Washington Post Columnist Weighs In With 'Who Killed the Bookstore?'

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Earlier this month, the owners of Vertigo Books in College Park, Maryland, announced on the store blog that the indie bookstore would be closing. Many people read Vertigo's "Goodbye" post, including Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher, whose piece about the closure considered the event from the perspective of a reader, book buyer, and community resident -- and included an online readers' poll about customers and indie bookstores.

The post on Vertigo's blog -- with the headline "Goodbye: We are Closing" -- explained Stewart and Warren's decision, noting, "There are many reasons, but basically, not enough people buy books here. We have many loyal customers, just not enough of them, and our cloning experiments have not yielded satisfactory results."

Noting that lost business to Amazon.com had a critical effect on Vertigo's sales, the blog pointed out some important facts about the singular contributions a locally owned retailer makes to a community: "As we have said before, your shopping dollars help create the community you want to live in .... The money you spend with locally owned businesses continues to circulate as we pay employees, buy supplies, and pay taxes that are used to provide basic services to residents." The blog post added that "Amazon and many online retailers contribute nothing financially to our state and local economies, yet [they] suck up an enormous amount of Maryland's shopping dollars and compete heavily" with independent local businesses.

In an April 21 column headlined "Who Killed the Bookstore" (and an earlier online post on the Washington Post's website), Fisher characterized Vertigo's blog post as "not the standard nice-to-have-known-you expression of thanks," and he wrote that it was, rather, "an analysis of what went wrong, and, refreshingly, [was] a forward-looking piece that offers customers discount coupons to use at locally owned small businesses that will still be around -- at least for a while."

The column noted that indie booksellers offer customers the "more intangible benefits" of "relationships -- a real intellectual exchange with staff who can guide you to more fulfilling reading. Community -- readings, author events and book clubs where you might connect with people whose ideas challenge your own. And a sense of place -- something even most gadget-happy folks yearn for."

Fisher also stressed that "Amazon and other online booksellers have an unfair advantage because they still don't charge sales tax -- a government subsidy of online commerce that might have been justified early on in the Web era but now constitutes absurd aid for the most powerful forces in many areas of business."

However, acknowledging that on the same day he wrote the piece on Vertigo he had ordered a book from Amazon.com, Fisher -- who is also a regular customer of Washington's Politics & Prose -- wrote, "when a small business dies, we lose a chunk of ourselves, a piece of the thing we call community, the reason we live wherever we might live."

Looking forward, he noted that "no one wants to subsidize private booksellers, but we could level the playing field and strip the Amazons of the world of the portion of their price advantage that comes from not paying sales taxes." And, from the perspective of a book-buying consumer, Fisher noted, "I like to support local businesses, but I do so mainly when those businesses are well and interestingly enough run that they bring me in on merit. They can be more expensive than the bargain basement of the Web -- but not wildly so. Is that too high a bar to set for businesses run by our neighbors and friends?"

Fisher's online post of the column concluded with a readers' poll, which asked "What's your obligation as a customer to support local bookstores?" As of Thursday, April 23, the results were:

  • Some--if they create an enriching place, I'll pay somewhat higher prices to support them -- 43%
  • Serious--great local bookshops are foundations of community, well worth the price to keep alive -- 31%
  • None--they either win me over on price and service or they deserve to die -- 12%
  • Don't know--locally-owned bookstores already vanished from where I live -- 12%