Bringing Nuance to the Amazon versus Indie Debate

I love books, which should come as no surprise. As I write, I’m surrounded by them, and I have a long list of pending book reviews and author interviews on my office corkboard. There are books in every room of my house except the bathroom, spanning centuries, dramas, and interest level. (Sorry, PR flacks.) And I really love bookstores, new and used. I love walking into a building filled with worlds that I can discover by flipping open a flyleaf. I love talking to people who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about books, who recommend new texts and authors. I love meeting bookstore cats and running my hand along their backs as I browse. I love everything about the tangible experience of shopping for books.

Not everyone does, and I get that, which is part of the reason why Amazon has become so huge. It’s not just about books; Amazon allows you to buy pretty much anything without having to leave your home. Yet, I’ve always regarded Amazon as the enemy — I’ve worked in an independent bookstore, I fervently support independent bookstores, and I fear for the future of independent stores, the publishing industry, and, yes, chain brick and mortar stores in the face of Amazon.

In the Amazon versus Indie or Amazon versus Brick and Mortar debate, a lot of nuance gets lets out. Impassioned voices on either side argue their cases without recognising that there’s a middle ground we need to talk about too.

The Amazons say that Amazon fills a capitalist need. It’s offering what people want at affordable price points. It allows people to dodge stores with rude, uninformed, snooty staff, or stores that are inaccessible. It allows them to get things they can’t get where they live as a result of isolation or other factors. It allows them to ensure they can feed themselves if they have disabilities that make it hard to get out. It’s just convenient, in a way that other shopping experiences are not.

The Indie supporters say that it’s important to support local businesses and keep your money in the local economy, where it can do the most good. They argue that giving business to faceless corporations furthers the capitalist system, endangers publishing, and hurts your friends and neighbours — the people who rely on your business to run their stores, get paid by their employers, and participate in the community.

Neither argument is exactly right, although both have strong points. Amazon offers a lot of advantages. There’s value in keeping spending local. But there’s also a third path that people seem reluctant to talk about: With Amazon dominating the market to a degree that is terrifying and potentially extremely troublesome, I strongly discourage shopping there (for anything, not just books) but that doesn’t mean I believe people should automatically shop locally, either.

Yes, I realise this is heresy to some of you.

Let’s take bookstores as our test case. Do you have a local independent bookstore, or a local brick and mortar chain store, that’s run by friendly, outgoing people who are knowledgeable about books and love connecting with you? Do you feel like a valued customer there? Do they have events, loyalty programs, and other offerings that draw you in? Do you actively enjoy going there? Then please consider supporting them and the work they do by shopping there.

Is your local independent bookstore, or chain, run by people who are grumpy and snobby and rude? Is it inaccessible? Do they not offer any kind of customer incentive program? Is going there difficult? Do you dread picking up books there? Then don’t shop there. You don’t owe anyone your business, and even if you passionately love books and publishing, you’re not actually required to go indie, or local, at all costs no matter what. You get to exercise your choice as a consumer.

Go a step further: Tell the owner why you don’t shop there. The owner may be resistant, in which case, leave it at that — hey, I don’t shop at your store, here’s why. If the owner asks for more details, give them: ‘Celeste has always been extremely rude to me’ or ‘I don’t like the way Rudy follows me around like he thinks I’m going to steal’ or ‘I can’t physically get into your bookstore because it’s not wheelchair accessible.’ Provide feedback to articulate why your customer service experience is not optimal, and thus, why you take your business elsewhere.

But when you take your business elsewhere, consider an alternative to Amazon: There are thousands of independent bookstores across the US that are GREAT, and they take online orders, sell ebooks, and love working with customers from around the US and the world. Consider supporting one of them instead! Like Powell’s, Oblong Books, Green Apple Books, The Booksmith, The Poisoned Pen, Once Upon A Crime, Pegasus Books, my very own Gallery Bookshop, and so many more. Did you travel somewhere and like the bookstore? Look them up and see if they do online or phone orders. Ask your friends for recommendations! Heck, pick a random city and look up ‘bookstores’ on Yelp.

You can join their loyalty programs just like a regular customer, and be treated with personalised attention and friendliness. And you can totally send them a note saying ‘I heard of you from so-and-so, my local bookstore isn’t very good, and I wanted to avoid Amazon, so I chose to shop with you instead since you have such an excellent reputation.’ They, too, can deliver books rapidly, can recommend other books you might like, and can connect you with community programs if you’re interested in donating to bookstore projects like handing out free books to low-income kids, or providing free summer reading.

Alternatives to Amazon aren’t always available, but they often are. And alternatives with that one-stop ability are starting to become more common as well. The problem of Amazon is that it’s so huge that it can do whatever it wants, throwing its muscle around to a degree that’s deeply terrifying. And it doesn’t have to be that way, but we as consumers have to decide we want to change that if we want to see a shift happen. There’s often a third road between ‘crappy local business’ and ‘Amazon,’ and I encourage people to seek it out when they can, and to share good resources when they find them so others can benefit. Together, we can challenge the idea that people have only two buying options.