, their rewards for buying multiple titles, their loyalty cards. I will always visit bookshops and will buy, not always because the price is the cheapest, but out of recognition of what is offered, inclusive,  that Amazon cannot give me.... the chance to browse, the advice, the smile, the coffee!

A fortnight ago, our local library contacted me to ask if I still wanted a book I had ordered;  there would be a delay as they would have to buy a new copy to replace a missing one.  I phoned to say they shouldn't waste limited funds on this very specialist book for me;  I had seen it on Amazon, and would buy it; I'd rather the council funds were spent on a more popular title!  The irony did not escape me:  virtuously saving my library cash while putting another dent in the prosperity of bookshops!

I am extremely fortunate to be able to afford books; I would also prioritise them over many other items in a pinch.  If Morrison's price for Nescafe Gold Blend is markedly lower than Tesco's,  I'll pop in to Morrison's.  If my new coat costs substantially less in John Lewis than it does in Fraser's I will buy it from John Lewis.  It seems so obvious, so 'common-sensical' that I wonder why I would feel I ought to do any differently for books.

But it is different; it does feel like a moral as well as a commercial dilemma.  What should I do ?

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