Is there any rational reason to buy books locally? — July 15, 2012

Is there any rational reason to buy books locally?

There’s a good argument against buying books locally. Consider my beloved local bookstore, the Harvard Book Store. I buy books from them, and I pay a premium to do so — happily, I might add. But a large part of my brain knows that this is irrational. If I want a book, why not buy it where it’s cheapest? It’s one thing to buy something local that is legitimately local and can’t be made by anyone else — for instance, cocktails from Drink or food from Craigie On Main or produce from a CSA that supports local farmers or ice cream from Toscanini’s. Books aren’t at all like that; they’re not local, and a large chunk of my book dollar is going to publishers in New York City. Why not take every penny that I spend at the Harvard Book Store and instead donate it to my local library? Or buy the books on Amazon?

Three answers come to mind:

1. Local bookstores support new authors in a way that Amazon does not. I don’t think there’s much evidence for this, though I’d be glad to hear it if there were. And come to think of it: if you spend less on a given book by buying it where it’s cheapest, you can then *buy more books*, including books by upstart authors. So buying from Amazon might, in this sense, be *better* for new authors.

2. The Harvard Book Store brings speakers to the local community, and in general runs author events locally that Amazon does not. True. But in the absence of local bookstores, wouldn’t this happen anyway? Those authors aren’t coming to the HBS out of community altruism; they’re promoting a book. I assume that they’d continue promoting their books even if HBS weren’t there. Authors like Paul Krugman come to Cambridge because they think that the audience here would buy their books. Krugman would likely continue to do so.

3. A general love of local commerce. Sure, no doubt. But that’s not really what we’re arguing. Hollywood Express had a local video store in Central Square in Cambridge, which went out of business because of (among other things) Netflix and YouTube and Hulu and Vimeo. It was an outmoded business model. The Hollywood Express was replaced by Life Alive, a delightful restaurant whose first outpost was in Lowell. An outmoded business was replaced with a business that still makes sense. If local bookstores don’t make sense, replace them with local businesses that do. It’s not as though the alternative to the Harvard Book Store is the Wal-Martization of Cambridge.

But as I said, I spend a good chunk of money at HBS, and I intend to continue to do so, irrationally or not. Anyone want to convince me that it’s actually rational to spend my dollars at HBS rather than spend less money at Amazon and redirect the surplus to other worthy local businesses?

__P.S.__: Writing this out has really made me question whether I *want to* continue spending money at HBS.

__P.P.S.__: My friend Josh, on Facebook, made a good argument in local bookstores’ favor: they, and local cafés, are places where like like-minded people congregate. If you really love books, you’re likely to buy from a local bookstore rather than, say, from a grocery store. And if you love coffee, you’ll go to a place where others who love coffee go. Josh prefers to support the places that support real lovers of the book (and of the cup). I do, too. This seems like an excellent argument in HBS’s favor.

One counterargument is that this is a temporary state of the world, and that the market always wins. People will increasingly be buying their books on e-readers like Kindles, or from Amazon, so as time goes on fewer and fewer book lovers will buy books from places that self-identify as “book lovers’ retailers”. As the community moves elsewhere, these places lose their character.

But of course that’s a ways off, and in the meantime we should support homes for that kind of community.