Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book buying, post-Net

Marc Andreesen is a decade younger, a whole lot bigger, and immensely more wealthy than me, but I share one thing in common. Growing up, neither he nor I had a bookstore nearby. My distance from one was shorter, but it still took a long bike ride, or tagging along with my parents when they went to the one mall for many miles around, to a B.Dalton chain store. If lucky, maybe Vromans in Pasadena.

My experience was about the same as Andreesen. In a New Yorker profile, he tells Tad Friend of his penurious childhood in rural Wisconsin. "He had to drive an hour to find a Waldenbooks, in La Crosse; it was all cookbooks and cat calendars. So he later saw Amazon as a heroic disseminator of knowledge and progress. 'Screw the independent bookstores,' he told me. 'There weren’t any near where I grew up. There were only ones in college towns. The rest of us could go pound sand."

I agree. Vromans has been around since the end of the nineteenth century. While the longest-lasting indie bookstore within a vast region where I grew up, it too has become more of a baked goods-coffee shop-hangout than the "serious" bookstore of my childhood. It used to have one or two branches in malls. One of those malls has long since changed into a mini-Manila shopping center. The other vanished long ago, as did B. Dalton, which in turn took over the local chain, Pickwick, started with its flagship store on Hollywood Boulevard. My mom drove me there when in college I needed a copy of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams; the only copy in the Southland, it turned out, was there, a twenty-dollar illustrated version. I loved it, but I felt bad she had to take me a considerable distance to procure it. Some calls were made, and as with another book I tried a few years later to wrangle around 1990, Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches, on Holland's boom time, even a big publisher and a big title, at least in academia and the book review sections, did not get distributed. I must have rung up two dozen stores before I found one stocking it around L.A.

That was the reality, unless you were near a big college. This week, I wanted a copy of a title from Harvard U.P. The public library did have it, but that was the single copy, and I felt it worth investing in. I rarely buy books compared to my heyday, for reasons of price, lack of space, and budget priorities. But the Net, for all its deprivations, enables either used books to 1) soar in cost to crazy algorithmic figures such as $219.86 or 2) plummet, sometimes at least, to $7.83. I logged on the search aggregator and found David Slavitt's controversial abridged and casually ottava rima version of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso for $11.50. Then I noticed the same description was repeated for other book sites for a copy; I compared them and figured the same title went for $9.50 and $8.80 elsewhere. So, I checked the seller, for it said in one place it was hardcover and another softcover.

The seller could not verify, but I gambled on the 30-day return policy and the preponderance of evidence that it was hard and not soft. I placed the order, and it went down to $8.08. Then, when I processed it, the verification said $7.83. So, the magic happened. The charity in Texas got my weekend order, sent it on Monday, and by Wednesday, there it was, $4.33 plus $3.50 shipping.

How much did it sell for locally? One seller listed was in Pasadena. $12. I could have driven there and paid the list $8 plus tax, about a dollar more. But I'd have had to park and pay; gas is not cheap. It turned out I chose rationally. In the old days, I would have gone there, and likely found four more titles to buy at the same store. But my house and garage fill up with such previous purchases after decades of haunting those indie stores, off and then on the Net. And I need limits. So, unless a local public library carries it, a copy is usually borrowed. But, being a bookworm, an independent scholar, and a plain compulsive reader, you will understand my moments of weakness, or self-justification.

Image: for this venerable quote from Erasmus, I figured you'd prefer this photo to one of me reading bedside.Even if I buy food and not "cloths"--that does sound early-sixteenth century, all the same.

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