I want to start this post out with a disclaimer: I purchase a lot of random crap off Amazon. Shampoo, vacuum filters, plant caddies. And yes, the occasional book. Most often an e-book for my Kindle — an Amazon product I love and adore. It’s small and lightweight and easy to take on the bus. Plus, I can get free library books without leaving my house. SWEET.
I put this disclaimer out there because a lot of writers and readers have rather, erm, passionate views about Amazon. People think it’s either the devil or the Second Coming. Me? I enjoy it as a consumer. I don’t have a ton of opinions on it as a writer, other than the fact that I find some of the publishing work they’re doing to be interesting (and some, perhaps, questionable).
Amazon has another thing going for it: it means I never have to step foot in a store during the holiday season. Crowds tend to stress me out — Christmas crowds? NO THANK YOU. The fact that I can now do ALL my Christmas shop without taking the cat off my lap is a Godsend.
However — this past Saturday, I had to venture out of the house to a physical bookstore. Barnes & Noble, to be specific, the one just a mile away from our house. I had a particular book I wanted to purchase as a gift, and I knew Barnes & Noble had it there at a good price. So I put on my big-girl pants and braved the crazies. And once I was there I figured, well, may as well check some other Christmas shopping off the list. I love gifting books — particularly to kids. I’m totally a pusher, I like to get them hooked on the whole reading habit.
Gifts for the little kids were easy. Then came the challenge — a book for a 13-year-old girl. A 13-year-old girl who happens to be a voracious reader. Which, is great! But it also means that she has read practically everything I can think of. It makes buying a book for her — a book she hopefully hasn’t read — difficult.
(Plus, I’m sorry, but have you SEEN the Young Adult section of a bookstore recently? Vampires. ALL VAMPIRES. Which I have nothing against, in theory, but what if you’re not into vampires? WHAT THEN?)
As I stood there dumbfounded, staring at the Young Adult books before me, a Barnes & Noble employee came up.
“Can I help you find anything?” she said.
Now, my usual response to this question is, “I’m just browsing.” It’s my automatic setting, the default. But this time, I said, “Well, actually… I’m looking for a gift…”
I told the woman my dilemma. She cocked her head to one side, thought for a moment, then said, “Well, let me show you one of my favorites…”
She pulled a book — a very hidden book — off one of the packed shelves. Every Day by David Levithan. I hadn’t heard of it, and told the woman so. “I used to be a middle school and high school librarian,” she explained. “I bought six copies of this book for the school, and it was always checked out. The kids loved it. Kids who didn’t even read, they wanted to talk to me about it.”
She proceeded to describe the book — a brief synopsis of the plot, a bit about the writing style, what a great ending it has. And you could tell how much this woman loved this book. It was special to her — we all have a book like that, don’t we?
So when the employee finished her little speech, I said, “Sold. I bet she’ll really like this one.”
“Make sure you read it, too,” she said. “It really is a great book.”
I left the bookstore buoyant, confident in my purchase and excited about my new discovery. And I realized: an experience like this could never happen on Amazon. Not in a million years. Yes, Amazon has its whole Recommendations system. But let’s be honest — it’s not that great. It doesn’t come CLOSE to a real-live-flesh-and-blood human explaining to you why this is their favorite book. You don’t get the excitement — you don’t get the nuance. You don’t get the connection to another person who also loves books. And that’s really the special thing, the important thing, about a physical bookstore. It brings us book nerds together — and hopefully snags a few new ones in the process.
I’m not going to be abandoning my Amazon purchases — it has its place, its can’t-be-denied convenience. But if you have some Christmas shopping still to do, I’d recommend popping into a bookstore. You never know what book you might find.