Yesterday was my day to run around in Williamsburg with the kids and do errands in time to avoid the massive First Night crowds which are even now descending on the ‘burg. We did grocery shopping and haircuts and the library run and the obligatory Baskin-Robbins stop, and as I was climbing wearily back into the van for the drive home, I remembered that we had also meant to stop by Barnes & Noble for a book that Ben couldn’t find at the library. Which would have meant heading back into the center of town. “Ben,” I said, “how about if we just order it from Amazon?”

And so we did, thereby depriving our local bricks-and-mortar store of a sale.

Now, granted, we deprived the Barnes & Noble on Merchants’ Square of a sale, which they probably didn’t even notice in the sea of mocha frappuccinos and Tribe T-shirts sold to holiday tourists. So this doesn’t feel quite as wrong as depriving a hard-working independent bookseller of well-earned revenue. But still.

This morning I was browsing through Publishers Weekly online and read a profile of bookseller Dawn Braasch, which brought me back to the subject again: “There will always be a place for bookstores where you can touch and smell the book” is the article’s tagline. It describes Braasch’s efforts to keep an independent bookstore open in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts:

Braasch has made a number of changes while keeping its identity intact. “I wanted it to be warm and cozy,” she says, “a place where people come and browse. To quote [shopping expert] Paco Underhill, I believe the more people stay in the store, the more they’re going to buy.” Given the economy, Braasch cut back on the number of titles and books, which gives the new store a more open feel. For the first time, there’s extra seating, including some especially designed for kids.

To make it easier to hold author events, Braasch put all the upstairs bookshelves on casters. Even so, she prefers to do fewer events than in years past, when the store had as many as four or five a week. “This summer,” she says, “I kept it to those I thought would draw a big crowd.” She’s also experimenting with other types of gatherings, like an in-store writers group led by Vineyard mystery writer Cynthia Riggs. When it comes to big-name authors, Braasch has begun reaching out to other Island booksellers. This summer, for example, the store partnered with Edgartown Books on a joint reading with Richard Russo for That Old Cape Magic. Bunch of Grapes also co-sponsored a Judy Blume event with the children’s bookstore across the street, Riley’s Reads. “My competition is Amazon,” says Braasch, “not other independent bookstores.”

That doesn’t make me happy, actually. Yeah, I love independent bookstores. I support them. If Williamsburg actually had a real one, I’d shop there. But let me tell you something–when an independent bookseller cuts titles and books, that includes my nonheadliner/never-made-into-a-movie/lightly-promoted titles and books. And when an independent bookseller decides to only invite the big-namers to town, that certainly doesn’t include me.

I’ve posted before about my mixed feelings when it comes to

I’m a fan of As a reader, I find it satisfying that I can search and find almost any title, even out-of-print ones. As a writer, I’m relieved that readers can find me even if their local bookstore doesn’t provide me with shelf space. (Let’s see: John Grisham, Stephenie Meyer, Oprah’s latest selection, me….which one is going to get sent back to the stockroom first?)

As a publisher, I have slightly more mixed feelings: I appreciate the ease with which we can sell through Amazon, although I wish they wouldn’t undercut us QUITE so much in their pricing, and I’m not a big fan of the fees we have to pay in order to keep our books featured in various categories.

I don’t have any conclusion to this post, incidentally. and its competitors are here to stay; publishers and writers need to deal, not whine. Booksellers survive in any way they can. I guess the only decision I make is, as a reader, whether or not ’tis more noble to turn around and drive back to where I can’t find a parking space in order to buy a book from Barnes and Noble, or to go home and order it from That doesn’t sound like much of a moral dilemma; if it were vs. the independent bookseller who’s made a decision to invite only big names and carry big books, it would be a thornier issue.

Showing 11 comments
  • Heather

    I wrestle with this issue every time a want a book that Given’s Bookstore (In Lynchburg) or Inklings (downtown Lynchburg) doesn’t carry. They’d both order it for me, but I can order it less expensively myself. I’ll check with both before I order though. I do love both those stores because they cater to the less well known and the local authors. I know Inklings carries your books. In fact I think I bought a Peace Hill book there. I refuse to feel any guilt over Amazon vs Barnes and Noble, though. I am annoyed with our B&N since they decided to feature a book about the history of S&M porn on the end rack 10 feet outside of the children’s section.

  • dawn

    We have a lovely little independent bookstore here in town and I go in there somewhat regularly (much to my husband’s chagrin). One thing they do to compete is they’ll order books for me without charging shipping. If I plan ahead better, I can give them my business and still get my books 🙂

  • Sligo

    My solution to this situation is to go online to find what I want and then e-mail a local bookstore (the closest one is at least half an hour away, and the big box book stores are two hours away) and ask them to order for me. I do this with almost anything I want to purchase. It does take longer, and it does cost more. But I’m willing to pay the price, because I like browsing in smaller shops, even if I know they won’t have the titles I’m looking for.

    I do this with lots of other items I’d like to purchase but can’t find locally.

  • Beth in New Jersey

    Probably not too many of us wrestle (to this extent, at least) with the moral issues of buying a book. If we do buy books, at all, then the primary question in the transaction is one of convenience: What’s the easiest way to get this book at the best (or most convenient) price?

    My husband and I have given up on the major bookstores near us. Sure, we might go to B & N for a cup of coffee and some conversation before a movie, but we don’t buy books there. Why? Two reasons: (1) the selections; and (2) the prices. IMO, the selection of children’s books at some of these stores is so dark. Where are the classics? We go to all the trouble of getting a sitter for the kids (alright… it’s my mother, but it still takes some nerve to ask her) so we can go on a “Bookstore Date.” Only to find that there isn’t much of what we’re looking for at the bookstore. Secondly, the prices seem high. You’re asking $22.95 for that little, bitty child’s book? Really? Multiply that by the number of children we have, and you’re talking Over-Budget Date. Then I look at hubby and say, “For our next Cheap Date, my dear, we are going to the library.”

    Which brings me to the alternatives to bookstores, namely the public library and online ordering. I ADORE my public library. They almost always buy whatever I suggest. What could be better than that? All the Peace Hill Press products in our local library system are there because I submitted a suggestion for purchase. There is no moral dilemma in this method. Somewhere out there — in a Virginia chicken shed? — a publisher is getting compensated for the labor she put into the product. And the product is purchased by the public, for the public. It can be shared! People who never even heard of The Well-Trained Mind get to log onto the library catalog, type in “home schooling,” and POOF!, discover a new world of learning. That’s what happened to me, years ago — I just stumbled across the first edition of WTM in another library, and the rest is history. IMO, the best place for a book, besides sitting on my shelf, is on the library shelf (and maybe vice versa).

    Back in the comfort of home, I can order from Amazon, or CBD, or Peace Hill Press, or whomever. All without having to find a non-existent parking place. It’s all good.

    Happy New Year!

  • Karen

    I’m always amazed in B&N at how full a store can be of books I don’t want to read. In England the tiny little bookstores where you could hardly turn around — couldn’t if it was winter and you wore a coat — have by far a more vibrant and eclectic selection of books. They have suffered, though, from the inroads of Borders in particular. Even a real institution like Blackwell’s in Oxford, where they have specialists in every hundred year period of literature, has had to turf books out to make room for the obligatory coffee and pastry corner and chairs, in order to compete with the chains that have cafes in-house. Give me the teensy little places where you dig for treasure every time. i wish our culture would learn that bigger is not always better… and that you don’t always need to eat a muffin every time you shop for books.

  • Zee

    I don’t currently live in the US but I rarely purchase from Amazon anymore because of their exorbitant shipping costs. I also rarely buy from the Bricks and mortar store because they charge far to high a price for books in English, plus they have practically a monopoly on the market here. The town where I usually shop in has two bookstores, they are the same company and yet when I needed The Great Gatsby in English for gradschool they didn’t have it and they “couldn’t” order it for me. I now stick to two different online bookstores. That said if I do come across a nice independent bookstore I will buy the books there.

  • Leah

    I try to order from Powells online. They are not as quick or as cheap as amazon, but that way I’m supporting an independent bookstore and their selection is wonderful! I’m in the northwest so it’s quicker for me than it is for people in other areas of the country. As I said their shipping is not as quick as amazon and they charge more.

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    I remember when Barnes & Noble and then Borders opened up. They were so big, with so many books that I hadn’t previously known that I needed. Borders especially impressed me with how many children’s classics they had on the shelves. Alcott and Burnett that I’d never even heard of.

    But the bookstores aren’t like that now. The book selections are sparse and often distasteful. Also, I have so many books already that it is harder for me to find something tempting.

    Living overseas (but with US mail), I am honestly indebted to Amazon. I can have a book in my hands within a week of thinking of ordering it. And you haven’t seen high book prices until you’ve shopped English language books in a foreign bookstore.

    I love the idea of the library. I have also taken to sending customer comments to the military exchange system when they carry homeschool books that I appreciated. In fact they have a number of titles right now from PHP that I complemented them on. This was sent to the national customer service rep and then forwarded to the local exchange. I’m hoping to see more and more related titles.

  • John

    Greetings Mrs. Bauer

    I just discovered your blog via the Amazon bio of you. I would like to thank you for that wonderful book you and your mother wrote called The Well Trained Mind. As a single father coming from a family that didnt value education and a public school system that didnt teach, that book of yours has helped me and my son so much in reconnecting with and exploring our classical heritage. So much of the beauties of the past are now open to us thanks to you. So thank you! And keep up the good work.

    God Bless and Happy New Year!

  • JohnH vs Barns & Noble vs Borders – they’re all big companies, so whomever is cheapest.
    Big company vs independent bookseller who only carries big books – sorry, but I’m going with whomever is cheapest again.
    Big company vs independent bookseller who has row upon row of books stacked to the ceiling, include oddities and rarities? Oh, I’ll be in that independent bookseller’s store any day of the week. Especially if they’re all or mostly used books.

  • amarre

    How about and kindle? 🙂

    Any ideas when your Medieval World will become available?

    Btw, thanks for educating me on world History at 36 years of age… and my family for that matter since we are using your WTM.

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