December 14, 2011

Them’s Fightin’ Words: Slate Magazine’s Misguided Rant Against Bookstores

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:35 pm
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Farhad Manjoo - Bookstore hater

Oh, man.  Where do I begin?  I thought I had said what I wanted to say about this in my last blog post, but obviously there’s more to say.

Danielle, our Events Coordinator here at Left Bank Books, forwarded to me this gem from Slate Magazine in an email with the subject, “your next blog post?”  Before I even got past the title I knew I wasn’t finished with this topic, although I really wish I was.

The issue: Farhad Manjoo (pictured), Slate Magazine’s Technology columnist, wrote passionately about the apparent idiocy in shopping at a locally owned independent bookstore like mine.  It was a response to Richard Russo’s article in the New York Times defending the bookstore.

Manjoo sets it up like this – Bookstores are “some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find” and are “cultish, moldering institutions.”  His reasoning?

  • Bookstores present a frustrating customer experience.
  • You don’t need to browse because you can peek at e-books on your couch.
  • Bookstores mark up their inventory to pay for rent, payroll, etc. which is inefficient.
  • Bookstores aren’t local.
  • If you spend more money for a book, you can’t spend more money on “real” local goods.

He does establish early on that Slate is an Amazon affiliate.  Given their cozy relationship, it really shouldn’t be surprising that they – and he – would champion them.  But let’s put that aside for the moment.

Most of what irks me about Manjoo’s article has to do with what I posted last time – the smug assurance that shopping at a local bookstore makes you a chump.  I think I said pretty much all I wanted to about not making your customers feel stupid for their tastes, so I’ll leave that alone as well.

What I will take issue with is his assertion that independent bookstores are just the latest sacred cow that needs to be slaughtered in order to move into the Bezos led future.

Rather than get into a protracted fist fight about Manjoo’s article, I think I’ll illustrate just what a locally-owned bookstore really does for you and your community, then you can decide where and how you want to spend your money.

Here’s how a bookstore really works:

In 2008, Left Bank Books bought True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo from John Wiley & Sons, who listed the book (hardcover) at $25.95.  We put it on our shelves as part of our “relatively paltry selection” and then sold it to customers at the list price, $25.95 plus tax.  On each sale, we made $10.38.

With our $10.38, we paid booksellers (creating and maintaining jobs), paid for our booksellers health insurance, paid our rent (helping to keep a vibrant and relevant neighborhood from being boarded up and abandoned),  bought office supplies from Pedro’s Planet (a locally-owned office supply company), paid sales tax (maintaining the infrastructure of our community).  If we sold the same book today to a member of our loyalty program, 1% of that would have gone to their chosen local charity.  I think that’s a highly efficient use of that money, which, by the way isn’t a bookstore markup.  It’s the actual price of the book.

$15.57 went back to John Wiley & Sons, and of that, Mr. Manjoo received whatever royalty he negotiated with the publisher and John Wiley & Sons kept the rest.  Yep, they’re in Manhattan.  However, the $11,000 (our cost) worth of books from local authors who published their books themselves that we keep on our shelves are not from Manhattan.  Neither are the books produced by Reedy Press and other local publishers, the cards and t-shirts produced by All Along Press, Firecracker Press, Sleepy Kitty, STL Style and other local printers.

The customer who bought the book, ordered and hand sold by Left Bank Books employees, then probably went next door and bought clothing, food, lotions, etc. from other neighborhood stores, or, if they ordered from our website (which lists every book in print and let’s you create the all important wishlist) they received it at their home and used the internet to shop other local places because they value that.  The customer who bought the book on Amazon also clicked through to other Amazon products and bought them there because that’s how Bezos wins, by selling books as a loss leader to make you buy other stuff.  They did not log off, get in the car and go buy local as Mr. Manjoo describes.

Speaking of authentic local experiences, we didn’t do an author event with Mr. Manjoo, but we do other events – around 200 per year – in conjunction with local libraries, churches, the Ethical Society, cooking schools, universities, high schools, grade schools, glbt centers and other local institutions.  For free.

The customers who didn’t buy that book looked at it on the shelf and noticed other books shelved next to it, and by serendipity picked up a book they would have never known existed if they relied on an algorithm to suggest it for them.  They liked that book more than Mr. Manjoo’s book, so they bought that instead.

Ah, you say, but what about e-books?  Your precious corner store can’t give me those!  Well, yes.  Yes we can.  In fact, with the help of Indiebound we offer free apps for your iPhone or Android to help you do just that.

I guess all of this is to say bookstores are not “cultish, moldering” institutions, but physical representations of an industry that changes every single year.  We are small, flexible and determined to change along with it.  Not all of us will survive, but those of us who do will still serve an important purpose, and will still respect and support our customers and community.


  1. All great points. Most of the books on my shelves are titles that I picked up out of curiosity at a local bookstore while either browsing or picking up a particular book. Not to mention the t-shirts, cards, and other locally made items I’ve purchased at bookstores. I cannot remember the last time I “browsed” books on Amazon (I’ll admit to browsing used books online at Powell’s, though) – perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I like the face-to-face interaction with local booksellers, appreciate their suggestions, and like to hold an actual book in my hands when shopping. Not to mention that I like to support businesses that support their communities. Thanks to Left Bank for all you do, and I’m happy to say that I’m sending a fair share of my holiday spending your way this year.

    Comment by Sarah — December 14, 2011 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

  2. The only time I order a book from Amazon is when I can’t find it somewhere else and I don’t mind saving money on that. I know my local store can order it for me, but I buy plenty of books there. I don’t mind spreading the wealth that way. I do buy many other items from Amazon. Almost always it is an item (say a special sized shower curtain) that I can’t find at a local store because they have determined that they can’t afford to carry too many specialty items.

    Amazon is pompus, egotistical, and has become the Walmart of the online shopping experience. It isn’t even about money anymore, I think. They want to have ‘world domination’…except where a state may make them pay sales tax (that they pass on to the customer anyway, WTF???).

    Their AmazonEncore division does a good thing for authors that can’t get picked up by the mainstream publishing houses. A friend of mine has published 3 books through them and has done very well. But there is a backlash against her books at her local bookstore, simply because of the Amazon name.

    What happened to the days of giving the customer the choices and letting them decide?

    Comment by Pam — December 14, 2011 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

  3. I don’t mind buying books from Amazon if I know what I’m looking for, but you can’t browse Amazon in the same way that you browse a physical bookstore. If I didn’t go to physical bookstores, I’d miss so many books that have become favorites…

    Comment by Grace — December 14, 2011 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  4. Well said. And never even mentioned the difference between free enterprise and monopoly capitalism. And never mentioned Amazon’s contributions to income and wealth inequality. Marvelously pragmatic and non ideological.

    Comment by Robert Zeffert — December 14, 2011 @ 5:46 pm | Reply

  5. Right on, Jake! I’ve decided (as a fellow indie bookseller) that Manjoo’s piece is actually a sneaky, pro-bookstore tactic. He just wanted to give us all one more opportunity to highlight how obvious it is that we blow Amazon out of the water. Yes. That must be it.

    This response is terrific, thanks for writing it.

    Comment by Julie — December 14, 2011 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

  6. Pity poor Farhad Manjoo — he’s clearly never been in my local book store or several others I’ve visited. At the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, there are several shelves devoted to local authors and subjects. There are actual humans to talk to in person (or is that what he’s trying to avoid?), and carefully crafted recommendations from the staff, who wouldn’t be there if they didn’t love books. I happily pay my sales taxes, especially this year when they are helping rebuild roads and businesses and homes after Hurricane Irene. On my way home, I glance across our town’s new bridge; thanks to local merchants who agreed to a local tax to help fund it, so ambulances and fire trucks won’t have a long detour if the old bridge is blocked. My kids went to decent schools, thanks in part to property taxes from business buildings in town. Actually the more I think about it, the more I worry that Farhad Manjoo doesn’t know what a local community looks like. Poor guy.

    Comment by Priscilla Bremser — December 14, 2011 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

  7. The person for whom I really feel sorry for here is Mr. Manjoo’s wife. She clearly married a moron.

    Comment by Jeffrey Ricker — December 14, 2011 @ 8:36 pm | Reply

  8. I found this post through Twitter – so glad I did! Very well said.

    I’ve worked in two bookstores (both an independent one and a Barnes and Noble) and I think a little piece of my soul died every time I finished a great conversation with a customer in which I recommended a book, only to hear them whisper “I’ll get it on Amazon” to their friend as they walk away.

    If I’m ever in St. Louis, I’ll make sure to stop in and support your bookstore!

    Comment by Rayna — December 14, 2011 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

  9. I am a bookstore owner. There are people who, right or wrong, simply don’t value what we offer. I get that mentality (I don’t share it, but I get it) and that’s fine with me. If people want to shop online and save the dollar, they can. If you would rather shop online and detach, go for it. But in reality, you *do* still cost your community money by the simple fact that you exist, send your kids to school, drive a car, eat food, get sick and then healthy again, and acquire resources to survive. But whatever – if you want to shop online and save some monney on things, I don’t have an issue with that. But you *do* still ultimately live in a community and you cost money whether you value it or not.

    My feeling is, shop online or don’t – whatever “floats your boat,” baby. But don’t make me out to be the bad guy (or the archaic fool) because I am a part of life off-line. And don’t devalue what I offer, and then go ahead and use it. I had a lady come in the other day with her two kids and told me she *loved* “Rules” by Cynthia Lord – has she written anything else? Actually, she wasn’t sure of the author’s name and she was “pretty sure” the title was “Rules.” You know the gig – it’s what we do! Anyway, after helping her figure out what book she was talking about, I did some checking while she got a coffee from the neighboring coffee shop (good for them!) while her kids played giant checkers in my sitting area. I did find two others – one was “Hot Rod Hamster” which was too young for her kids. The other was “Touch Blue” which her kids a) hadn’t read yet and b) they wanted to. Her response when I offered to order it for her? “No, that’s OK. We’ll go home and ‘think about it.'” She “Price Checked” me without the app.

    If you’re going to shop online, friggin’ shop online. But if you’re going to use my store – that is, use the overhead and expenses I am happy to have – and *then* shop online?!? Let’s just say I wasn’t thinking very Christian thoughts when she left.

    That is my issue with Amazon. There’s nothing that can be done about it – it’s a part of our reality. But to belittle us because we actually *exist* is just plain not thinking it through.

    Comment by Mike O. — December 15, 2011 @ 3:54 am | Reply

  10. Last time I visited my local bookstore (City Lights in Sylva, N.C.) the proprietor handed me a copy of Daniel Woodrell’s latest, “The Outlaw Album.” He knew what I wanted, because he knows me. I support my local bookstore because the folks at City Lights, like Chris Wilcox and Eon Alden, are my friends, neighbors, and members of my economic community. It doesn’t get any more local than that Mr. Manjoo! Thank you, Jarek, for the wonderful blog post in response to Manjoo’s idiocy!

    Comment by David Joy — December 15, 2011 @ 8:48 am | Reply

  11. Thank you for this. I read that chucklehead’s comments and they sickened me but only the way Gingrich’s commentary does. The inaccuracies are so lame but the intention–and alas the result—is hurtful.
    Corey Mesler,
    Owner, Burke’s Book Store,

    Comment by Corey Mesler — December 15, 2011 @ 10:05 am | Reply

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    Pingback by Them’s Fightin’ Words: Slate Magazine’s Misguided Rant Against Bookstores « Readersforum's Blog — December 15, 2011 @ 11:42 am | Reply

  13. His last paragraph on pg 1 is priceless … he takes a major unethical tactic of Amazon – using books as a loss-leader – and spins it on bookstores, accusing us of “marking up” prices … to a maintainable level!!

    In his own words (capitalization mine) …

    t’s not just that bookstores are difficult to use. They’re ECONOMICALLY INEFFICIENT, too. RENT, UTILITIES, and a brigade of book-reading WORKERS AREN’T CHEAP, so the only way for BOOKSTORES to stay afloat is to SELL ITEMS AT A HUGE MARKUP. A few times a year, my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist—drags me into one of our supposedly sacrosanct neighborhood booksellers, and I’m always astonished by HOW MUCH THEY WANT ME TO PAY FOR BOOKS. At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for LIST PRICE, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at AMAZON, you can usually SAVE a staggering 30 TO 50 PERCENT. In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.

    Amazing … so we’re the dunderheads because we have bills and we pay them, and we do that by charging the industry-set price (not “marking up”). Why is it so hard for people to think the problem all the way through? Amazon would be losing money on books if they a) paid what they cost us, and b) sold them at 30 to 50 percent off. Amazon is cheating.

    On a related note, did you know it’s illegal for gas stations to drop their prices below a certain point to try to drive smaller competitors out of business? How do I know that? Because we had the General Manager of Super America (a large gas station chain in MN) come to our bookstore and do a talk on “How Gas Prices Work” last summer. I’m not saying … I’m just saying.

    Comment by Mike O. — December 16, 2011 @ 3:37 am | Reply

  14. […] Steele, owner of Left Bank Books, on Slate’s recent article bashing bookstores. (I didn’t realize Slate was an Amazon […]

    Pingback by Weekly Writer’s Round-Up: Week of 12/10/11 | Chris Devlin's Blog — December 17, 2011 @ 3:25 am | Reply

  15. […] bookstore jab in Slate.com, Jarek Steele of Left Bank Books in St. Louis came back with a knockout punch. Lastly, Der Spiegel reported on Amazon scamming Germany’s job incentives […]

    Pingback by Amazon Inc. Recruits Customers to Spy on Competitors While Stores Seek to Counter “Showrooming” | The American Independent Business Alliance — October 9, 2018 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

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