The course outlines have been passed out, the massive winter boots have been laced and buckled firmly to our feet, and we’ve all managed to go to the bookstore to purchase our texts at the exact same time, despite the extended hours. The winter semester has begun. Lists of textbooks, course packs, novels, and clickers are likely dancing before your eyes as your wallet cowers in fear. If you experience heart palpitations when the total for your books rings up, and you realize ramen noodles are going to be your staple for a little while, then the question of where to purchase your textbooks becomes a little more complicated.
When searching for textbooks at better prices, oftentimes the first thought is hop online to Amazon – usually, the price is lower than that found in a bookstore. However, the monolith of Amazon is beginning to take its toll on bookstores – especially independent ones. These stores suffer financially when corporations like Amazon undercut them in prices. As students who regularly make large purchases of books, it’s crucial for us to make informed decisions regarding whose business we choose to support. However, with tight student budgets, what seems to be a simple solution becomes a dilemma. How do we make a decision between supporting a cultural institution like a local bookstore, and making smart financial decisions? Is it possible to do both?
As a generation remarkably adept with technology, it can be easy to get caught up in the sweep of Ipads, e-readers, and online shopping. However, it’s crucial to recognize the importance of the independent bookstore – especially in a city as culturally rich as Montreal. It is precisely places such as The Word bookstore on Milton, between Durocher and Aylmer, that make Montreal such an interesting place, with so many captivating pages. The Word was opened in 1973 by Adrian and Luci King-Edwards, both of them former students in the English department at McGill. The store was originally in the couple’s living room, until the store next door became available in 1975, and the bookstore was moved there. The Word has been in the space ever since, offering an intimate space for book lovers to browse in peace, and have in-depth conversations with the staff – all of them knowledgeable and unique characters. It is precisely this human connection which makes the store so important to the community. For The Word, the importance is not the bottom line, but rather the experience of helping customers find what they need, introducing them to something new, or simply swapping stories.
For Amazon, the focus is slightly different. The company began in 1994 as an online bookstore, and has since grown by exponential proportions – the website now sells everything from books to pet water fountains, duct tape, and hockey sticks. You name it, they probably sell it – or will in the near future. Amazon is a distribution company, and is able to offer lower prices by cutting out the middleman – while bookstores have to negotiate with distributors, who negotiate with publishers. Amazon simply gets their product directly from publishers, reducing the markup considerably. While everyone enjoys getting a deal, Amazon’s fairly ruthless business tactics have received a lot of flack. In one particularly ballsy move, customers were offered a discount on their next purchase if they went into bookstores and scanned the books they were going to purchase with a price-check app to see how much cheaper the book was on Amazon’s website. This kind of covert corporate espionage further marginalizes places such as The Word. Additionally, the increasing market for e-reading devices, where Amazon also holds a fairly strong customer base as sellers of both an e-reader and e-books, contributes to lower sales in bookstores. This affects both independent stores and chains alike, as the recent closing of Borders, an American chain bookstore, attests. While the independent bookstore is not about the bottom line, they still had overhead costs to cover, and many cultural landmarks have trouble keeping their doors open when they struggle just to pay the rent. I asked a few students to discuss their opinions on the dilemma between supporting local bookstores and keeping to a student budget.
Madeline Larue, an English Literature and Philosophy student, pointed out that websites like Amazon and independent bookstores offer different strengths: “The nice thing about the independent bookstore around here is that they’re convenient. But it’s also really useful to buy all your books in one place like at the McGill bookstore. Though the buyback policy at The Word definwitely attracts more students, and it’s great that they offer used editions of textbooks. In terms of novels, The Word is a lot cooler to browse around. That’s something the internet will never have. There are a lot of unique things you’ll find in an independent bookstore – especially one that has older books and isn’t just selling best sellers. They’re really distinctive that way, in terms of textbooks I don’t know if they’re really ever going to compete. I think they’re value lies elsewhere.”
Vera Qi-Lin, a Management student, feels that for buying textbooks, using an independent bookstore is not realistic: “Especially when it comes to Management textbooks, it’s not even really feasible to go to an independent bookstore. You would never read these books for pleasure. This is only for school; people will never use these books again. You’re not likely to find Option Financing at an independent bookstore.”
Amanda Mostaghimi, also a Management student, agrees: “I feel as though it is important to support independent bookstores, but I definitely just buy the cheapest way I can – either through someone I know who’s taken the course, or the used ones at the bookstore, or even an online version.”
Laura Linden, an English Literature and Theatre student, noted that many of her professors chose to actively support independent bookstores by ordering in the many novels or plays required in her classes at the Word, but that independent bookstores represented something different to her than searching for textbooks: “When I think of independent bookstores, I think of just going in without anything in mind and finding something for pleasure.”
Chris Hartman, a Management student, also felt that Amazon offered different qualities than smaller bookstores, suggesting ways that places like The Word could compete: “One of the ways independent book stores could do more to attract students is by creating more community around the bookstore. They could host a book club, or have certain days for student discounts and senior discounts, as well as having authors come and speak. That’s one thing that a lot of places could do, if they don’t already. It’s tough to draw people to an independent bookstore, especially if you can’t offer a price advantage. Perhaps they could attract students by using it as a way to form study groups, or reading groups, like if you could find everyone who bought the book from your course by agreeing to sign up on a contact list, for example.”
While Amazon continues its bid for world domination the independent bookstore won’t be disappearing anytime soon, if students have anything to say about the matter. Textbooks on a budget are always a concern, and students, including yours truly, will always be on the lookout for the best deal. But one thing that can be agreed upon is that independent bookstores, such as The Word, will always offer something that a company like Amazon can’t – personality and cultural integrity. So the next time you’re feeling a little homesick, you’re looking for a good book, or you want to hear an interesting story – head down to The Word and ask Adrian about the store got started. You won’t be disappointed.