Tim Challies Christian Blog and Commentary

Goodbye Local Christian Bookstore

Farhad Manjoo recently wrote a provocative article for Slate in which he argued that we shouldn’t support our local independent bookstores. According to Manjoo, “buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.” Those are fighting words!

You may have heard of Amazon’s recent promotion. If you walked into a retail outlet and used Amazon’s app to buy that product through Amazon, they would give you a 5 percent discount. That was good for Amazon, but bad for everyone else—especially the salesperson who used some of his time to tell you all about that product. Not surprisingly, this promotion generated a lot of anger.

This caught Manjoo’s attention and got him thinking about local bookstores. He looks at a New York Timesop-ed penned by Richard Russo and says this:

Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores. Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, “doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.”

Manjoo goes on to show how much Amazon has done for readers, writers and publishers: “As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books. … Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?” 

As Manjoo continues his article he says that what really rankles him “is the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo, especially when they argue that readers who spurn indies are abandoning some kind of ‘local’ literary culture.” And it is true. While a local bookstore exists in a local culture, most of the money they take from the community goes to authors and publishers who live far away. These stores are local in one sense, but very distant in another.

Let me tell you why I am writing about this topic. I regularly receive emails rebuking me for supporting Amazon by pointing readers there after I review a book. Sometimes I receive emails rebuking me for supporting any online retailer, whether that is Amazon or a Christian ecommerce bookstore. According to the people who write me, I ought to point readers to their local, community bookstores. But I am not convinced that there is an “ought” in this situation—that one option is morally superior to the other. 

There is a parallel when it comes to Christian bookstores—that we who spurn local Christian bookstores are abandoning not just a local business, but a local Christian business. What applies to independent bookstores would seem to apply doubly to Christian bookstores. The question is, should I feel a kind of obligation to support my local Christian bookstore by shopping there?

Speaking personally, I have long since stopped shopping at the nearby Christian bookstore. They almost never have the books I want and even if they did, I would pay quite a bit for them and spend a lot of time driving there and back. And then there’s the fact that so much of what they carry is junk—not just trinkets and toys, but material that is opposed to sound doctrine. The last time I went to a Christian bookstore there was a section for Roman Catholics and a section for people who need their fix of Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn. And I thought, “This is no more Christian than Amazon.” In fact, I think it is actually worse; under the banner of “Christian” things are being sold that claim to be Christian but are deceptively anti-Christian. That may have been the moment I realized that I felt no obligation to support that business.

Let me be brutally honest: Visiting a local Christian bookstore feels like visiting a has-been business (as is the case with pretty much any other bookstore). The whole publishing industry is changing and the little family-owned Christian bookstore seems to be increasingly obsolete. And at least as it pertains to me, I don’t think I will lose anything when the last local Christian bookstore has closed its doors. I feel guilty saying that and I truly feel for the people who own those stores. But unless they can radically change what they do and how they do it, I don’t see most of them making it in this new world.

But having said that, I am very willing to be told that I am wrong and very willing to be told why I need to make a habit of regularly visiting my local store. I guess what I am saying is that the only reason I would visit a local Christian bookstore is because of that “ought.” Otherwise I will just shop online where it is more convenient and more cost effective and where I can get any book I want.

I’d be interested in hearing from you. Do you still visit your local Christian bookstore? Do you feel like you should?