Why people buying books from my shop over Amazon gives me hope

Eight years ago, when I opened an independent bookstore in downtown Evanston, I faced a lot of skepticism about its success.

“Print books are going to be replaced by e-books,” the people said.

“You won’t be able to compete with that big-box bookstore just down the street,” people said.

But mostly, to express their skepticism about the whole concept of my physical bookstore, people said only one word: “Amazon”.

And yes, at first we saw Amazon stealing sales from under our noses. People browsed our attractive shelves or chatted with our friendly booksellers about the books we loved, then instead of buying them, they took pictures and said, “Oh, I’ll come back for that later.” But they mostly didn’t, of course. They just ordered these books cheaper on Amazon.

Much of my job over the past eight years has been to stand in front of the register and explain to customers why we ask them to pay “more” for these books than Amazon does, even though what we asking to pay is only the price set by the publisher of the book and printed by the publisher on the cover.

And what I’ve learned from that is that I can dig deeper into my business model versus Amazon’s, and the only impact of that is making my customers’ eyes glaze over.

So I learned, over those eight years, to focus on another explanation. Here are all the things you get from my bookstore when you buy this book from me, I say, you won’t get from Amazon: you get a cozy store in your neighborhood that hosts authors and storytime; who makes suggestions for your 7-year-old; which contains banned books, bestselling books and original books you have never heard of; and this is where we take refuge quietly when it rains or when we are having a bad day. And your community gets a welcoming showcase that helps define who they are.

And despite all that early skepticism, in eight years I have seen many encouraging signs of change.

People haven’t given up on printed books. On the contrary, the percentage of books sold in electronic form stabilized and then decreased.

The big box store down the street closed which increased my traffic.

And now, it’s not uncommon for customers to show us an Amazon wishlist on their phone and say, “I’d rather buy them from you.”

And recently, in the wake of more critical coverage of Amazon’s business practices, more and more people are asking: can I ditch Amazon? Should I boycott Amazon? Unfortunately, their conclusion often seems to be: No. Amazon is just too big. It has tentacles that reach into every aspect of our daily lives, from buying groceries to watching entertainment to sending that handy gift card on someone’s birthday.

What the hell? Amazon will never notice if you stop spending your money with them, so why not just surrender to their market dominance? As with so many overwhelming issues – climate change! Policy! The economy! – one person simply cannot tell the difference.

I do not agree.

I know for a fact that you, personally, can make a difference. While Amazon may not miss the dollars you decide not to spend with them, those same dollars that do come to me make all the difference to my survival.

So every time a customer approaches me, phone in hand, to tell me they’re ordering their Amazon wishlist from me, I can’t help but smile.

This person did not give in to the omnipresence of Amazon.

This person votes with their dollars for the world in which they want to survive.

Nina Barrett is the owner and founder of Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston and the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Amazon on behalf of booksellers.

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