Confessions of a mourning consumer: How I killed my local bookstore

Confessions of a mourning consumer: How I killed my local bookstore

Summary: And why I’m now plotting to make Amazon.com my next victim.

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I killed my local bookstore

Yes, I killed my local bookstore.

I live in Andover, Massachusetts, a quaint, church-steepled New England town about 25 miles north of Boston. There are two things you need to know about Andover: It is home to Phillips Academy, one of the nation’s oldest and most elite prep schools, and Andover Bookstore, the country’s second oldest continuously operated bookstore.

The 205-year-old store is the heart of Andover’s cultural community, a gathering place for storytelling, author events, book groups and poetry readings. It’s a place to browse and socialize and sit by the fireplace and nibble on a cookie and read. As one small boy is said to have declared, “This is like a library and a living room together.”

The store’s upper level is devoted to textbooks. Three times a year, students from Phillips Academy (just up the street) gather here to discover — and purchase — their reading assignments for the upcoming trimester. For 200 years, the Andover bookstore has served as the school’s official text book dealer. Until now.

Last month, Phillips switched to an online dealer, instantly wiping out a full 50 percent of the already struggling bookstore’s business. Harsh words have been hurled at the school’s heartless decision, but I think the truth needs to be told:

I killed the Andover Bookstore.

And it was no accident or act of passion, either. This was pre-meditated — a slowly and deliberately executed plot.

Here’s how I did it:

  • In 1996, I ordered my first book from Amazon. (A primer on writing HTML.)

  • In 1997, I started our family’s annual tradition of ordering the latest Harry Potter books from Amazon.uk.

  • By 2000, I was regularly taking my children showrooming to the Andover bookstore. Sometimes we’d buy a book or two. But more often than not, I would tell them that Dad wanted to save some money, so we’d either go to the library or go home and order online.

  • In 2005, I joined Amazon Prime (free two-day shipping!) and launched my annual habit of placing a big December order that took care of much of my holiday shopping.

  • In 2009, I set up my small church as an Amazon Associate. We encouraged members to shop Amazon by clicking through from our church site — adding a few extra dollars to the church’s coffers.

  • By 2012, my son and daughter were saving a few dollars buying their college textbooks from Amazon instead of their respective campus bookstores. Dad had taught them well.

So, why did I do it?

Online shopping was convenient, economical and, well, cool… Over the years, I’m sure I saved a few hundred dollars. It really did seem like a good idea at the time. I’d forgotten that some things are worth paying a bit more for.

Yes, I’m guilty. But I wasn’t thinking clearly. Is it too late to enter an insanity plea? Is it too late to try and make things right?

If I could do it all over again, I’d trudge through the snow, sit by the fire, nibble on a cookie, and spend a few dollars more. I’d buy all my books local.

And from now on, I will. Because I’ve made a decision:

No. More. Amazon. Ever.

Sure, Amazon’s new Firefly-enabled Fire phones can put my next online purchase just a click away from wherever I am and whatever I see, whenever I want anything — but I am saying no more!

No. More. Amazon. Ever.

In fact, why not turn Amazon’s insidious showrooming model on its head?

Here’s my plan: I will continue to do all my book (and other product?) browsing and searching on Amazon. I will continue to add my planned purchases to my shopping cart (or wishlist), and then...THEN… I will export that list to an app. (Is there an app? We need an app. Developers, please contact me.)

This App (let’s call it the “Unamazon App”) will:

  • Review my item’s SKUs;
  • Find the brick and mortars closest to me that stock (or are prepared to order) these items;
  • Optionally, ping these local retailers to initiate the order; and
  • Notify me when items are ready for pickup or (optionally) shipment.

Will this be as cheap and easy — as frictionless — as buying from Amazon? Of course not. But it’s my never-ending quest for cheap and easy — my greed — that got us into this mess in the first place.

Let’s add a little friction back into the buying experience.

Friction can feel good, after all. Without any friction, heck, we’re just floating in space.

Topics: Cloud, Amazon, After Hours

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34 comments
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  • Humorus

    I assume you are being funny. If not, please explain why saving money is considered greedy! is this a New England thing?
    Low_tech
    • Greedy means

      putting your own self's financial gain over the overall good or not caring about the consequences it may hold.

      he's saying by looking to save a couple of dollars he has contributed to the demise of a part of our culture we won't get back.
      jonandkelly
      • Ahh,

        is their a book that lists all the "overall goods"? Or do I get to choose what things I think is an overall good? If I care about the consequences, but still take the action, then I'm not greedy?
        Low_tech
    • This is what killed it

      "sit by the fireplace and nibble on a cookie and read."

      Instead of buying books.
      harvey_rabbit
  • What happened to the store?

    You actually never mentioned if the over 200 years old store has closed or is still in operation?

    I actually never stopped buying local as much as possible but it's getting hard. I'm mostly buying music and non top-40 artists, so more often than not their albums are not in the brick and mortar store and ordering them to the local store is a few weeks while Amazon can get it to my door usually within two to three days (and I'm not even prime customer) without any delivery fee (ask for normal postal delivery).

    It's hard to beat this, but nothing beats walking in a store and looking at stuff with your hands (no digital books or music for me, always physical formats)
    lepoete73
    • It's a trade off

      The Andover Bookstore is still in operation, but its survival prospects are bleak. Most decisions are trade-offs: Opting for lower price, frictionless shopping and faster gratification costs us dearly in community. Balance matters.
      David Grober
      • What was their profit on textbooks?

        If the bookstore was charging, or rather greatly overcharging, students on textbooks just because they had a lock, I don't see much of an issue. This is what happened to one of the bookstores on the UofI campus and it serves them right. It is one thing to pay a "few dollars more", it is another to be taken to the cleaners at almost usury profits.
        Harlon Katz
        • Words

          Usury is something else, and related to the interest charged on a loan being in excess of a legal or cultural norm. Money lending is a supply and demand item: excessive interest rates suggest that borrowers who agree are unable to borrow at a reasonable rate, either through risk, market control, or legality of a situation. As with many forms of high-risk lending, the profits or return on capital is effectively less than the average cost of funds being paid by the borrowers.

          A book store generally applies the same mark-up to all its books. Textbooks have a high suggested retail price, so the cost to the book seller is higher than other classes of books.

          Over in professional services, we liked to have a billing rate at 3.3 times the direct salary cost. We look to spend about $1.60 for each dollar of direct salary for indirect salary and overhead, leaving $0.70 for profit, or in the neighborhood of 27% profit. 27% interest rates would be considered usurious, so you wrote a nonsense phrase.

          The problem here is that a long-standing monopoly has evaporated and a small business is in crisis. Now perhaps the publisher's cost plus the digital intermediaries mark-up means the digital-seller increases customers, revenues and cross-selling opportunities, the students pays less, and perhaps the school picks up some affiliate money. So, I guess, they win. The book-seller, for whom the markup provides money for overhead, loses a good chunk of revenues, and has to reduce costs. Many costs are essentially fixed, such as utilities and rent. Some costs are elastic, and the primary one would be staffing and employee benefits. So, first effect, half the staff is laid-off and maybe folks lose insurance. More winners than losers, so, yay?

          Were the profits at the book-seller excessive? You don't know and I don't know, but one of us seems willing to label and insult on the basis of wild assumptions.

          The book store is not a chain, so the owners are not diversified. Even if cost savings are put in place, the return to the owner is reduced and this is their livelihood. Are you pleased to take pay cuts? I'm not and I've had to because the internet enthusiasm that burst left a glut of commercial property on Los Angeles' Westside in 2001. It essentially killed my employers' company though, thank goodness, the owners we able to sell the business and pay down the debt they incurred to keep employees on payroll as long as they could. The company was bought by a larger company (ironically the owners started their practice to escape when a prior employer was bought out by a clueless corporation) and within four years, everyone from the old firm were out.

          It happens. It may not have happened to you and I hope it doesn't. But, now is the time to have some empathy and to remember no one is an island.
          DannyO_0x98
  • Hi Neighbor

    Cool to see someone so close posting for ZDNet. South Lawrence, Shawsheen neighborhood here. Gonna have to check out that farmers market in-town Saturday.

    Good idea with the app you suggested. I think it is wise to save money on Amazon but noble to want to keep a mom and pop in business, especially one that old. I say, let the moment decide. Sometimes I want instant gratification and if that is the case, willing to pay a bit more. Also, experience is a consideration too. It is just nice sometimes, like you say, to have a cookie and sit by the fire while rewarding that experience with a purchase or two.

    Unfortunately, whether it is books or tech, I find that I risk wasting too much time looking for something locally and that will always bring me right back to Amazon.

    I'll have to share this with the fiancé. She's a Philips Alum. Thanks for posting.
    djmik
    • Howdy, Shawsheen

      We're just down the street from Doctor's Park. Fun fact: Andover Farmer's market was started by a Phillips Academy student. I think the school and town's centuries-old relationship is one of the things threatened by this development.
      David Grober
      • About the App

        I'm not so sure that an api that allows non-store-developers to facilitate access my purchases, even if I'm "protected" with yet another password, is a good idea.

        And were I the store, I sure as heck would keep the cart/wish info available only to me. At the very least, seeing what people are ordering and want would be valuable information to a competitor wanting to make their stocking choices less risky.

        Though, my quibbles here are not provided as a tut-tutting of your sentiment. I like going into bookstores and I hope this is a contraction and not an elimination.
        DannyO_0x98
  • Didn't you watch, "You've Got Mail"?

    Big Box stores have been putting small shops out of business long before the Internet. I think its possible that Alibaba which is going public soon on the NYSE will put Amazon out of business. They are larger and sell more stuff. Some stores will hang on to some extent out there in the real world, but they are unlikely to do well ever again.
    Pokerpoodle
  • Precisely why I got a Nook e-reader instead of a Kindle, David.

    I hope that by patronizing B&N instead of Amazon, it will, in an admittedly small way, help keep the doors of my local B&N open.
    Userama
    • B&N did the same thing

      Do you realize that B&N did the same thing, killing many a local bookstore on its way to dominance prior to Amazon? How can you now justify supporting them? Seems hypocritical.
      Harlon Katz
  • I used amazon to search products and read reviews

    Then I go to local stores and buy it. I don't need to save 2 or 3 dollars to shop online. I get to go out to walk around and see actual people. Again not for everyone specially if they are busy or weather is bad.
    Teco222
    • I'm willing

      to pay a bit more for the convenience of buying locally, bu if the online savings are large, I'll buy online.

      Recently we bought new mattresses, a bed frame, a washing machine and a TV (eldest daughter is getting her own flat).

      We looked in the store, looked online and bought some stuff locally and some on the net. The bed frame was bought locally (same price as online), but the mattresses were bought online (saved over 200 Euros on a 400 Euro order), the washing machine was bought online (70 Euro saving), the TV was bought locally (200 Euro discount and only a few Euros more than online).

      I try to support the local stores where I can, but some things are just easier to get online, or the savings are just too large.
      wright_is
  • Gimme a break

    Books are the one thing one likes to touch, before buying. Granted, I too have bought many books online, but that's only for books I already know about which I cannot easily FIND in the local bookstore. Same, for doggone near everything else I buy online.

    Online, you can SEARCH for what you want. Locally, you have no INVENTORY LIST you can search prior to getting into your car, and going there. So the SIMPLE SOLUTION is for the brick and mortar stores to make available ONLINE, their inventory. Then, I search, buy online FROM THEM, or just get in my car and go there.

    So blame the brick and mortar stores for not entering the 21st century, especially in LA, when it takes an hour to travel a block, seven hours to be back-to-back on the freeway. Worse, for other areas.

    Not to mention, the way these stores are designed. Travel any boulevard on Google Maps Street View, see how hard it is to SEE where the stores are in the large store complexes. Miles and miles of driving to even FIND the store! You have to go online to even find the store!

    So again, blame the bridk and mortar stores for not realizing how hard they make it, to find them and their inventory here in the 21st century. Don't blame Amazon for doing it right.
    brainout
  • Bookstore

    Well, why don't they setup their own online portal so you local folks can shop and pick up a book from them?

    A local customer can search for a book, order it and have it ready for them when they walk into the store.
    THavoc
  • Paper Book

    For me, the biggest shift is away from paper books to e-books.

    Reading them on my tablet is much more convenient for me. I can carry a lot more with me and when it's dark, I don't need an extra light to do my reading too.
    THavoc
    • It might have some advantages

      But nothing beats the feeling of having the paper book in your hands, the smell of paper (even on new books).

      It takes me so long to read a book that I don't care about carrying a many with me, actually I don't carry them with me, I read a couple of chapters every night before I go to bed, so my book is on my night table beside my bed. The rest of the day I'm busy with work, music, TV and movies and don't really think about reading.
      lepoete73