The Online Dumbth of Slate’s Attack on Indie Bookstores

Well, it’s an arresting headline, anyway. “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” Farhad Manjoo thunders in Slate, adding “Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.” Manjoo is reacting to “Amazon’s Jungle Logic,” the recent Richard Russo New York Times piece about a nasty promotion by Amazon. The online retailer invited customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores and scan items using an Amazon app, and thus earn a 5% discount on Amazon purchases –A dick move against a struggling industry by a massive retailer not exactly hurting for cash or customers. Russo’s piece includes quotes from author Dennis Lehane, who refers to it as “scorched earth capitalism,” and Stephen King, who calls it “invasive and unfair.” It also outlines some of Amazon’s more notorious dick moves, and defends the humanism and personal service of bookstore culture.

So naturally I was intrigued by Manjoo’s headline. I could understand something like “Personally, I Prefer Shopping Online,” but, “Down with the Economic Menace Posed by that Family Owned Indie Bookstore?” What, Mr. Manjoo? You think I’m hurting myself, authors, and the economy by going for a walk and taking my physical body into Alexander Book Company instead of flattening my middle-aged butt at my desk and browsing the Internet?

You intrigue me sir. Tell me about it.

I should have known. Online it’s all about the hits, and if being stupidly contrarian gets you hits (and it does) online writers will be stupidly contrarian. Farhad Manjoo is engaging here in the kind of classic online dumbth typically found on Internet discussion boards. The reasoning is so bad and the hostility so thick you can practically follow the writer’s line of thought as he types, rereads, and adjusts his arguments.

He starts out with the opening often used by deliberately stupid online contrarians, the old, “I started out agreeing with you, but…” intro:

I was primed to nod in vigorous agreement when I saw novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed taking on Amazon’s thuggish ways…

he says early in his piece. This opening is typically used online in response to op-eds or posts that have morally and factually unassailable arguments. It paints the picture of the contrarian as a serious fellow of goodwill, at first eagerly perusing the article in question, then furrowing his brow, troubled, disappointed and driven – oh so reluctantly – to reveal the serious error other readers might have missed.

And what error is that?

Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores.

Yes, that’s what it says. I had to read it twice before I quite believed it. Manjoo’s problem with the article is that it doesn’t focus on the damage Amazon could do to those brightly lit big box electronic stores. Instead it talks about what it does to much smaller fry, the indie booksellers.

Why is Russo’s defense indie bookstore culture a mistake? Well, as is also typical in such online pieces, the writer’s personal animus on the subject immediately flares into view once he’s gotten the “Honest, I originally agreed with you” pose out of the way. Manjoo describes indie bookstores as inefficient, “mistakenly mythologized,” and “cultish, moldering institutions.” And he is outraged that “Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, ‘doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe’ and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.”

While I agree with Russo, I could see someone defending Amazon and its owner, Bezos, against this charge, and doing so reasonably. A reasonable defense, however, would not include a paragraph ending with the words:

.

..if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him (Bezos) for crushing that precious indie on the corner.

Can’t you almost hear the teeth-grinding sneer behind the words “precious indie on the corner?” Indie bookstores, according to Manjoo, are not just a bygone remnant of a rapidly passing era. No, they are a menace! They must be driven from the marketplace! It is vital, absolutely vital for readers and novelists and publishers that all those booksellers in brick and mortar shops stop taking inventory, shelving books, talking face to face to customers about the latest work by a local author, holding author events, and ringing up purchases. Instead they should go to work hauling merchandise in an Amazon warehouse.

Naturally the next question is, “why?” Why would anyone who cares about books be, not just indifferent, but so relieved at an indie bookstore being driven out of business by Amazon that we would thank Bezos for it? After all, nobody is being forced to go in and browse.

But again, all we get is more of Mamjoo’s personal dislike of indie bookstores. They’re a “frustrating experience,” with “a paltry selection,” “no reliable way to find what you’re looking for,” and a “dubious recommendations engine.” “Your local store recommends what the employees like,” he observes “If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?”

Now, personally I’ve not found indie bookstores frustrating. Personally, I’ve not found their selections “paltry. Personally, I think comparing bookstores to movie theaters is a lousy analogy, and a better parallel is between bookstores and old fashioned video and DVD brick and mortar rental shops. Personally, I’ve gotten some damned good recommendations for movies, not only from from clerks at some indie video stores but from box office people at rep movie theaters. And personally, I prefer getting recommendations from a knowledgeable flesh and blood bookstore clerk in a brick and mortar store to relying on online recommendations that can be skewed by ill-natured, politically driven online campaigns against the author and/or subject matter, and posted by people who often haven’t even read the books in question..

Speaking of “personal,” what I consider the true money quote in the piece comes when Manjoo writes:


A few times a year, my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist—drags me into one of our supposedly sacrosanct neighborhood booksellers…

Ah HAH!

Apparently Manjoo reread that paragraph and became conscious of revealing a little too much, because the next one begins with a slightly conciliatory note: “I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there… That’s fine,” he assures us, forgetting that, a few paragraphs back, he says that indie bookstores should be crushed. “I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.”

To a veteran online reader, the next paragraph is predictable. Again, Manjoo has reread the piece and is aware that he’s still not really offering much for his argument of indie bookstores as cancer on literary culture beyond his own personal issues about indie bookstores. Here is where he hunkers down, looks deep into our eyes and earnestly attempts, person-to-person, to justify those personal issues and convince us they’re important.

What rankles me, though, is the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo, especially when they argue that readers who spurn indies are abandoning some kind of ‘local’ literary culture.

Oh, those indie bookstore users and defenders think they’re soooooooo smart and well educated! How dare Mr. Russo and others “hector” us with their opinion about the importance of indie bookstores to literary culture!

Mind you, I see nothing in Russo’s piece calling for the crushing of Amazon. In fact, he quotes an indie bookstore owner who rather gently observes that “we should be able to coexist civilly in the marketplace,” At worst, Russo attacks that Amazon promotion that Manjoo himself admits was “boneheaded” and makes some interesting predictions about the longterm viability of Amazon as a vendor. There’s not that much ‘tude in that New York Times piece, and certainly nothing that would reasonably antagonize someone into the kind of raw hostility displayed in the Slate piece. What I’m sensing here from Manjoo is a toxic combination of resentment and insecurity towards offline institutions that’s practically endemic on the Internet.

As for what prompted Farhad Manjoo to write this piece, another clue, aside from his crack about his wife, comes early in the piece when he admits,


“(Disclosure: Slate is an Amazon affiliate; when you click on an Amazon link from Slate, the magazine gets a cut of the proceeds from whatever you buy.)”

So, rightly or wrongly, I picture the editors at Slate noting that viral New York Times piece, and feeling, as an Amazon affliliate, they really should say something about it. But who can they get among their writers to defend Amazon?

Wait, one of the editors remembers, wasn’t Farhad complaining again via email the other day about his wife dragging him to Green Apple Books…?

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