Bookstore Confession

I bought a book, then 5 minutes later found an identical cheaper one online using my smartphone, so I returned it. Was this wrong?

I recently found myself at Barnes and Noble with quite the conundrum. The parking lot was crazy busy. The Nook booths up front were heaving with rabid present-seekers. The coffee shop bustled with students cramming for finals.

I was there, however, for a reading by an author friend of mine. The reading area was, well, quieter. I can say I wasn’t the only audience member since the poet’s mom came too.

After the reading—which was great—I perused the stacks as I considered the wisdom of making a purchase for myself so close to Christmas. But, with great speed, books destroy my powers to delay gratification, so before long I had two in my hands. Thanks to a herculean effort I narrowed it down to one by Neil Gaiman, but I wasn’t certain about it.

So, I brought out my iPhone. No, I didn’t scan the bar-code quite yet, I simply Googled the title, Anansi Boys. After a few flicks, I learned the book was the story of a character from a Gaiman’s previous novel, American Gods. So, I went to find American Gods on the shelf.

They had one edition. Hard cover. $26.99. Tenth Anniversary Author’s Preferred Text Edition. I swithered, but then walked it calmly to the register. A minute later, I had purchased the book for $29.01.

As I sat in the car warming up — this is Fargo, remember — I felt deep regret. $30 is our household’s monthly book allowance (not including school books). I just blew it in one fell swoop. I did really want to read American Gods, but it was mostly an impulse buy. So, on another impulse, I whipped out my phone and brought up the Amazon app. I scanned my just-purchased book’s barcode, and its Amazon page popped up in two seconds.

Amazon price: $17.60. No sales tax. I have a student Amazon Prime account, meaning I have free two-day shipping on most purchases. I bought it one tap. One tap. Then I opened the car door, walked back in to Barnes and Noble, stood in line, returned the $29.01 copy, and drove away with more money in my pocket and a very confused conscience.

Novelist Richard Russo recently published a NY Times Op-Ed piece lambasting Amazon‘s smartphone apps.

Then, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo responded to Russo quite wisely it seems to me, complicating matters entirely.

Loyal readers will know I’m a sucker for small independently-owned book stores. I miss living in bigger areas like Decatur boasting places like Little Shop of Stories with it’s wonderfully curated collection, friendly staff, smart book groups, and glorious story times. (And, get this: Neil Gaiman has visited Little Shop.)

Often, in Fargo, I buy used books from Red Raven, and I’ve purchased several from Zambroz. I try to buy work books through The Thoughtful, usually at great discount, but certainly not with two-day shipping. But I do buy a lot of books via Amazon. Most, even. And I’m still wrestling with my Barnes and Noble return.

So, dear Internet, I confess it. But, to be honest, I’m not sure whether I have sinned or not. If so, my penance will be donate the $11.41 difference to a good cause. But, maybe, I was just a savvy shopper with a smartphone and the good sense to take advantage of my student free two-day shipping when I can.

Am I an Amazon app sinner destroying my local economy, or a smart shopper saving $11.41 I can now spend locally?



  1. Or is Mr. Manjoo simply doing his corporate duty as a Slate writer and shilling for Amazon? I don’t find much of his argument terribly compelling. Do readers really want to propel Amazon into the “too big to fail” category? Is it beneficial for any buyer in any category for one company to have that much clout, books or otherwise?

    • Good question, Charles. Though Manjoo is nothing but consistent in his support of technology as solutions, Amazon-related or otherwise.

      On the other hand, Amazon (or someone like them) seems inevitable. eBooks just make sense, as does selling them online.

      Curious enough, it didn’t strike me for a second to get the book from my library (two blocks from my house) or on Kindle. Oh the times. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Matthew Hansen says:

    I’d say if you did this at, say, Zandbroz it’d be a bigger deal than Barnes and Noble.

  3. I’ve worked for both a national chain bookseller (you can probably guess which one), and a locally-owned, independent bookstore.

    Store A, the national chain, is a great place to shop. Cozy chairs, aromatic treats (coffee, etc.), soothing music, and rows upon rows of books. But a terrible place to work. The chain is solely-focused on its bottom line; employees are paid peanuts and expected to jump through hoops.

    Store B, the local store, operated for more than 40 years (by the same family) before it was forced to close last year. Over the preceding decade, since the national chain opened across town, its revenue had dropped precipitously. The local store wasn’t as snazzy as the national chain. It didn’t have the selection, and special orders took longer. But its owner/ operators knew just about every book in print, and could find a book for you based on what you liked, or even if you had only seen the author on TV.

    Having had both experiences, I’d support the local store in a heartbeat, no matter how much more I might have to pay for the book. Furthermore, I wouldn’t feel remotely guilty about returning a book to the national chain to get it cheaper on Amazon. Trust me, the hundreds of millions they make in profits each year are more than enough to carry the loss of your $29.01.

    So, my child, you have not sinned. :-)

  4. The piece from Slate is (to me) the clear winner. It can’t be the job of consumers to artificially prop up inefficient vendors. Amazon has found a better, more efficient way to sell books. Most recently, Amazon has found a way to reduce the inefficiency created by imperfect information. The main reason I have always been willing to pay $29.01 for X at the local store is that I didn’t know I could get it for $17.60 by pressing one button. Now that I have better information I have to make a decision as to how I will spend the other $11.41. Will I give it to the local store to show that I am a “buy local” enthusiast? Will I purchase another book (in paperback) with one more press of a button? Will I stop at the bookstore coffee shop and get a cappuccino and a bear claw? Or will I give the money away to the Salvation Army or maybe an unorthodox new faith community committed to open-minded, curious conversations.

    More information and fewer inefficiencies are better for the consumer—and even if they weren’t, you can’t put this toothpaste back in the tube (just ask typesetters, switchboard operators, and travel agents).

    So spend (or better yet, donate) your $11.41 guilt free, because demonizing or shouting down advances in technology never works.

  5. I agree that if you had done this to Little Shop, there would be some moral struggle. But you really just went from one big corporation to another and saved a significant amount of money.
    I have a local bookstore here in Boise that I support quite regularly, but if someone gives me a Barnes and Noble gift card, I’ll go there to spend it.

  6. I’m with the Slate piece too. Especially with mass market books, paying $29.01 for a book you can buy online for $17.60 is exactly equivalent to paying the local bookstore $17.60 plus a tip of $11.41 for *something*. *Something* should be something that adds value, whether that’s the environment where you shop, or a great owner who knows books soooo well, or the ability to grab the book and drive home instead of waiting a few days for shipping. There is no moral obligation to purchase *something*. It’s just a choice. If those intangible value-adds are worth $11.41, go right ahead and soak in the ambiance (or whatever). If not, don’t. If you aren’t getting *something* added, then you’re just giving a $11.41 donation to a local business for no other reason than you like them and they are located in your town. That’s not morally repugnant, but it probably is foolish.

    Indeed, if you’re on a limited budget (and all other things being equal), I would say you’ve got a moral obligation to spend your money well and maximize it’s value. Otherwise you are being wasteful.

  7. I’ll be honest–my heart swelled at Russo’s piece and I will probably support local bookstores until the day they actually become extinct, and then mourn them forever. It’s true, also, that I was shaped and nurtured by my time working at one such bookstore, and so am incredibly biased (and still get uncomfortable when even thinking about reading a book on a screen). So I was surprised to find most of Manjoo’s article reasonable, especially his thoughts about how booksellers like Amazon have made reading popular and accessible. I can’t argue with that, or his point that having quick access to cheap books is a good thing for reading in general.

    I do, however, take issue with his thoughts about local bookstores not being a part of the local community. How can that be? Sure, the book themselves may be made in the same factories as books sent to Amazon (or B&N), but books are so much more than binding and pages. They are thoughts, conversations, questions, inspiration. They are sometimes the words and collective experiences of a community. They have the power to bring people together, to create a sense of place and belonging, and to make change. Supporting local bookstores is supporting the community and what happens in that community. It’s supporting the booksellers, too (I buy local food not only because it tastes good, but because I want to support local farming!) And I absolutely take issue with Manjoo’s experiences at local stores–maybe I don’t want an entire world of possibilities, but rather a few well cultivated pick! A relationship with a bookseller who knows my tastes and knows–better than any online algorithm could–and what I might want to read next, is very valuable. It’s not about the comfy couches–it’s the conversations we have when sitting in them. And yes, reading is often a solitary act, without much conversation–but I know that, for me, a book bought at an independent seller gives me a different experience than one bought online or at B&N, and its an experience I’m usually willing to pay more for.

    But regarding your experience Adam–I see no real difference between Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Like Mark said, big box bookstores are about the bottom line, not about the customer experience or the book (I’ve heard that from a few other former B&N employees as well). I don’t think your community will be hurt by the switch. I know you love local bookstores as much as I do, and if that $11 you moved from one mega store to another can go towards another book, it’s an $11 well saved and well spent!

  8. I’m struck that the divide for some (many?) folks is not really between brick and mortar stores and online sellers, but rather between big companies and small ones.

    I like independent bookstores very much, but I’m not sure that overpaying at a small retailer is more ethically commendable than overpaying at a large one.

    • I hear you, Scott. I’d be interested to see what others thing. One thing that comes quickly to mind, however, is the difference in how much indies benefit local communities in terms of their support of other local businesses. I can’t remember, but it’s like 80% of local business profits stay in local community as opposed to very small percentage at big corporate dealios.

      But there’s nothing inherently wrong with big businesses, at least in my book. So it’s a good point/question.

  9. I know you’ve already mentioned, Adam, that you forgot about the library. But, don’t forget about the library! I know we have American Gods, because I checked it out myself several months ago. Check it out from the library, and you have $29.01 that you can use to support local business instead. And, you’re helping boost circulation numbers which helps convince politicians to continue funding libraries which really help build community and provide resources for those who need them the most! Then, if you really loved American Gods and want to own a copy so you can reread it over and over again or share it with friends, you can purchase it.

    Library advocacy aside, Manjoo’s argument makes sense from a purely economical point-of-view. I don’t think Barnes & Noble is going to have to let go of some poor bookseller because you returned American Gods or buy books on Amazon.

    However, I would place higher value on bricks and mortar stores than Manjoo does. I do think bookstores, whether independent or chain, help build community and put more money into the local economy. Think about how you discovered American Gods. It wasn’t through a recommendation from a friend or Amazon’s suggestions. It’s because you had the opportunity to browse through the bookstore and discover something you perhaps wouldn’t have found. If you value that sort of serendipitous method of discovering books, I think it is worth it to occasionally spend a bit more money on a book. And while reader’s advisory, especially among the B&N employees, can be hit or miss, an experienced and thoughtful bookseller (or librarian) can be much more accurate or far-reaching than Amazon. I’m not saying everyone should never buy from Amazon again, but mix it up if you do appreciate bricks and mortar bookstores.

    As a disclaimer, at this time last year, I was working as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble (or perhaps more accurately, a nookseller with part-time bookseller duties). Several times a week, or even multiple times a day, I would work with a customer for a decent amount of time trying to identify or recommend an elusive book. Then, after placing the book in the customer’s hands, they’d give it back to me and tell me to my face that they’re going to just buy it on Amazon. If everyone did this on a regular basis, bookstores won’t be able to continue. Look what happened to Borders…

    Do I think you should feel guilty about returning the book to B&N and getting it from Amazon instead? Definitely not. Perhaps I’m just a romantic when it comes to books, but I just don’t want to see a future when discovering and buying books has moved completely online.

  10. I’ve always believed that the most powerful vote you can make is one with your dollar, and how you spend your money reflects the things you (heh heh) value. So the main question for me is, would Amazon have hosted your friend’s reading? Or would they bring an author to a school? Or sponsor, say, a Book Festival? Etc? Yes, they are efficient at selling books. But Amazon pays no taxes (which means your community gets nothing from the purchase) and, more importantly, they, unlike any brick & mortar, big or small, don’t host events. They don’t even review their own books (or read them)–they just rely on reviews posted by publishers and others. Also, as others have pointed out, there are other options for buying books online. I’ve boycotted Amazon for a long time, and am encouraging others to do so especially after the scan-for-$5 thing, which is just unfriendly business practice. I understand that we are living in a world where price makes a difference. But as in the case of the industrial/organic food conversation, I think it’s important to think about what we’re really paying for (and not paying for) when we let dollar amounts be our main deciding factor.

    • Terra, I feel like you’re half right. I agree that it is tremendously important how we vote with our dollars–but I think the way you frame the resulting question is too limited.

      The question is not simply, “Would Amazon host a friend’s reading, or sponsor a book festival?” but rather–are occasional local readings and book festivals worth $11.41 per transaction to Adam? $11.41 donated to the local economy is good, but is it better than $11.41 donated to Heifer International or the Acumen Fund or the local church? I’m willing to entertain the possibility that the answer might be yes, but to me–that is the question. It’s not just Amazon vs. local. It’s Amazon plus $11.41 worth of freedom and all the good things that you can do with that freedom vs. local.

      Also, Amazon does pay taxes, although not state or local sales tax.

      • I’ve got run, but just a quick note re Amazon and tax. When I lived in North Dakota, I paid local sales tax on Amazon orders because there is an Amazon customer service facility in N.D. In Minnesota there isn’t, so it’s not taxed.

        That’s a silly loophole that Amazon and other Internet companies exploit. I support changing laws to include online purchases in state sales tax. But I’m weird: I like paying taxes.

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