Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble

It’s not hard to find people, especially book lovers, who lament the downfall of brick-and-mortar bookstores thanks to the rise to dominance of Amazon.com. I could say “online retailers”, but let’s face it: it’s only Amazon. Barnes & Noble has always been just about my favorite store to go into, look around in, and shop in, but my most recent experience made me extol the virtues of Amazon’s vast selection and ease of shopping even more than I usually do. (I am not one of those people who lament the decline of brick-and-mortar stores, local stores, or any other type of business or industry of any kind, really, because the market must change constantly to meet the new realities of the world, every industry drastically changes over time, and many companies must die for better ones to supplant them. Despite some people’s despair at the bankruptcy of Borders bookstores, I was not particularly sad to see it go; if it wasn’t giving people what they wanted at the prices they wanted, then it represented an inefficient use of resources and would serve humanity better by making way for companies that could better meet the demands of the masses).

I recently had to return a movie that I received two copies of for Christmas, and I chose to return the one that had come from Barnes & Noble because I knew their movies (and CD’s) are all over-priced and that I could get a more valuable store credit from there than wherever the other copy came from. Also I wasn’t planning on exchanging one over-priced movie for another; rather, I was going to buy two or three books with the store credit.

My frustration with Barnes & Noble (and, when you think about it, all brick-and-mortar bookstores) reached a peak when I couldn’t find a single one of the first 12 books I looked for. Going on memory and the Amazon wish list on my phone’s Amazon app, I walked back and forth and all around the fiction & literature section looking for all of these titles, none of which was carried by this particular Barnes & Noble:

A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
Riddle-Master by Patricia McKillip
Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
The History of Danish Dreams by Peter Høeg
Bridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China That Never Was by Barry Hughart
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (I looked under both Bi- and Ca-)
Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Alternate Realities by C.J. Cherryh
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
Blindsight by Peter Watts

(I looked only in the English-language fiction & literature section because I only care about translations of the foreign-language novels, which is obviously why I listed their English titles.)

Every single one of those books has over a dozen to hundreds of reviews at Amazon.com, and I only ever heard about them because they were recommended by others over the internet as fascinating, memorable, unique, must-read, or even life-changing books. In other words, these aren’t just run-of-the-mill novels that I might kind of like to read someday.

They also didn’t carry Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage or the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage in the reference section, although they did carry other usage guides (Chicago and MLA, for example), so up the total number of absent books in a row to 14.

I did eventually find five that I was looking for. Three I didn’t buy: The Brothers K by David James Duncan for $3 or $4 more than Amazon sells it for, Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny for a hell of a lot more than the $5 Amazon is currently selling it for, and A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge for either $3 or $5 more than Amazon is selling it for. I don’t mind Barnes & Noble charging a little more for a book than Amazon, but for a standard mass-market paperback, I think more than a $3 difference is quite high. The two I ended up buying were The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon and Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

In all fairness to Barnes & Noble, if I had really gone into the store with a pre-planned list of books to look for in the order that I wanted them, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union would almost certainly have been number 1, perhaps behind only The Invention of Morel, which Octavio Paz has described as “without exaggeration…a perfect novel”, an extolment many others agree with. It seems to me that any respectable bookstore would carry the English version of this novel.

I probably would only have ended up with two novels in the end anyway, so I’m glad I found the two that I did. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was in the main literature section, although I’ve heard it described as science fiction, so both of these science-fiction novels should be very interesting to read in the near future.

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