I paid more for a book this week than I needed to, and that choice matters a lot to the local economy. Small-business owners live and die on the outcome of such consumer decisions.
Here’s the story: I would like to read Robert Kagan’s new book, “The Jungle Grows Back,” which became available in print a few days ago. Nowadays, in the digital age, my buying options are greater than they were a generation ago. I could buy the book from online giant Amazon for about $15 and it would arrive in two days — after factoring in shipping or membership fees, the total cost would be about $18. Or I might buy it from a bookstore behemoth like Barnes & Noble, where I could get a 10 percent discount because the book is a new hardcover, and take advantage of their online ordering and warehouse system that makes delivery free to the store — the cost there would be around $21. The book might even be available at a local big box retailer, like Target or Costco, at a steep discount (in limited quantities of course: “While supplies last!”), and may cost less than more straightforward booksellers. I’ve purchased books from all these places before, and there’s nothing wrong with any of them. They’re solid businesses.
But this time (and as a general rule), I ordered Kagan’s book through a local bookstore. This will likely cost me about $25, after tax, which makes for an additional $3 to $7 for the book, and they had to order it, so I’ll wait a few extra days.
Why would anyone pay more and wait longer for the same book? The answer typically drives economists mad, bedeviled by the human factors that cloud what might otherwise be a more “rational” decision in favor of the cheapest good available.
But when it comes down to it, it’s as simple as this: I like this bookstore and want to support their business. While some local businesses have no serious or significant online competition (think mechanics or massage therapists), booksellers have faced ferocious competition from online sellers and enormous corporate competitors for quite some time.
Of course, this is America, and we’re capitalists, so we naturally see this competition as good.
But sometimes it’s a wonder that the little guy or gal ever makes it. Yet, several of these places have, for many years. Why?
As far as I can tell, as a weekly patron of local bookshops for quite some time, the difference is the people that work there. They love books and people that love books and they show it, which is probably the simplest formula for bookselling success. I bring my two young daughters into small, independent bookstores all the time, and as rowdy as they get, the booksellers are always welcoming and warm and kind and don’t mind the two yellow-haired-terrors streaking through the stacks. So we keep going back.
Recently, we found a beautifully illustrated children’s book in the used section of a local shop that sells a lot of first-rate second-hand books — of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The publisher paired Guthrie’s immortal lyrics with a montage of the most wonderful scenes of American life (and yes, they included some majestic purplish mountains).
Now, instead of reading before bedtime, these nights, we sing our bedtime stories (“As I was walking that ribbon of highway, I saw above me that endless skyway…”). My daughters are little sponges right now, and that they look forward to a nightly dose of poetry and prose is important and immensely gratifying.
As a result, I’ve come to care about local bookstores. They’ve invested in my family’s future, and so it seems natural that I would invest in them.
Someone will point out that I’m lucky to be able to part with that extra $7, and I am.
But I also know that the ruthless math of the digital economy isn’t going away anytime soon. For a local business to survive such a tsunami, they have to master this customer experience and replicate it enough times to stay afloat.
Local shop owners looking for tips should hoof it to a local bookstore. If they can handle my daughters with a smile, they can handle just about anything—even a few questions.
Major ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Poin. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.