Our Reading Lives

The Financial Pain of Supporting Independent Bookstores

Matt Grant

Staff Writer

Matt Grant is a Brooklyn-based writer, reader, and pop culture enthusiast. In addition to BookRiot, he is a staff writer at LitHub, where he writes about book news. Matt's work has appeared in Longreads, The Brooklyn Rail, Tor.com, Huffpost, and more. You can follow him online at www.mattgrantwriter.com or on Twitter: @mattgrantwriter

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.