Our Reading Lives

The Financial Pain of Supporting Independent Bookstores

I’ve been writing a lot about the One Book, One New York campaign here at Book Riot. As a seven-year resident in New York and someone who works in education, I’m interested in this campaign and its effects on literacy in the city as a whole. I think community reads are a great idea, especially city-wide ones like this. The prospect of all of New York coming together to read one book is excites me.

But as I mentioned in my first post on the topic, despite the literary togetherness the initiative could inspire, the reason behind it is more unromantic than one might expect. It’s largely economic; the hope is that the campaign will drive up sales in one of the 65 independent bookstores across the five boroughs.

Knowing this, I knew that I couldn’t support the campaign with my voice but not with my wallet. I knew that I had to buy my copy of Americanah, the winning book, at an independent bookstore. And I did not relish that idea.

I have not been a stellar supporter of independent bookstores in the past. The reason, for me, is similarly economic. I was raised to be a shrewd consumer. Why would I pay full price for something that I can get half price or cheaper online? Isn’t the whole point of being a wise spender knowing where to get the best price for things?

I’m also a big fan of ebooks, which similarly threaten the independent bookstore market. This isn’t a post on what makes ebooks superior to physical books or vice versa, but my counter-argument to the anti-ebook crowd is always the same. Wouldn’t someone who really loves books wants to have as many as they can, in whatever format?

I still like buying books for less than list price, and I still like ebooks, but what I didn’t get was the moral consequences of some of my purchasing decisions. Buying cheaply sometimes means lending tacit support to all kinds of ethical issues, from environmental to human rights. I didn’t fully understand the plight of independent bookstores, or the reasons why they were important.

This is partly because I arrived too late to the party. I lived in Brooklyn for seven years and rarely visited BookCourt, the large independent bookstore that was down the street, in favor of a larger retailer in the neighborhood with better prices. I also bought the majority of my books online. By the time I was ready to get “serious” about joining the literary community here, I had just enough time to go to one reading at BookCourt before they announced they were shuttering their doors.

The announcement weighed heavily on me, because I knew I was complicit in BookCourt’s fate. I hadn’t supported them, and took it for granted that they would always be around. Or, more selfishly, that they would be around when I needed them. I never really thought that they needed me, too. It was a palpable loss, and it shook me, but it was too little, too late.

I understand a little more now about why independent bookstores are important. So when it was time to support One Book, One New York, I knew that I had to bite the proverbial bullet and make a purchase at one. I chose Greenlight, but I made the mistake of looking at alternative prices online first. The reality is, for the price of one book at the bookstore, I could buy two to three online. My love of books was at war with my desire to support the local literary community. I made my purchase, a tad reluctantly, but I did feel better for it afterward. It felt like I had fulfilled some economic, citizenly duty.

To be honest, I think there can be a balance struck between being a smart consumer and still supporting independent bookstores. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that balance is, and I know it may take some time to get there. But I’m starting to realize it may take some more personal financial sacrifice on my part, and that’s a reality that is still painful to accept.