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The case for
A bestselling author has rejected Amazon. Are bookshops bouncing back?
Why would anyone turn down Amazon? It has destroyed the book trade, says Dave Eggers, bestselling author of The Circle. His sequel, The Every, is about a dystopian tech company like Amazon – and he isn’t a fan. He even set up an independent publishing house, McSweeney’s, to compete. “It just didn’t make sense for McSweeney’s to distribute a book about the power of monopolies through a monopoly,” says Eggers.
Is Amazon so bad? Two-thirds of all books sold in the US go through Amazon, at chunky discounts. Matching the e-commerce giant’s discount prices would mean a profit per copy of “just 43 cents” for small booksellers, said American bookshop owner Danny Caine on Twitter in March; if he tried that sort of discount, his store would have to close after six days. Last year one American bookstore closed every week. Even goliaths such as Barnes & Noble have been pulverised by Jeff Bezos’s rapacious expansion.
Haven’t big booksellers always been bullies? Very much so. In 1710 London’s leading booksellers were known as congers: “As a large conger eel is said to devour the small fry, so this united body overpowers young and single traders.” Poet and satirist Alexander Pope praised the book tycoon Jacob Tonson: “a Phaenomenon worth seeing & hearing, Old Jacob Tonson, who is the perfect Image & Likeness of Bayle’s Dictionary.” It was a backhanded compliment: Bayle’s Dictionary was erudite, but also bloated, gossipy and impious. More recently – before Amazon’s rise – Barnes & Noble bashed small traders. Yet Eggers thinks the word’s retreat online is particularly perfidious.
What makes a good bookshop? “The bookstore of my dreams,” says Eggers, is Shakespeare and Company, the Parisian “literary utopia” founded by American socialite Sylvia Beach in the 1920s. James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published there, and it’s where Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound hung out. Allen Ginsberg once stripped naked for a poetry reading. Since 1951 it has hosted more than 30,000 “tumbleweeds” – itinerants who stay in bedbug-infested cots in exchange for a couple of hours of work a day and a promise to spend at least some of their downtime reading and writing. (A one-page autobiography is mandatory.)
Are there other indie utopias? Plenty. The Strand in New York boasts about its “18 miles of books”. It also has the personal touch: every new staff member must pass a book quiz, matching titles such as The Second Sex with their author to prove they can woo challenging customers. Then there’s Livraria Lello in Porto, an opulent tourist hotspot with a spiral staircase that’s said to have inspired frequent customer JK Rowling’s descriptions of Hogwarts. In Venice, the Libreria Acqua Alta keeps books in bathtubs, coracles and even a full-size gondola so that when the acqua alta (Venice’s famous periodic high water) comes, they rise above it.
Floods aside, why are bookshops endangered? They’re doing better than they were a decade ago. In 2012 nearly half of people who read said they did so on e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle. A decade ago, when rioters in London looted high-end jeans and Apple gadgets, WHSmith and Waterstones remained untouched. “If they steal some books, they might actually learn something,” grumbled one Waterstones employee. But in 2019 hedge fund Elliott Management Corporation snapped up the ailing Waterstones and Barnes & Noble. It believed – and still does – that the book business was on the up.
Why? E-reader sales fell and book prices rose. What’s more, customers began to boycott Amazon after troubling headlines such as “Amazon’s Alexa never stops listening to you” and “I’m not a robot: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, gruelling conditions at warehouse”. The anti-Amazon movement is not so much about money as about community, bookshop owner Danny Caine tells The New Yorker. Bookshop.org, which styles itself as a “Rebel Alliance to Amazon’s Empire”, arrived in early 2020. The literary portal redirects readers from the online giant to thousands of grateful independents: “a lifesaver – or at least a shopsaver”, says The Economist. It raised $3.6m for indies in six months. But it hadn’t anticipated the pandemic.
Was that the final nail in the coffin? Quite the reverse. We soon tired of binge-watching Netflix box sets and rediscovered the joys of reading. Book sales in the UK hit an eight-year high in 2020. Publishing house Bloomsbury posted record profits of £19.2m and sales at Shakespeare and Company leapt from 100 books a week to 5,000. Bookshops were used to existential crises, says The Economist, and adapted quickly: “They got a head start in learning to compete with Amazon.”
What had they learnt? Because of Amazon, good independents “have become exceptionally good”, says bookseller James Daunt. The pressure was so extreme that “they’ve had to improve themselves”. Daunt, 57, is one of the internet era’s most successful booksellers – he has opened about 60 bookshops in his three-decade career, every one of them profitable. Elliott recruited him to rescue Waterstones (he did), then Barnes & Noble (he’s working on it). Creating an enticing atmosphere, he says, is his big secret.
If only there was an algorithm for atmosphere “I cannot recall Amazon ever finding a book for me that I didn’t already know I wanted,” says the FT’s Henry Mance. A knowledgeable indie staffer will pluck a book you’ve never heard of from the shelves and give you the faith to read it. Amazon’s recommendations simply don’t match up. “Hamlet? More like Spamlet,” offers one Amazon reviewer. “Have fun reading about an old guy who is very angry at a fish,” says a reviewer of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Ominously, Amazon is now flirting with bricks-and-mortar bookshops. “Amazon killed the bookstore. So it’s opening a bookstore,” says Wired.
Yet the little guy lives on It’s the feel of a book as you browse. It’s the smell. When Google threatened to make all of humanity’s literary works available online, free of charge, in 2004 (it gave up), author John Updike hit back in The New York Times. Books traditionally have edges, he says. “In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets. So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges.”