A Future for Independent Bookstores?Jan Heine
About ten years ago, I walked into a small bookstore in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. I saw a beautiful book on motorcycles, and even though I am not particularly interested in motorbikes, I picked up the book. The photography in The Art of the Motorcycle was stunning. I liked it so much that I bought the book. My first thought was: “Wouldn’t it be great to do a similar book on bicycles?” Later I met one of the photographers who had worked on The Art of the Motorcycle and learned that he rode a René Herse. This meeting led to our books The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles and The Competition Bicycle.
Today, this story would be unlikely to happen. Even though Fremont is a vibrant neighborhood, the bookstore no longer exists, because most people buy their books online. Online, I never would have found the motorcycle book, because it is not within the standard profile of what I tend to buy.
A single company, Amazon, now controls almost 50% of the entire U.S. book business. A little while ago, Amazon introduced their new Kindle Fire tablet for digital readers. The new device is sold at a discount, but Amazon plans to make up for that because it “will corral users into a tightly walled garden around Amazon’s content and devices and may secure a new dominance for Amazon as an online retailer and technology company,” as the New York Times noted. The “dominance” enables Amazon to dictate their terms to publishers and others who generate “content.” They pay much less for books than the bookstore in Fremont. And as Amazon publishes more books themselves, there is little to prevent them from steering customers to their books instead of those from other publishers.
Amazon does not only control the book business, but the company is involved in all kinds of other retailing transactions. If you look for bicycle components online, you are likely to end up at Amazon’s web site. “Amazon Fresh” will bring groceries to your house. Even libraries, eager to offer e-books to their readers, have teamed up with Amazon. In the future, when I borrow an e-book from our library, the final checkout will happen at Amazon. Not only does Amazon collect a fee from the library, but it also collects the personal data of library users.
As Amazon inserts itself into more and more of our purchasing and reading, my concern is not only that they are taking their cut every time. More than that, I fear that we are losing our diversity. I will miss the enchanting little bookstores, where I can browse books and discuss them with the owners, rather than obtain computer-generated “recommendations.” I will miss the quirky bike shops that have odd bikes gathering cobwebs under the ceiling and long-obsolete parts in back room drawers. I am glad that many of them still exist, and I hope they will continue to serve us forever, as long as we are willing to bring them our business.
When Bicycle Quarterly Press published our first book, we decided not deal with Amazon. Our books are available only from us directly or through independent bike shops and bookstores. And when you visit them, who knows what other treasures you will find?