Is the internet a "third place?"

Is the internet a "third place?" This question comes to mind as we deal with the news that a popular independent booksite called Goodreads has just been acquired by Amazon, meaning that what used to be a good source of unbiased reviews and book enthusiasm - a sort of online community - is now controlled by a corporate entity that has no stake at all in the quality of its users' lives and whose goals include putting local stores like ours out of business.

I hear frequently from our loyal customers how much they appreciate the ability to browse real books in our real store and this is always music to my ears. Some wonderful folks are even using online resources to track down the titles that they then come and buy at our store. They understand that the heart of the battle of the independents vs. the evil empire is nothing less than what kind of world we want to create for ourselves and our children.

But lots more happens at BookPeople than simply browsing real books. Yes, we do have real books. Beautiful ones, chosen with care. But we also have real people working here who will really listen to what you say. We have real people reading books for storytime for real tiny children. We have real students defending their MFA theses right here in our store, in front of real professors. We have groups of developmentally disabled people who visit our store regularly to simply sit and enjoy books and to say hello to us. We have parents who have a chance to socialize here and escape those feelings of isolation brought on by the demands of parenting young children. We have a group of old geezers (that's what they call themselves) who gather for conversation several mornings a week and who kindly share their leftover pastries with us. We have incredible art for sale and to enjoy that has been created by real artists from right here.

Every day people share a laugh here at our store, catch up on the news, make a new friend, connect with old friends, learn something new, and discover a new reason for living, face to face, in a way that simply can't be replicated online...think about that next time you decide where to shop. The essentialness of third places (home is first, work/school/church is second, and community gathering places like coffee shops and bookstores are third) in our lives has been proven time and time again. I could cite some academic studies here in support of my point but I'd rather just refer you to the theme song from one of my favorite television shows ever, "Cheers," that declares "you wanna be where everybody knows your name." Without these places life is an unrelenting, impersonal, and unbearable grind. It is time to admit it: the internet is NOT a third place. It will never be a third place. It is at best a distant fourth place. We need to invest ourselves and our dollars in the places where we really live, so that they remain good places to live, forever.

Bare branches, full shelves

February has never been an easy month, at least for me. The snow, great for skiing during the holidays, is cold and icy and used. I usually catch some kind of bug. The garden and farmers market season will never arrive, it seems. I can see why the season that the Christian church calls Lent came about, with the earth conspiring to give us time to be reflective, to be sad, to be sunk in the depths of the gray and the cold and from which pleasures like fine foods, friends, and fun can barely lift us. If ever there is a time to be absorbed in a book, it is February.

Fortunately, we have shelves full of books, along with wonderful events even during the depths of winter to help us make it through. Just this past week we launched two wonderful and very different books, The Last Vispo Anthology edited by Crag Hill, and City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster. Back to back but as different as day and night, these events brought new faces and new energy to the store. Seeing all the forms that poetry takes reminded me of the neverending creative drive that makes the world go round...and seeing a young author, at only her second reading, engage her audience so winningly, reminds me that there is an abundance of literary talent, and great stories being imagined all the time. So there is no reason to fear the end of the book, or the printed word.

So spring will arrive, and February is short. And here at the bookstore we have another harbinger of spring: all the new publishers' catalogs for Spring 2013! New books are arriving all the time, and lately we have been concentrating on the gardening section and the travel section. We've added all the Rick Steves travel guides (yes, every single one), and are bringing in a wide variety of Rough Guides, Lonely Planets, and Moon guides to complement our selection of Eyewitness, Frommer's, and Fodor's. You might be giving up chocolate or social media for Lent but fortunately there's nothing to stop us from planning and dreaming our way through these dark, cold days!

Carol talks briefly about Amazon...

Everyone, we need to talk about this. I was eating breakfast reading yesterday's New York Times as usual when I came across this article and realized what it means.

Amazon continues to lose money or make almost no profit, yet investors continue to support it because they believe that eventually it will "pay off" in a higher stock price.

So, while my employees and I get ready for another day of work making our town as great as it can be, writing checks to the local writers and artists whose works we carry, and for our store to be a bastion of incredible books, independent thought, and cool stuff, people here and all over the country are pouring money into a hole, either buying Amazon stock or shopping at Amazon, believing that the world will be a better place when they've finally managed to put businesses like mine under. Some people aren't aware that this is what they believe or that this is what they are doing. That's why I feel compelled to talk about this.

Listen to what they say:

"Wall Street has always been about promises more than results, and Amazon is always on the verge of converting its overwhelming online presence into buckets of cash."   Strange. At BookPeople, my creditors and vendors need actual cash, not promises. Kind of like the way my customers need actual people to help them find what they want, not algorithms.

"Investors took some time to buy into this idea [that subsidizing higher discounts and free shipping is the 'only reliable way to create lasting value for shareholders']...'Wall Street gets in a kerfuffle when we lower product prices and invest heavily in the future,'" said Jeff Bezos. 

What does he mean, "lasting value" and "invest heavily in the future?" He means destroying the competition. The only way they are going to eventually make buckets of cash is by raising their prices when there is nowhere else for people to shop. It's not safe to raise them yet, after all. Borders is barely in its grave and B&N is still kicking, not to mention the hundreds of lively independent stores with fiercely loyal customers. Keep feeding Amazon, and eventually everyone else - that is, me and BookPeople and all business like mine - will starve. In a fair marketplace, Amazon would be forced to survive on its own merits, without investor support, just like all Main Street businesses have to do.

"Who's going to undercut Amazon? They're only making half a cent on every dollar. Who can run a business at less profit?"   I certainly can't and neither can any other independent business that makes this town and your town the great place that it is. This kind of news can be very discouraging. But just yesterday a customer told me when pre-ordering a book, "I could preorder this on Amazon but I'd rather get it from you." She looked at me a little strangely when I got a little teary-eyed when I thanked her, but that was just yesterday. If that transaction had occurred this morning, she'd be in danger of me leaping over the counter to give her a hug. 

We love our customers!

This was our first holiday season at BookPeople and we had no idea what to expect. We hoped we would be busy but we also hoped we wouldn't be so busy we couldn't do a good job. And, although all the numbers are still getting analyzed, it was obvious throughout the season between Thanksgiving and New Year's that we were very busy, and that the entire Palouse community came out to do their shopping in downtown Moscow and at BookPeople. We are truly grateful for your support. We are also grateful for your patience and good humor during those moments when even two cash registers weren't enough and you had to wait in line. Thank you!

We are proud that most of the time we were able to get your special orders to you in time for Christmas, with a few exceptions that were out of our control. Most of the time we had the books you wanted already in the store. If you didn't know what to get someone on your list we had great suggestions for you.

Thanks to everyone - over 60 people - who bought something for the giving tree recipients. Each of you truly brightened up a child's Christmas.

Thanks to some very helpful customers who gave us immediate feedback on the success of a particular gift item - like "Bird Bingo" - so that we could share that with others.

Finally, a very special thank you to the children's librarians, reading specialists, and other book lovers who volunteered their time at the store during our busiest hours to help keep the shelves looking neat, wrap presents, and most importantly help customers find what they needed. We could never have done it without them!

We are looking forward to our second year of serving you. Although we will be closed on December 30th and 31st for inventory, we will open again on January 1, New Year's Day, because we can't think of a better way to celebrate a new beginning than with a new book.

Giving Tree at BookPeople this holiday season

BookPeople is sponsoring a "giving tree" in conjunction with "Christmas for Kids." On the tree will be tags with the ages and genders of children who would love to receive books for Christmas but whose families can't afford it. We encourage everyone to purchase a book to put under the giving tree; we will wrap them and be sure they get to the children on time. It can be a meaningful family project to choose books for the giving tree together. And, a huge thank you to the girl scout troop under the leadership of Amy Ball who decorated over a hundred lovely, glittery tags for the giving tree.