I am a big fan of Amazon.com. It is a great resource for finding recommendations, obscure books, and of course, for getting substantial discounts on the books you buy. Yes, yes, many PF bloggers out there recommend borrowing books from the library rather than buying them, as a method of saving cash, but what can I say? I just love books and don't mind spending the cash to buy them. I keep my books and don't sell them. It gives me pleasure to look at my book shelves and see all the books that I have read over the years. You could call it a hobby, I guess.
Anyway, on with the story. I live on the Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area. In my town there are several independently owned bookstores, all within walking distance from each other. On weekends I often find myself spending a couple of hours in one of these stores, leafing through magazines, browsing the book shelves and generally enjoying the atmosphere. Periodically, I buy something, but more often than not, if I find a book I like I write down its name and later purchase it on Amazon.
A couple of years ago, completely out of the blue, the largest and most established of these independent book stores suddenly announced that it was closing down after 50 years in business. This took the whole community by surprise, since the store is known throughout the area. The reason that was given for the shut down was that owners could simply not make ends meet. Pressed by the large book sellers - such as Barnes and Noble and Borders - on the one hand; discounters such as Wal-Mart, Target and Costco on the other; and of course facing a massive number of customers defecting to Internet book stores such as Amazon, it turns out that there was just not enough business to make things work for an independent book seller.
Getting a book online or at Costco may be substantially cheaper than buying it at your neighborhood independent book store, but I realized that by enjoying my visits to my local store while giving my business to lower cost competitors, I was essentially free-riding. I was enjoying the experience of the independent book store, but not paying for it. When you buy a book at a small neighborhood store there are essentially two elements to the price you are paying. One of them is the cost of the book - that is the price you would pay at Wal-Mart or at Amazon. The other component is the price you pay for the "book store experience". That experience comes at a cost to your neighborhood store, and since the discounters don't offer you that pleasure they can afford to reduce the price of the book.
Let's take this example one step further. Do you know how everybody is complaining that there is no longer such a thing as customer service in America? For example, when you go to Best Buy to buy a computer or a television and ask for advice, typically you get a know-nothing sales person that can barely read the product description from the sticker next to the product. If you need more information, tough luck for you. Well, it turns out that we have only ourselves to blame for this lack of service. Since we always choose the lowest cost product, and choose to not give our business to those retailers that invest in service, those high-service retailers are going the way of the Dodo. Hooray for us, we've saved a couple of more Dollars. Welcome to the desert of no-service. Think about that next time you are on the phone holding for some call center in India for 30 minutes while hearing a recording saying that "your service is very important to us".
Thankfully, in this specific case, there is a happy ending. When the book store announced it was shutting down, the whole community came to help. Private donors and investors quickly stepped-in, and after only a couple of weeks out of business, the store came back from the dead. It is still open and now appears to be doing brisk business. As for me, I have decided to not try to save any more money on my books. I enjoy my Sunday afternoon visits to this store, and am very willing to pay for the pleasure I am getting. I still buy the occasional book on Amazon, but I no longer look for books in the store only to buy them online. You could say that I realized the error of my ways, and have decided to jump off that free ride to no-service land.
This post was inspired by an article I read on MoneyNing yesterday, and although MoneyNing was basically recommending the lowest cost places to get books, I don't hold that againt them... soon they too shall see the light... :-) Seriously, check out MoneyNing, it's a really cool blog.