Some of the tea houses which I frequent and spend my (little but hardly hard earned) money are far from being ideal businesses. The proprietors’ command of English may be imperfect; the places of businesses often double as the family’s hang-out pad; customer service is halting and leaves a lot to be desired. Yet I keep coming back to them. Why? One needn’t resort of the speculation that I am a masochist. The answer is much simpler: I go to these shops for their superior products.
It’s true. These shop owners, however flawed their customer-oriented business front, manage to get marvelous teas. Fresh teas whose harvest dates and farms of origin they’re happy to rattle off to you; teas from places that you didn’t even realize were producers (ever heard of Zealong? They’re oolongs from New Zealand.), and even if you care naught for such fussy details, then the fact that these teas taste great in your cup is a big plus, no? Not only do places like Starbucks and Peet’s not offer comparable products, even specialty tea stores like Teavana, which had an IPO worth $100 million recently, have few teas that can hold a candle to the selections of the mom-and-pop, great-teas-but-terrible-businesses shops.
All this is, of course, a long prologue to what I really want to talk about: book stores. I hear/read about mom-and-pop (the popular adjective seems to be “independent”) bookstores being relentlessly driven out of business — first by the terrible mall bookstores (Crown, Waldenbooks), then by the terrible large chain stores (Barnes & Noble, Borders), and now by the terrible Internet giant retailers (Amazon) and their bricks-and-mortar ilk (Wal-Mart). More importantly, this loss of independent bookstores is portrayed as a loss to the community at large, thus leading to exhortations, pushes, and guilt-you-if-you-don’t drives to get you to shop at your independent stores.
I’d like to take a step back and examine why the independent bookstores need our help in the first place. Now, I don’t dispute that places like Amazon have better prices than my local Kepler’s or Books Inc. and that competing against the buying power, deep pockets, advertising and marketing prowess of Amazon must be something that keeps a business owner on his toes, to say the least. I’d like to point out, however, that the tea stores I just described above have the same handicaps. Their teas are more expensive than Peet’s or Teavana’s; they have tiny operations compared to them, and as I already observed, it’s not like they possess the business savvy that could help them outfox their competitors.
Despite all this, the tea shops seem to be holding out on their own. How? While I know it’s blasphemous of me to compare books, that paragon of culture, to teas, a mere commodity, I stand by my question. As I have argued, these independent tea stores do well because they offer a differentiated, superior products to their competitors’. May bookstores be doing badly for the same reason? First, books are standardized products. A book from Books Inc. is identical to a book from Amazon, which does not leave much room for differentiation. Nonetheless, bookstores argue that they build an experience around books that cannot be replicated by Amazon. They offer a place for the community to gather, a browsing haven, a repository of knowledgeable staff, as well as hold special events like authors’ reading and book signing.
Let’s look at this (however in-exhaustive) list in reverse. The truth of the matter is that most of the times, there are no special events going on in a bookstore. A special event may happen once, twice, three times a week — each taking up two to three hours, let’s say. A special event that any particular reader cares about and wants to go to happens even less, simply because even the most avid reader out there isn’t interested in what every author who is dropping by the local bookstore has to say. So during 90% open hours of a bookstore, special events don’t have any special attraction to most of its potential customers.
What about the knowledgeable staff, ready to spring to action at any moment and offer recommendations to obscure but life-changing books? I would venture to guess that most readers already have more books and book recommendations than they have the time to digest. Furthermore, if readers already have a particular book, author, or genre in mind, then there are plenty of print publications and communities online that have reviewed such books and make recommendations to those interested. The New York Times Review of Books, The Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, Amazon reviewers . . . etc., just to scratch the surface of available book reviewers/recommenders who are not your local bookstore employees. Sure, those print outfits don’t offer the personalized recommendations that bookstore employees do. And there are terrible people who will chat with an independent bookstore employee for half an hour only to scurry on home to buy the book for a cheaper price online. The same goes for taking advantage of a bookstore’s invitation to browse. Insofar as bookstores really offer a different and superior experience (browsing, personal attention . . . etc.), why can’t they monetize on it? Can’t bookstores charge to browse, to get personalized recommendations? Such charges can even be refunded if the customers then buy the books from the bookstores, thus solving the gratuitous use problem.
Finally, what about the charge that we should care about bookstores because they are a public good? Because all of us benefit to have them around even if we don’t patronize the stores? I can see this as being true from the point- of-view of authors. Bookstores are probably a good way to advertise your books in addition to/instead of getting a big marketing budget from your publishers. Thus, bookstores probably help authors sell more books. However, how is this service to authors a public good? You wouldn’t usually think of helping somebody make money as a benefit to the local community or to society at large. How about the argument that we should support local bookstores, not because bookstores are special, but because local businesses are good? Local businesses create more jobs? Plow more money back into the communities in which they’re located? I see this as a general argument against trade, and frankly I don’t find it compelling. If buying from Amazon means that some of my money goes to the residents of Nevada, where Amazon has a warehouse, why do I grudge them that? Doesn’t some of the money from the residents of Nevada also go to my community when they buy from Amazon? (A9, an Amazon subsidiary, is located in California.) What if the residents of Nevada also demand that everybody from there also only buy locally? This means that all the stuff that we used to buy and sell to each other, now we have to produce ourselves at greater cost (because if we could’ve produced it more cheaplylocally before, we would’ve done it instead of trading). How is this a benefit? How does social welfare increase if everybody clamors “buy only our stuff”?
In short, although this blog post isn’t short, if you know of other reasons why patronizing your bookstore is the right thing to do, as opposed to a just-my-personal-preference thing, please let me know!
(PS. There are also small outfits that offer both wonderful teas and fabulous customer service. They offer the best of both worlds, if you don’t mind non-face-to-face interactions and have the patience to wait for the Internet deliveries. Of this list, I recommend Floating Leaves Tea, Hojo, and Tula Teas.)