As tourists, students, and all-purpose lovers of literature filtered recently in and out of Commonwealth Books, a tiny storefront in Downtown Crossing, along with their random book questions was a surprising amount of chatter about President Obama.
Word had spread about his visit to a Tennessee facility of online behemoth Amazon.com, which was touting plans to hire 7,000 new employees. That news, combined with a recent federal court ruling about e-book pricing that was widely seen as a big win for Amazon, has roiled much of the independent bookselling universe.
In an open letter to Obama, the American Bookseller’s Association said, “For you to highlight Amazon as a job creator strikes us as greatly misguided.” Publishers Weekly was more blunt, posting an article under the headline, “Does President Obama Hate Indie Bookstores?”
For Obama, the timing of the summer flap comes just as the president and his family prepare for their mid-August Martha’s Vineyard vacation, where he is almost sure to make a pilgrimage to the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Tisbury and emerge smiling with a bag full of late summer reading. The family was scheduled to be on the island Aug. 10-18.
“What keeps independent bookstores going, and maybe one of the reasons we don’t outright fear an Amazon.com, is that there are still lots of customers who like to hold a book in their hands and feel it and smell it,” said Bill Johnston, the manager of Commonwealth Books. “You can’t do that online. Plus, there’s a difference between a person recommending a book to you, and an algorithm trying to recommend.”
A few blocks away at Brattle Bookshop, manager Nicole Reiss said that Obama’s public adulation of Amazon was disappointing. But at the same time she acknowledged that even as indepedent booksellers compete with Amazon, they also rely on Amazon to give exposure to some of their rarer, more expensive books and posters.
“We treat the customer who’s buying a $1 book the same as the customer in search of a $100,000 book,” Reiss said. “And even though some of our more expensive items are listed online, on Amazon, the core of our business — books for readers, for lovers of books — comes from people coming to our store.”
Peter Win, assistant manager of Brookline Booksmith, which has been in Coolidge Corner since 1965, said that Obama’s Amazon visit and speech were disheartening.
Early in his speech, which focused mostly on general job creation, Obama lauded Amazon’s volume of business: “So this is something here. I just finished getting a tour of just one little corner of this massive facility — size of 28 football fields. Last year, during the busiest day of the Christmas rush, customers around the world ordered more than 300 items from Amazon every second, and a lot of those traveled through this building.”
But Win added that “locally grown staying power” is what helps his store and others keep going. Win said that on a daily basis patrons drop in and share their stories about how their parents took them to shop at Brookline Booksmith when they were children.
“Often they’re visiting from another state,” he said. “And they drop in to tell us they’ve moved, but that they wanted us to know every time they visit Boston they come in to get a book. That’s great. That is real appreciation of a local store. And if anyone were to ask me what’s the difference, I’d tell them that local support means your dollars stay in your community and help keep your neighborhood moving.”
Wendy Wakefield Ferrin, a children’s book author who calls Cambridge her part-time home, said she understands the frustration of independent booksellers but she also believes there’s room for indie shops and digital giants to coexist even as they compete.
“I have mourned the loss of many a favorite small bookstore but benefitted greatly by technology as an independent publisher and author,” said Ferrin, founding director of The Sope Project, aimed at getting kids to embrace hand washing, and author of “Grandmother’s Alligator.” “In many ways, Amazon leveled the playing field so that talent could rise to the top for those without connections in the industry.”
Of course, Amazon is also looking for ways to extend its own brand like any business, big or small. After it landed an exclusive interview with Obama this week, Amazon released the interview as a free e-book under its Kindle Singles imprint.
That’s an entirely new and growing publishing strategy from Amazon, free, digital-only e-books, that small booksellers simply can’t do anything about, and it reflects Amazon’s expanding vision. That vision appeared to be bolstered last month by a court ruling against Apple Inc. US District Judge Denise Cote found that Apple conspired with five major publishing houses to raise e-book prices and force Amazon to abandon the $9.99 price for most of its ebooks.
Part of the concern for brick-and-mortar booksellers is that Amazon’s relatively fixed e-book prices give even more incentive to increasingly frugal shoppers to defect from local stores where book prices vary widely and give cheaper, electronic book versions a try.
Back at Commonwealth Books, Eric Shoag, a bookseller there, said that the store and its Milk Street annex have maintained steady foot traffic for two decades, thanks to their locations and the eclectic nature of their patrons.
“We get the college students, the tourists, the collectors, and a lot of it has to do with the kind of town Boston is,” Shoag said. “My feeling on what’s trending, in spite of the growth of the Amazons of the world, is stores like ours. In our industry there seems to be a move away from giant chains back to intimate, local, community places. It’s a matter of culture and atmosphere.”
While he was talking, several visitors came in asking for books and, before leaving, they asked to say hello to Dusty.
In the store’s front window, Dusty, an orange tabby cat, lay sleeping. It raised its head only to accept treats and behind-the-ear scratches.
“You can’t get a cat with your books on Amazon,” Johnston said.