(…as reported in the [newspaper: New York Times]), it is perhaps appropriate to include a graphic which, while it doesn’t prove anything, is *suggestive*:
“BGP” here is Borders, “AMZN” is of course Amazon, and “BKS” is Barnes & Noble.
Borders’ market cap — the total value of its stock — is $67.1 million. Barnes & Noble’s is $838.49 million. Amazon’s is $55.44 *billion*. Granted, Amazon is not just a bookstore. But these numbers aren’t, I think, all that misleading.
While we’re on the topic of Amazon, it occurred to me the other day: there’s essentially nothing that makes Wal-Mart distasteful while making Amazon desirable. Both try to squeeze their suppliers as much as possible to get the cheapest prices for their customers. Both use their size as a weapon to get those low prices from their suppliers. Both are killing off neighborhood stores; it just happens that Wal-Mart does it rather more obviously than Amazon. Amazon would probably have labor troubles as well, if it had as many low-paid employees as Wal-Mart does.
And yet I buy from Amazon sometimes , while I wouldn’t be caught dead inside a Wal-Mart. This is partly an unconscious class thing: Wal-Mart is associated, among folks in my particular urban milieu (a friend calls us “SWPLs”, from Stuff White People Like), with trashy suburbs and poorer folks. Until recently, it hadn’t consciously occurred to me that that might be the issue, but I think it is.
That said, in both Amazon’s and Wal-Mart’s case we shouldn’t romanticize what came before. Amazon didn’t replace a nation of Harvard Book Stores; it replaced a nation of Barnes & Nobles and Borderses. B&N and Borders may have begun the trend of eliminating local bookstores , but they also eliminated Waldenbooks. Waldenbooks, in turn, had been a K-Mart property since 1984 (according to the Wikipedia). Likewise, Wal-Mart — at least in my limited experience — didn’t replace a nation of shopkeepers; it replaced a nation of K-Marts.
I have no real point here. I’d recommend that you buy books where you enjoy buying books. Everyone’s going to have his own tradeoff between price and localness. My cutoff is around $20: if the same book is $20 cheaper on Amazon, I’m likely to buy it there. I hope there comes a point when my income is such that I don’t pay attention to differences of that magnitude, but I’m not there yet.
Around here, the Harvard Book Store is such an institution, and adds such color to the area, that its disappearance would be an incalculable loss. It’s hard to imagine Harvard Square without that beautiful black-and-gold façade; I hope I never have to imagine it.
A friend suggested a couple years ago that all the damage had been done: the market-share division between Amazon and the rest of the world was about where it was going to settle. I was hopeful then. I’m less hopeful now. Electronic books look like a real killer; Amazon made waves recently when it noted that it sells more electronic books than it does hardcovers (*new* hardcovers, presumably). That market is only going to grow, and there’s no reason to think that the Harvard Book Stores of the world can compete there.
So I’m worried. All I can do is continue to buy local when possible, and hope for the best. I’m lucky to live in a town where a Harvard Book Store is even possible; most places aren’t nearly so lucky. And even the local-bookstore market has thinned dramatically around here in recent years. When Wordsworth, the Harvard Square institution, closed six years ago, its founder bitterly noted:
> “In the 1980s … on Memorial Drive, you’d see people coming out of dorms and heading toward Harvard Square. In the 1990s, what you’d see in the windows of dorms was a Doppler effect of blue lights from computer screens, and you knew students were at their computer, hitting a key to order from Amazon.com. The only reason they’d come out of their dorms was to have Chinese food and mate.”
 — I normally get my books from the library. If I buy new books, I buy them from the Harvard Book Store just up the street. If I buy used books, I buy them off Amazon when they’re significantly cheaper than the Harvard Book Store’s copies. Also, Amazon’s used-book selection is just much better than any local store’s would be, particularly if I’m looking for obscure academic texts; HBS doesn’t carry those at all.
 — Those of us who grew up near Burlington, Vermont remember Chasman & Bem. In retrospect, it was a beautiful bookstore. At the time, I remember the service being terrible. If it were still around, and I still lived in Vermont, I’d be shopping there rather than at the Borders or Barnes & Noble up the street. It’s too late for that, though: Barnes & Noble moving in a couple miles up the street killed them off.
I visited my brother in Boston back in probably 1993 or 1994 and hit up a gorgeous bookstore with him in Faneuil Hall (the last time I actually hung out in Faneuil). I believe that was Waterstone’s, part of a British bookstore chain. It, too, is gone.