Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Is It Still Possible to Go Local in an Amazon World?

“Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want."
            --Anna Lappe

$16.70. $17.84.  $27.99.

What would you pay for an item, given these three prices?

The cheapest one, right? The most inexpensive. The purchase that lightens your wallet the least. That's how I usually decide and make a logical consumer choice. Those prices, in order, are the cost for a hardcover copy of the best-selling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy", on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com (shipped or in store) and from one of the last independent bookstores in my part of the world, Wellesley Books, right on Central Street, in the village, as locals call it.

I faced that choice recently when folks from the community I serve decided to read and study "...Elegy". I dutifully took everyone's orders and then...well, where to buy? Online or local?  Next door or from a far away warehouse? Cyber purchase or an up close transaction?

Calculated capitalism tells me to always buy the least expensive book, no questions, no doubts. Our bare knuckles marketplace always rules and so I should reward the bookseller offering the lowest price with my business. At a steep savings of $11.22 a copy at Amazon, the answer should be clear. Sign on to the internet, order with a few keystrokes and two days later the books arrive. No driving to the store. No hunting for a parking space. No scanning the stacks searching for my title. No need to actually visit a bricks and mortar address. It's true that online book sellers can go so cheap by taking a financial loss on "...Elegy" and other best sellers, but who am I to question such a deal?! 

Pick. Click. Read.

I should have picked Amazon. It keeps with my usual book buying habits: from the first of this year until now, I've already purchased 33 books from them! Yes: "My name's John and I am a book-aholic." Except, as you might have guessed, this time I ordered the books from that local bookstore.

It's the "local" in that sentence that finally changed my mind.  Local, as in nearby, owned and operated by neighbors and maybe even friends. Local, as in a real place to shop on a real "Main Street": an actual storefront with a front door and inside, folks who help customers find what they are looking for.  Local, as in a place where authors come to talk about their writing, where children plop down on the floor surrounded by titles, while Mom or Dad or Grandma looks for a good read and bargain hunters scour the basement for used books.  Local, as in sharing community with others, fellow book lovers.  And all right here, not somewhere out "there".

This isn't an anti-Amazon rant. I will still buy lots of stuff and some books, too, from Amazon. It is one of a score of companies that disrupt old business models and have flourished in our new cyber economy in this new century.  Whether it is booking our own travel, or buying anything, or hailing a cab, or connecting in community: every thing about how we humans actually do things in the world is radically changing and very fast too.  To imagine we can turn back this tide of social transformation is fallacy.

Yet still...every time we spend a dollar on a book or a pair of jeans, on a hammer or new shoes online; every time we bypass the downtown for a big box store; every time we dine at a generic chain restaurant, we, as consumers shape the quality of the places, the real places we call home. Going local reminded me I still need a local bookstore for a sacred hour to wander through the books and touch their spines and see those tomes up close and then imagine where these might take me. I need a local downtown cafe that sells locally grown food from the farmer's market. I need a cramped family owned diner where I can be with my brother face to face, and share life and stories and eggs over easy, rye toast on the side.  I need a thrift store or a junk store or an antique store to linger over musty records, used books and ancient posters. And I've actually found a nearby hardware store that's smaller than the state of New Jersey.

These hopes aren't just wistful nostalgia. I'll bet you wince too when you go to a downtown or walk a city street and see closed storefronts and wonder just where the heck are all those local places we once loved, places that defined a place as a place.  Even in 2017, there is something graceful and good we experience when we are connected deeply to communal spaces: town greens and urban squares, places to walk and shop and eat and connect and yes, to spend our dollars.   

To get local, to be local, and to claim "local" as home: that is still priceless.


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