June 29, 2007

Gratuitous Literary Posting - Brush With MSM Division

Yesterday evening on the way to the metro, I got stopped by a couple of young ladies with a tape-recorder. They claimed to be doing a story for NPR about the danger to used book stores posed by the growth of on-line vendors such as The Devil's Website and wanted to know my experience and opinion.

Well, it was very hot and I was very tired, so I don't know whether I said anything particularly illuminating beyond noting that I liked both book stores and Amazon. But since I've now chewed on the question and since blogging gives one a kind of virtual do-over opportunity, I thought I'd expand on the topic a bit here.

The fact of the matter is that, at least in my experience, Amazon does not pose a threat to used book stores. The reason for this is that I look to these two outlets for two very different reasons. First off, I never buy used books from Amazon, only new ones. Perhaps it's just a personal twitch, but I'm extremely reluctant to purchase a used book I haven't eyeballed myself first, relying instead on somebody else's assurances as to its quality. The Missus, on the other hand, does buy used books from Amazon. However, she only does so when she's looking for specific titles, usually something associated with her teaching. The point is that neither of us simply browses around on Amazon for used books.

That's where the used book stores come in. You don't go to a UBS with a specific title in mind, you go with a general open-ended expectation, a willingness to just wander about and see what's available. The pleasure of the UBS is in the browsing, the poking around, the stumbling across books you've never heard of before or the unexpected discovery of old favorites you thought were long gone. To me, at any rate, that pleasure cannot (yet) be recreated in on-line shopping because typing in random keywords doesn't have the same fluidity of possibilities as wandering up and down random aisles.

The young ladies also mentioned the "atmosphere" of used book stores, although that - frankly - has less appeal to me. Most of the UBS's I haunt (in Fredericksburg and Charlottesville) tend to be housed in creaky old wooden buildings that smell permanently of must and mold. They're generally staffed either by artsy youths who insist on playing awful retro 60's and 70's music and chatting with their friends about their ennui while they're ringing you up, or else by aging hippies whose body language suggests that they disapprove of that volume of Gen. Sherman's Civil War letters you're buying and believe you'd be better off with some nice Herman Hesse or perhaps a picture book of the world's teas. I don't really mind any of this, but it's not why I go to these stores.

So for me, no real conflict. I buy new books quite often from Amazon (and have no trouble whatever sticking it to the brick and mortar mega-chains like Borders or Books-A-Million). I don't typically visit used book stores any more than four or five times a year, but each time come away with anything between ten and twenty books under my arm.

Whether this is typical of other people, I have no idea.

Posted by Robert at June 29, 2007 10:34 AM | TrackBack

Well! While I certainly like a UBS, there aren't too many in my area, so I'll hit the bookstores at the malls.

But! If I do buy from Amazon, probably 95% of the time I buy used, only to save money. I'll order new if it's a new title (Harry Potter or Diana Gabaldon's books). I have to really want the book if I'm going to buy it new.

That being said, I've always had good luck buying used from Amazon.

Posted by: GroovyVic at June 29, 2007 09:50 AM

While I prefer the fun of 'hunting and gathering' in brick n' mortar UBS, I've bought some specific (used) titles via Amazon.

But come to think of it, don't many UBS sell books via Amazon - and therefore expand their market? I know my used copy of Fowler's Dictionary was sold to me by a UBS through Amazon.

Posted by: Dan at June 29, 2007 10:03 AM

Dan - excellent point, and one I had forgotten. One wonders what percentage of UBS's out there have expanded into this kind of web-marketing.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at June 29, 2007 10:14 AM

Try AbeBooks for used books. An absolute treasure house.

Posted by: Rachel at June 29, 2007 12:06 PM

If I'm getting a used book through Amazon, it almost always is a specific title that I'm looking for, and then mostly it is an out of print book, so no brick & mortar store would have it; even USBs would be hit & miss.

There used to be an independent bookstore here in Toledo that basically shut down when B&N came to town. There was the usual hullabaloo about the evils of chain stores. While there is a point about the price differential, at B&N and Borders, one could sit down in the store with a cup of coffee and pastry and read. The independent store didn't have that.

Powells, in Portland, OR does it right: new & used books, a huge selection, some good discounts, and the ability to aactually sit down for a snack in the store. By itself, Powells almost makes up for the far lefty - hippieness of the town.

Posted by: rbj at June 29, 2007 12:26 PM

I love UBS. I love the way they creak, the way they smell (like books!),the interesting people there who also love used books. But if you want a new bookstore that does it right, try The Tattered Cover in Denver. A new bookstore that looks, smells and feels like a used one, down to the creaky stairs. And it has a place to eat, plus comfy chairs for reading...I could spend months there. (Even a good place to park, at least at the Cherry Creek branch.) However, to find that odd, old title: online searching beats calling bookstores.

Posted by: pnutqueen at June 29, 2007 05:33 PM

My take is pretty much the same as rbj's -- Amazon and UBS' fill two different niches for me. And amen when it comes to Powells.

Posted by: Boy Named Sous at June 30, 2007 06:01 PM