The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A cashless bookstore opened in Bethesda. I won’t be shopping there.

People gather outside the Barnes & Noble in downtown Bethesda in 2016.
People gather outside the Barnes & Noble in downtown Bethesda in 2016. (The Washington Post)
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Deborah Vollmer is a longtime resident of the Town of Chevy Chase.

First, there were the independent bookstores, and they were everywhere — selling new or used books. One could take one’s time browsing, and in the process encounter neighbors doing the same. It was a pleasant way of spending a Saturday afternoon — socializing, occasionally finding that treasure of a book to take home and savor. I remember a secondhand book shop in Bethesda that was home to a cat or two, always ready to be petted.

Most of the independent stores are gone now, and certainly all have left downtown Bethesda. People had mixed feelings when Barnes & Noble arrived in Bethesda. It was one of the large chain stores. But it had, in addition to a wide selection of books, a comfortable Starbucks cafe area. Over time, Barnes & Noble came to be seen as a true community gathering place. You could buy the latest electronic devices if that was your inclination, or books in hardcover or paperback. You could use your credit card or pay cash to make purchases. Many Bethesda area residents were saddened when the news began to circulate that Barnes & Noble’s days were numbered. Now that it is gone, I miss having a bookstore which also served as a community gathering place.

Now, Amazon has opened a brick-and-mortar bookstore in downtown Bethesda, and I am not thrilled. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Post.) One reason is that there is no cafe area, as there was in Barnes & Noble. But the biggest reason I am profoundly disappointed is that the new Amazon store does not accept cash. I refuse to use a credit card to pay for small purchases, such as books. I prefer to use cash.

Much has been written about the “unbanked” — people who are too poor to afford a credit card or a debit card and who don’t have a smartphone. No-cash policies are discriminatory against people of low income. In Massachusetts, it is illegal for retail establishments to discriminate against cash-paying customers. Several lawmakers in the District are thinking of adopting similar legislation. Some of us here in Maryland are lobbying our elected representatives in Annapolis to have similar legislation adopted in Maryland.

I am not a person of low income. I do have a credit card, and I occasionally use it. But it is my choice, for lifestyle and money management reasons, to use my credit card only for large purchases. I have decided not to own or use a smartphone, which means that I cannot use “apps” to make purchases.

For all their convenience, credit cards do come with problems. There are privacy concerns, because credit card purchases can be tracked. There are risks that those using credit cards may become victims of identity theft. And a cashless economy is dependent on functioning computers and uninterrupted power sources. Computers can be hacked, and power outages occur. In these circumstances, a cashless economy simply won’t function.

I refuse to do business with any restaurant or other retail establishment that refuses to accept cash. I used to enjoy occasionally buying a salad at Sweetgreen. But when the Sweetgreen in Bethesda went cashless, it lost me as a customer. I miss their salads.

My decision not to patronize stores that discriminate against cash-paying customers means that the only bookstore in downtown Bethesda will not be getting my business. In refusing to patronize such businesses, I am standing up for the unbanked who can’t afford credit cards or smartphones — and also for people like me who simply choose to use cash.

The writer is a longtime resident of the Town of Chevy Chase.

Read more:

Bethany McLean: Is it time to do away with cash?

Scott Kratz: There’s plenty we can do about displacement in D.C.

Susan Coll: A search-and-rescue mission at the bookstore