Bookstores vs. Amazon: Does it really matter where you buy your holiday gifts?
My proudest moment as an aunt—possibly as a human—is arriving at my mom’s house for a recent family weekend and overhearing my six-year-old nephew say to his little brother, “Aunt Kerry is here! That means it’s time for books.”
My nephews know I will always bring books when I come to visit. So do my friends. Books are my favorite gifts for my people. If you’re reading this newsletter, books are probably your gifts for your people, too. And, therefore, you are well aware of how tricky this can get living in a rural community like ours, where book-buying options are limited. Especially with the holidays coming up, maybe you have been wondering, as I have: Can’t I just order from Amazon and call it a day?
I spent some time this month reading articles and talking to booksellers, trying to figure out if where we shop for books really matters. And I came away with a clear answer: Yes, it matters quite a lot. No, we shouldn’t shop for books at Amazon.
Here’s what I learned about why it’s worth it to spend your holiday dollars at local, independent bookstores today, on Indies First Saturday, and throughout the season (even when it takes a little extra effort):
Browseabout Books, Rehoboth Beach
Buying Indie Is Better for Authors “If independent bookstores disappeared, authors would be screwed,” Dennis Johnson, co-founder and publisher of Melville House bookstore and press, told the New York Times in 2021. Journalist William Deresiewicz agrees. His 2020 book Death of the Artist, which examines the impact of technology on the arts, explains why:
Amazon’s online distribution model has changed two critical elements of bookselling. First, their famous algorithm, which recommends titles, narrows the diversity of books online shoppers see. Second, Amazon is willing to sell books at a loss in order to dominate the market. The result is that a handful of super-famous writers benefit from exposure and volume, but everyone else suffers. Deresiewicz points at stats from the Authors’ Guild, who reported a 30 percent drop in the writing income of American authors from 2009 to 2015. It used to be tough to make a living as a writer, he says. Now, it’s almost impossible.
Indie bookstores resist those forces by hand-selling titles staff are passionate about and promoting authors through events. Though authors get paid pretty much the same no matter where their book is sold, most books have a better chance of ever being sold at all through an independent bookstore. “If you want to support debut authors, or mid-list authors, or certain voices, those books are going to be more apparent in an independent bookstore,” Allison Hill, CEO of American Booksellers Association (ABA), told the New York Times.
Buying Indie Is Better for the Publishing Industry Publishers have always had to produce a few big hits in order to fund the rest of their list, but recently, focus on best-sellers has increased as Amazon’s low-cost model has eaten into publisher profits. The fear among many in the industry is that houses will eventually publish only “safe bets,” rather than taking risks on new and diverse voices.
Indie bookstores support diversity by taking chances on small, independent, and university presses. “We love supporting small presses and first-time novelists,” Susan Kehoe, owner of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, told me. “If someone on our staff falls in love with a little-known title or author, we can sell hundreds of copies of a book.”
Mickie Meinhardt, owner of The Buzzed Word in Ocean City, elaborated. “Indie bookstore are indispensable to keeping the industry diverse and progressing because they are built on personal recommendations by sellers who are not beholden to the ‘safe’ agenda. They are champions of what they love, which can range across the book spectrum,” she explained over email. “At the Buzzed Word, that means women writers, writers of color, queer writers, and translated literature. It means fantasy series and manga alongside National Book Award–winning fiction and memoir. Without these dedicated booksellers championing othered voices, the industry—and the books on offer—would be very homogenous indeed.”
Buying Indie Is Better for Our Local Communities Any book lover will happily list off the many ways bookstores have enriched our lives: they inspire us with beautiful spaces, they introduce us to favorite authors and stories, they create occasions to gather and discuss what we’re reading with friends and neighbors. As Jinny Amundson, co-owner of Old Fox Books in Annapolis, put it to me, “A community bookstore shares a collective memory in the minds and hearts of its customers—the smells, and sounds, and how it made them feel. That memory is powerful and long-lasting.” But ABA CEO Allison Hill points out that there is a practical benefit of supporting indie bookshops, as well. “Approximately 29% of all revenue at independent bookstores immediately recirculates in the local economy, versus only 6% when consumers shop on Amazon,” she told me in an email interview. The owners and booksellers care about the community because “they are the community, so they are in tune with, and responsive to, the community’s needs.” The more we put in, the more we get back.
Old Fox Books, Annapolis
Where To Shop Indie from the Eastern Shore In short, a good bookstore is more than just a place to buy a book. The bookstores I love create a welcoming space for all kinds of customers, authentically engage their community, and foster conversations around the books they’re excited about. If, like me, you’re convinced that it’s worth the extra effort to place an order from an indie bookshop for your holiday gifts, here are my recs for bookstores on or near the Shore that tick all those boxes—plus one good online option (that’s not Amazon).
Browseabout Books, Rehoboth Beach 302-226-2665 “Browseabout has been a part of the local Rehoboth Beach scene for nearly 50 years. We hire locally, we support local authors and publishers, and we give generously to local nonprofits. We literally exist to serve our community of year-round customers and summer visitors.”--Susan Kehoe, Owner
The Buzzed Word, Ocean City 410-520-4542 “We are entirely queer-women-owned and -run, which is a huge point of pride, and have become known as a queer space in the area. We also heavily center writers of color and have heard many times from visitors of color that they are very glad to see themselves represented in such quantity here. I think we are part of a small sea change happening in this town, helping push it to a more contemporary cultural attitude. Or trying to!”--Mickie Meinhardt, Owner
Old Fox Books, Annapolis 410-337-2966 “What it comes down to is that your indie bookstore is a friend. I know that sounds corny, but it's actually the truth. You can talk to us on the phone, we'll respond to emails, and we'll listen to your stories—the ones you've read and are reading, and the one you're living at the moment. Amazon can't do that. Connecting to others is powerful and long-lasting.”--Jinny Amundson, Co-Owner BONUS: Bookshop.org Amundson recommends Bookshop.org if you want to support local but prefer to shop online, as the site allows you to “find” your favorite indie bookstore and shop from its site. “The profit margins for the shop are smaller, but it's a game changer for those small indies that can't afford huge e-commerce sites on their own. The rise in usership on the site also adds more data and analytics for the publishing companies,” she says. Bookshop.org is offering free shipping on all orders Black Friday through Cyber Monday this year.
Editor's Note: The Eastern Shore has a bounty of fantastic used bookstores, which I don’t include in this list. With holiday shopping and gift-giving in mind, all the shops mentioned here specialize in new titles, are able to place special orders for books not in stock, and take advance orders online and/or via phone or email for pick-up in store. Word to the wise: as COVID continues to disrupt supply chains, booksellers are suggesting you shop early this season.
Also, though too far away to be included in this particular round-up, I want to make a special mention of the fantastic Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, which is reimagining the traditional bookstore as a cultural center and inclusive public space with extensive outdoor gardens, open seven days a week. Shore Lit has been very fortunate to partner with them on book sales for our author events when our local shops haven’t had the bandwidth to participate.
Front Porch Orchestra's Bluegrass Nutcracker returns for three local shows this year
What Else I'm Looking Forward to on the Shore this Month:
Front Porch Orchestra’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s score swaps traditional instruments for banjos, fiddles, mandolins, and guitars. It was my favorite holiday-season event last year and it’s back for three local performances.
New Year’s Eve Party @ The Buzzed Word, Ocean City 5:00 to midnight Saturday, December 31 Free A queer- and BIPOC-focused book store that’s also a natural wine shop—I love this spot. The night’s theme is “disco-glam." Dress up and ring in the new year with your fellow INTJs.
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