Marc Fisher: Online Booksellers Speeding Demise of Local Bookstores

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By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It's gotten to the point where even newspaper editors -- hopeless nostalgists that they tend to be -- roll their eyes over yet another Death of a Bookstore story. Like tales about dying newspapers, these love songs to a fleeting era and a sagging technology can be tiresome, both to younger folks who see the new media as a perfectly reasonable and even exciting replacement for what came before and to older folks who have had it with constant reminders that the culture that served them so well is vanishing before their eyes.

So when Bridget Warren and Todd Stewart announced the other day that they are shutting down Vertigo Books after 18 years, first in Dupont Circle and then in College Park, I hesitated to write on this topic. I've rarely met a more passionate and knowledgeable bookseller than Warren, who managed to conduct simultaneous careers as bookshop owner and director of programming for Prince George's County's public libraries, even while acting as unpaid den mother to countless local writers and readers.

What compelled me to risk the wrath of those who've read too many sad stories about shuttered bookshops was the letter Warren and Stewart wrote to their customers. It's not the standard nice-to-have-known-you expression of thanks.

Rather, it's an analysis of what went wrong, and, refreshingly, a forward-looking piece that offers customers discount coupons to use at locally owned small businesses that will still be around -- at least for a while.

The note is frank: "Why are we closing? There are many reasons, but basically, not enough people buy books here." It goes on to argue that "way too many people (not you, but someone you know) are buying their books at Amazon." Your local bookseller cannot compete with the behemoth on price or choice. Rather, the local shop offers more intangible benefits: Relationships -- a real intellectual exchange with staff who can guide you to more fulfilling reading. Community -- readings, author events and book clubs where you might connect with people whose ideas challenge your own. And a sense of place -- something even most gadget-happy folks yearn for.

As Warren and Stewart put it: "Your shopping dollars help create the community you want to live in. . . . The money you spend with locally-owned businesses continues to circulate as we pay employees, buy supplies and pay taxes that are used to provide basic services to residents."

Amazon and other online booksellers have an unfair advantage because they still don't charge sales tax -- a government subsidy of online commerce that might have been justified early on in the Web era but now constitutes absurd aid for the most powerful forces in many areas of business.

Warren and Stewart know online shopping is seductive. So do I: Just an hour before I started writing this post, I ordered a book from Amazon. It was $7 cheaper than it was selling for at the terrific independent bookstore four blocks from my house or at the soulless link in the Borders chain that's also four blocks away. The plain, ugly truth: I ordered online because I couldn't stir myself to get out of my chair, and Amazon offered free shipping.

The previous day, as I often do, I did get up and walk over to Politics & Prose, mainly because I needed to browse through several books before deciding which one suited my need. Other times, I walk over to meet a friend. Usually, if I choose the store over the Web site, it's because I have a motive beyond the quick, easy transaction. Even the most creative booksellers face a huge hurdle if each customer must be lured in via the literary version of bread and circuses.

College Park, Prince George's and all of the Washington area will be the poorer for not having Vertigo Books around after this week. When a small local business dies, we lose a chunk of ourselves, a piece of the thing we call community, the reason we live wherever we might live.

Aside from lamenting such losses, what's to be done? No one wants to subsidize private booksellers, but we could level the playing field and strip the Amazons of the world of the portion of their price advantage that comes from not paying sales taxes.

Then there's the matter of our own behavior as consumers. I like to support local businesses, but I do so mainly when those businesses are well and interestingly enough run that they bring me in on merit. They can be more expensive than the bargain basements of the Web -- but not wildly so. Is that too high a bar to set for businesses run by our neighbors and friends?

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com


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