Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I Buy Local . . . Or At Least I Want To

From the bean of Green Bean.

Like a good little green girl, I checked out a dozen local foods cookbooks from the library a month or so ago. I poured over them, noting recipes, ogling photos, debating whether any of them warranted a purchase.

I finally settled on one. A beautiful and thoughtful cookbook, peppered with old fashioned recipes and tales of long forgotten generations. Then the decision making began.

Do I buy this new or look for it used?

It's fairly easy to find a specific used book these days. Not only does Amazon have a "Used Books" section but Abe's Books is a web site that is entirely dedicated to connecting used books buyers with their books of choice.

Normally, I'm all about second hand. By indulging in used goods, I'm forgoing the guilt that goes with the resources a "first hand" product sucks up. When it comes to books, however, I've been bitten by the Big Box Swindle bug. After swimming through that eye-opening book, I've made an even more concerted effort to support independent bookstores. They are owned by people in our neighborhoods, people who support our schools and city government. Even more, though, independent bookstores shape our culture. They enable new, undiscovered authors to find readers and are responsible for many of the big breaks these authors have enjoyed.

Decision made.

I checked out IndieBound.com, a superb online resource that lets you support your independent bookseller yet comes with all the convenience and selection of Amazon.com. As well as inflated shipping fees . . .

$8.00 to ship one book!?!

Never mind. I logged off. I'll simply pick the book up at an independent bookstore.

Of course, I don't have an independent bookstore in my town. Or the town on either side of me. Or the town on either side of them.

No worries. There is an independent bookstore in my parents' hometown. The next time I paid my parents a visit, I trekked over to the tidy local bookstore, only to find that they don't carry the book that I was looking for.

A weekend getaway to a small coastal town offered another independent bookstore. It's windows boasted organic, seasonal cookbooks, tomes by Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle. This would be the place!

Only it wasn't. That store didn't carry my book either.

Another week passed and an errand took me three towns away to an enormous, independent bookseller. One featured in Big Box Swindle. With great pride, I stepped through the automatic doors. The store was beautiful. Clean. Well stocked. Signs promoting local authors were neatly positioned at the aisle's ends. Certainly, this bookstore would have my well sought after cookbook.

I searched the Cooking section. Quite a selection. Baking. Vegetarian. Ethnic. Seasonal. Hundreds of books. Except the one I was looking for. The one I'd located on that store's site, through IndieBound.com.

I waited in line and asked the cashier. After checking his computer, he apologized. The book was out of stock. He'd happily order it for me and it would arrive in 2-4 days. Well, that would suffice if I lived nearby but I didn't foresee any errand bringing me back down here anytime soon and, as green as it is to buy local, is it just as green to drive out of the way to buy local?

A peek at Amazon put the book at $10.50 under what independent booksellers sell it for plus Amazon offered free shipping. Does supporting local mean that we pay a $18.50 surcharge per $32 cookbook? That we pound the pavement on a number of different storefronts, in search of an item already at our fingertips for a substantial savings? Is that the price of free enterprise? Of keeping new authors writing, our neighbors in business, our communities intact, and our conscience's clean?

I guess it is but I thought buying local would be a simpler choice.

* NOTE: I did end up ordering my book and a copy for my mom through IndieBound.com. Because my order was over $50, the bookstore offered free shipping.


Audrey said...

This is an interesting post, because it's the dilemma I face on a daily basis. While I live in a small college town, there still aren't a tremendous amount of opportunities to buy local on the budget I have, especially when it comes to things like groceries. Items at the local store, as opposed to Kroger or Wal-mart, can cost anywhere from 50 cents to a buck more per item, which adds up to major money at the register.

With the book issue, I've found that my local bookseller can usually order the book I want, so that's normally the route I take. But often times, I've found that the indie booksellers usually stock the more popular stuff, and the harder-to-find items are the ones I see available at the bigger stores, like B&N. And I have trouble bashing Amazon, because that's been the best place for my own book to sell, just because it reaches a much wider audience that way.

Thanks for the post, though. It's the same thing that runs through my head every time I have to make a purchasing decision.

Christina said...

abebooks.com IS independent booksellers (and is owned by Amazon, so I'm not sure why Amazon is running their independent sellers system in addition). I prefer the abebooks interface, because you can limit your hunting area by locality and see where the closest copy is to your location, keeping the shipping impact as low as possible. I actually find it an excellent way to support indie bookshops once I have decided that I want to own a particular book. I do the same thing with the library, and our county system is connected to a statewide interlibrary loan network including all the state universities and many other systems; I've gotten hundreds of books via ILL and only a handful that I couldn't track down.

Farmer's Daughter said...


Very thought provoking. My frustration lately has been with getting books at school. We're only allowed to buy used books from a specific company, but of course they're much cheaper on Amazon. We could get so much more bang for our buck if we were allowed to shop at Amazon, but it's some paperwork issue and they won't accept our purchase orders. Money is tough to come by in a school right now, so it's very frustrating! As you can imagine, a new science textbook can cost up to $100!

When it comes to my personal books, I tend to buy the used books from Amazon. I'll have to check out Abe books, though. Thanks for the tip!

Beany said...

It can be really hard sometimes although I'm surprised that you don't have indie bookstores littering up your town. I have this mental image of the Bay Area being filled with patchouli smelling hippies who ride bikes and eat local food and shop local and protest all big box stores...not sure why.

What I have in abundance is patience and am happy to wait for months for something to come around. I don't know how often you visit your parents, but talking to the indie stores here I've realized that getting what I want when I want means a lot of waiting around. They either have to get enough of purchase order so they can get a good enough deal. Fine by me.

Have you considered opening an indie bookstore?

SusanB said...

Very interesting post. Borders and B&N dominate the book market here. The only local sellers I know (without crossing the bridge to a major city in another state) are used dealers with a limited stock or religious book stores. Since there is no one store that I patronize here, I tend to buy used or new off Amazon.
But the issue applies to all kinds of goods. For some things, I can go to Lowe's and find what I need, or I can go to my local hardware and maybe find what I need, and then if they don't have it, get referred to another local place several towns away etc. and in the end pay more, not counting time and travel.
Or I can buy a part from a local person who tells me right out that I can buy the same part on the internet where it will cost $X but if I want, he'll order it for me at $X+.
Thanks for the post -- it's instructive to see how these things play out for others.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

There was an interesting article in this week's Time Magazine called "Is Amazon Taking Over the Book Business?" (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1904142,00.html)

I was interested to read that publisher's are getting annoyed because Amazon is forcing them to sell books at such low prices - so low that they don't feel like they are profiting. Kind of made me think of Amazon as the Walmart of the book world.

On the other hand, the article shows how Amazon has made it possible for independent publishers to sell their books and for little known books to gain a bigger audience. Very interesting stuff.

Stephanie said...

My local bookstore in my small town in the East Bay will order any book you want to pick up there. It's more expensive than Amazon because you really pay retail price but I think it's worth it to keep them in town. It's so sad that your town doesn't have an independent bookstore, but maybe next time you could call ahead and ask for the store you found to order the book for you?

hillary said...

I can so relate to your thought process. I too go through a similar thought process all the time whether I'm buying a book, a tool or food.

I don't think there is a singular right answer. What is encouraging is the consciousness it is raising amongst us all; encouraging us to think and question. As long as we don't get overwhelmed and stay empowered by our choices I think it's a good thing.

Truffula Mama said...

You've infected me with the Buy Local + Independent bug! At your book review's recommendation, I found Big Box Swindle at the library, and plowed through it. Life hasn't been the same since!

I feel your pain! What you've gone through to to find a book, I've experienced in my quest for a specific pair of shoes. Along the journey, I've had some great customer service experiences, and put a bunch of miles on the car, but the shoes remain elusive. I have one more local shop to try. I'm hoping for success. However, should that trip be a bust, then I'm ordering online.

Deb G said...

I'm lucky in that there are lots of local options in the community I live in (buy local is a huge movement here). Unfortunately, for some types of stores (such as the hardware store) there is only one choice. I think that every type of product that we shop for comes with it's own ethical issues too.

Budget is always the issue that comes up when I talk to friends and co-workers about buying local. My answer, say for a book that I want new, is to wait until I can afford to buy it from my local bookstore. If they don't have it, they order it. And I've made the choice to have less if it means buying local and having it cost more. It's working so far....

Sinclair said...

I encounter the same dilemmas, and tomorow's post on my blog is about this very issue, except with food. Do I not drink coffee because it is not grown within 1000 miles of me, or do I go ahead and drink it because my local coffee shop orders raw beans and roasts locally? I think I have to support the local coffee roaster and still drink coffee. If we all stopped drinking, she would go out of business. Budget is another issue. I support local as much as I can within my budget. But as long as those (grrrr) big boxes exist, they will be cheaper because they have the bulk buying power. I applaud your effort to find the book locally first, and then to support the indie bookseller.

Eco Yogini said...

Wow- I'm so glad that you posted this. I try so hard to buy local- small etc with all purchases, but I LOVE chapters, I love how clean, how easy, how CHEAP it is.

However, I feel (rightly so) a sense of guilt. I understand that paying more is due to no sweat shops, no child labour, fair price etc etc... but sometimes I just can't afford it!

However, this was a nice reminder to get my butt over to the local bookstore just to see if they have anything I might purchase :)

Green Bean said...

Audrey: Glad to know that I am not alone. I agree, too, re Amazon. It is a fine line, isn't it, between supporting locals and supporting businesses that reach a wide audience and allow new authors to sell their books. Thank you for the comment.

Christina: Hmm, I had NO idea that Abe's books is now owned by Amazon (40% according to an article I found on Google). I have never tried limiting locale on Abe's. I'll give it a shot.

Abbie: Textbooks are a whole other issues, aren't they? They are SO expensive new and it sounds like used can be a major hassle. How can we make it easier for our kids to learn and stay within our school budgets!?!

Beany: Um, I'm pretty sure that is Marin county you are thinking of. Or at least that's my vision of Marin County. I live on the Peninsula - on the edge of Silicon Valley. We've only got Borders and B&N around here. Pretty bleak. Actually, I have thought about opening an indie bookstore - briefly, amongst all the other ventures I think of. It could be very cool!

SusanB: YES! This applies to everything. Not just books. I do believe that it is so important to support locally owned and independent businesses but often it is neither convenient nor cheap. Still, it is important to think through these decisions.

Erin: Very interesting article! That complicates things even more. :)

Stephanie: It is sad, very sad, that there is no indie bookstore here. I love the suggestion though to call ahead next time. Now why didn't I think of that?

Truffula: I'm so glad you read Big Box Swindle. What an eye opener, huh?? I really cannot think the same about buying things now. Good luck with your shoes!

Deb: How lucky you are to have so many local options! I do agree that budget seems to be the number one issue for folks right behind convenience. Which is why I wrote this post. These are difficult decisions and, even for someone as dedicated to buying local as me, the price differential and inconvenience do make one think twice. In the end, though, I agree with you. I do think it is worth it to pay more and buy with a clean conscience.

Sinclair: I'll have to go check out your post. I agree on the coffee decision. So many decisions are like this and we just have to muddle through them the best we can, huh?

Yogini: It's a constant struggle, I think, but awareness is the first step. Right? :) Good luck at your local booksellers.

knittingwoman said...

this is a big issue for me too:( books are expensive. I also want to buy the books from my local independent stores but then like you posted, they don't have the book and it will cost a lot more. I buy my calendars each year from independent bookstores. Buying second hand books is really tough in canada, even through abebooks the shipping is horrendous.
At least currently where I live my local public library does buy books that requested, this allows lots of people to enjoy that book even if it isn't on my shelf at home. I know that the graphic novels they purchase are from a local independent comic book store.

ruchi said...

Have you tried Powells.com? Independent bookstore worth supporting and I think their shipping fees aren't bad.

Green Bean said...

knittingwoman: Agreed that the library is the best solution in many cases. And, as you point out, the book then becomes available for others to read.

Ruchi: Good point. I've bought from Powell's in the past and we link to them for all links at The Blogging Bookworm. I guess I should have thought of them though I think the next time, I'll call ahead and order it through the closest local bookstore and try to coordinate pick up with errands.

kale for sale said...

I love the solution you came to. I'm fortunate to have a few remaining independent bookstores in the area but it's not uncommon that they need to order what I want. Generally that's fine but there are those times I want it now and have ended up in sunglasses at a big box place. I think of the few extra bucks I pay at the independent store as the price of having a mainstreet. It's almost like patronizing independent retailers is a luxury which somehow seems wrong. I support the small guys as much as I can and it's just not always possible. Thanks for such good food for thought.


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