Friday, September 23, 2011

Choosing a bookseller (and books)

As someone who enjoys shopping for and buying books, I struggle with where to spend my money. Movies are an easy decision because the only specialty store for movies I’ve ever seen was Suncoast and it was their lack of knowledge about their product that drove me into Amazon’s loving arms in the first place. I got tired of being told that a movie wasn’t available to buy only to go home and find out from Amazon that it was. But bookstores…

The Twin Cities has a ton of great, independent bookstores and I try to use them as much as possible. It hurts to pay more for the same product I can buy online, but I remind myself that I’m also paying for the knowledge and curation of the staff. And I’m a big fan of forming relationships with people I do a lot of business with. As much as I love Amazon’s customer service, there’s no one for me to talk to when I shop there. Sure, they can generate recommendations based on my purchase history and I can read customer reviews and those things are great. But I can’t have a conversation with an expert about books we both liked.

Though I struggle, I do have one rule that’s served me pretty well. As much as possible, I reward recommendations by purchasing the recommended book at the place where it was recommended. I’m in my local comics shop every week and buy all my single, periodical issues there, but I’ll often buy graphic novels and collected editions from Amazon, especially expensive hardcovers. The exception to that is when someone at the store recommends a book. If they sell me on it, they have the right to my money. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to hit a lot of other independent bookstores to just visit and browse.

Instead, I get my recommendations online. Not directly from Amazon most of the time, but there are a couple of great sites that cover books I’m interested in. Bookgasm is awesome and offers reviews of all sorts of genre books, but one of my favorite features there is Book Whore. I like reading reviews, but Book Whore is great because it’s purely a browsing experience. They just post book covers and short blurbs from the publisher. If I see something I like, it goes on my Amazon Wish List. I’ve started browsing Bookgasm’s reviews the same way; looking first at the cover, then – if I like that – reading the first sentence or two to get a feel for what the book’s about or if it’s any good.

Another great review site for genre books is Calico Reaction by my friend Shara. I still tend to browse covers to help me decide what I want to read more about, but Shara helps with that even further by the way she formats her reviews. She’s always got a clearly marked publisher’s summary of the book right near the top of the review and if I’m still interested I can either read the review (she also lets you know up front whether or not there will be spoilers) or skip to the end for her rating. (I just noticed that she also puts the rating at the top of the page for quicker browsing, but I’ve come to love scrolling down to see what it is if a book’s grabbed my attention that far.) She also has other sections in each review where she reviews the cover art and talks about why she picked the book (she buys most of the books she reviews). It’s an extremely well-done site.

Another great site for finding new things to read is Goodreads. I’ve been on that site for a few years, but they’ve recently made it extremely easy to find new books by introducing a monthly newsletter tailored to your preferences. Since it’s a social site in which you’ve been recording (and rating) your reading choices, it’s easy for them to highlight new books by authors you’ve liked. And if nothing in that list tickles your fancy, they also include new releases in broader genres and categories. From there, it’s just a couple of clicks to the online retailer of your choice.

The problem with making online browsing so easy is that it doesn’t help with the guilt I feel over not supporting more of my local bookstores. But that guilt isn’t entirely external. In other words, I don’t feel guilty just because people tell me I should. I feel guilty because there’s something I love about physical bookstores and I don’t want to see them go away. As Pimp My Novel once pointed out, physical bookstores have some advantages that online retailers can’t replicate: in-store appearances and community events, for example.

One of the things my comics store has done really well – though I haven’t taken enough advantage of it yet – is to build a sense of community with their customers. Even my local Barnes & Noble does a fantastic job of hosting book clubs and writers’ groups, though I haven’t participated in those either. That’s just because I’m busy, but I love knowing that those things exist and I know that they exist in the independent stores as well. Minneapolis has a fantastic mystery bookstore called Once Upon a Crime that always has signings and readings and launch parties going on. I only get to one or two a year, but I’d feel incredibly guilty thinking that I contributed to that store’s hypothetical demise by only shopping Amazon because they have the cheapest deals. If I want to buy a mystery book, I make a point to drive over there.

It’s tough to balance these loyalties and I don’t think I’ve hit on the perfect formula yet, but it’s worth trying to figure out. I’m curious to know what other people do. Do you choose retailers based on price, convenience, community, loyalty, or something else?

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