Browse at a Bookstore, Buy at Amazon: The Evil of Showrooming

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Franco Vogt / CORBIS

Corrections appended: Dec. 9, 2011

The original version of this story dealt, in part, with Amazon’s Price Check mobile app, and claimed that the app allowed discounts on books, which it does not. References to the app have been removed. The story also mentioned that the Price Check discount was $5, whereas it’s actually 5%, up to $5, on a maximum of three items.

I am the resident cheer-squad at BookCourt, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill. That means I greet people loudly, ask after their day, and tell them I’m available if they need any help finding a book. After this, I leave them alone, unless they begin to stare into space in that very particular way which signals that they have forgotten the title of whatever it is that they are looking for, at which point I gently inquire again. While I’m leaving them alone, though, I’m also watching them — it’s great fun to watch people browse, and then to start conversations with them about books I adore that they happen to touch.

But sometimes a customer will pick up a book, examine it, maybe read the first few pages, and then casually take a photo of it with their smartphone. At first, because I am a naïve and trusting individual, I thought the customers were just particularly taken with the cover art. But after witnessing the practice a number of times, I realized this was not the case, and that the browsers in question were being sneaky. This, according to New York Times reporter Julie Bosman, is called ‘showrooming’ by some booksellers (though I had never heard that phrase). You could also call it something else — “evil.” The general idea is that customers have started to use the bookstore as a place to handle, but not purchase, merchandise, like a Ferrari dealership, where you don’t actually expect to drive one home off the lot. According to a recent Codex Group survey, 39% of those who purchased a book on Amazon looked at said title in a bricks-and-mortar store first before heading online.

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There is nothing new about booksellers griping about Amazon. My colleagues, at BookCourt and elsewhere, are often faced with customers wondering about the price discrepancy, and we are forced to explain, over and over again, that Amazon is not really interested in selling books, that the books are gateway drugs to larger-ticket items. Now that Amazon is starting to flex its publishing muscle, that may change — they have recruited some truly smart and book-loving people, so I suppose one never knows what the outcome may be.

I acknowledge that most people don’t live within walking distance of a bookstore, let alone an independent, and that for them, Amazon may seem like the best bet. It’s also true that Amazon’s prices are always significantly cheaper, and that we are in a recession, and that the cost of books (especially hardcovers) gets expensive. But that’s not the issue at hand. We’re talking about the people who do live close enough to independent bookstores to stroll their aisles, to pet the book jackets on the shelves, find their online medical assistant programs right there in the bookstore, to sit down on a stool and lose themselves for five minutes or for twenty minutes or for an hour and then come back up for air, shocked to find themselves still in the same place. Because this story is about those people selling the bookstores out for a better deal.

Needless to say, this makes me less than cheery. This makes me want to ask people to check their cellphones at the door, which is crazy, I know. And about those bookstores — those holy, papery pockets of goodness and light — the next time you visit one, especially in these next weeks, buy something, right there on the spot. Chances are, we’ll even talk to you about it, wrap it for you, and send you off with a smile. That’s our job, to put books into your hand and to know that you’ll be happy together. Some things in life are more precious than a five dollar bill.

Emma Straub is a writer and bookseller. Her story collection, Other People We Married, will be published by Riverhead Books in February. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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