how i started to worry about my consumer choices

this is kind of a scary article.

i have never been a fan of amazon. in 1999, i moved from ohio to portland, oregon, & immediately landed a job in the genre room at powell’s books, one of the world’s largest independent bookstores. i headed up the romance, thriller, nautical fiction, & books on tape sections, & eventually took over erotica. in this era of protesting the WTO & anarchist summit-hopping, agitating for local stores versus huge corporate behemoths was a no-brainer. & for me, living in portland & working at one of the best independent bookstores around, it was all too easy to relax upon my high horse & exhort people to shop local.

for over ten years, i did as little business with amazon as i could. which isn’t to say i did no business with them. i definitely ordered things from them, including things i could have gotten at local independent shops. when i got hooked on the harry potter series, i pre-ordered them from amazon instead of standing in line for a midnight release at a local shop. not because there were no local shops doing midnight releases, but because i was just too embarrassed to stand in line with a bunch of little kids. (i did do the midnight release thing for the seventh book. it wasn’t nearly as embarrassing as i expected it to be, although i think jared disagrees, because he just walked me to the bookstore & refused to wait with me.) i bought all ten seasons of “friends” on DVD from amazon, even though i could have purchased them at a local music shop that sold movies. i don’t even have a good excuse for that one. maybe buying from amazon saved me a few dollars. when you’re living on $525 a month (as i was at the time), even $2 or $3 in savings can make a difference.

but since i moved to kansas, my good intentions have gone right out the window. & especially since jared & i started trying to get knocked up. there’s a company called formosa medical that sells unbelievably inexpensive, reliable, bulk pregnancy tests & ovulation tests. a bag of fifty tests costs $15 on amazon.com. by comparison, a box of three generic drugstore tests will cost at least $4–& if you want to get fancy & splurge on a box of five digital pregnancy tests, you’re going to be spending $17 for the privilege. buying cheapo tests on amazon has saved me literally hundreds of dollars–because, trust me, when you have been trying for months on end to get pregnant, no amount of logical thinking & common sense is going to stop you from testing three, five, ten, fifteen times a day. i also console myself with the knowledge that the cheapo tests are tiny slips of paper with no ecologically destructive plastic casing…but amazon’s super saver shipping makes it too easy to start shopping around for a few more items to add to your cart to take that $15 pregnancy test order up to $25 & qualify for free shipping. why not throw in some fancy french bubble bath, or a pair of jeans on sale, or an obscure book about conception that isn’t available at the local library, or a box of typewriter ribbons that i’d have to mail order anyway? this is but a small sampling of things i’ve purchased from amazon in the last year–justifying it by telling myself that i wouldn’t have been able to get these things from a local independent store anyway.

but that doesn’t mean i couldn’t have mail ordered these items from an independent store. maybe i would have spent more for the items in question, or for shipping, & i would have had to piecemeal the orders rather than doing convenient one-stop shopping…what i’m trying to say is that even though i recognize the consumer tricks amazon uses to trick people into spending more money with them (after all, i ran my own business–a zine distro–for seven years & i used some of these same tricks myself), i have fallen for them over & over again.

one thing i haven’t done is purchased an e-reader. don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind. i have severe arthritis in my hands & holding books & magazines is routinely a painful experience for me. i have often wondered if having an e-reader that i can prop on a pillow & only touch to turn the “pages” might save me a lot of stress in the joints of my hands, because i read A LOT. but i haven’t done it. for a lot of reasons. i am really attached to the aesthetics of books. i like page weight, paper quality, the smell of a book. i don’t want to fuss with another electronic device that i’ll have to remember to keep charged. & all the restrictions around e-readers confused the hell out of me. some platforms only let you download books in their stores. it seems like no platform features every book i could ever want to read. for more obscure titles, i’d still have to track down paper copies. i wouldn’t know what to do with titles i didn’t want anymore. you can’t sell a used e-book to a bookstore or pass it off to a friend. i like to read books in the bathtub, which isn’t something i’d chance with an expensive e-reader. & i read dozens upon dozens of books every year from the library. how would that work with an e-reader? i have no interest in shelling out $10-$20 for every book i want to read, when i read well over one hundred books a year.

& add to this the fact that so far there is no small, independent e-reader company. to jump on this bandwagon, i’d inevitably end up supporting a huge corporation. ironically, books are pretty much the one area where i haven’t fallen under amazon’s spell. i don’t judge other people from getting in on the e-reader craze–everyone has their own priorities as a consumer & i recognize that being a paper book hold-out is going to make me something of a dinosaur within the next twenty years. but it really scares me to think that this monumental technological development could totally change the entire culture of publishing & bookselling.

(caveat: this is not a topic about which i know a lot, but i do know that i’m not making any novel critiques here, & that people are working on solutions to a lot of the issues i bring up here. maybe they will be solutions that enable me to go crazy with an e-reader; maybe they will just end up making me commit to paper books even more. i’m just trying to nip any condescending “let me tell you about why e-readers are so awesome” comments in the bud before they start.)

One Comment Add yours

  1. timothy says:

    “i read dozens upon dozens of books every year from the library. how would that work with an e-reader?”

    i don’t have an e-reader and i don’t expect to ever get one. but i do have a smartphone, which i occasionally read books on. i don’t know how the laurence library system works, but here in philly you can take e-books out of the library – there’s a loan period of 21 days, just like a regular book, and then they disappear from your phone. it’s pretty convenient if i want to read a book immediately and don’t want to have to wait for the library to be open, or for the branch that has it to transfer it to my branch. sometimes the library even has e-books that they don’t have paper versions of. (which is so weird.) they have audiobooks too in the same system too but i’ve never checked one of those out.

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