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Pfeiffer: Killing the Messenger

01/18/12 5:55PM By Bryan Pfeiffer
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(Host) As books, newspapers and magazines migrate to electronic devices, commentator Bryan Pfeiffer is developing a plan to keep his e-reader while also supporting his local book shops.

(Pfeiffer) Downtown Montpelier is lucky enough to have three independent bookstores, a pleasing blend of creaky wooden floors, informed employees, hand-made signs, and a wise selection of titles.

Not long ago, Ruth and I were browsing at Bear Pond Books when she came upon Carl Safina’s latest masterpiece, The View from Lazy Point, still in hardbound.

“Well, I guess I’ll read your copy,” she said.

I looked back with a sheepish grin.

And then Ruth announced: “Oh, right … it’s on your Kindle."

Shoppers stopped shopping. Employees stopped working. Their looks were like arrows through my heart. I withered. I shriveled. Right there in non-fiction. It was as if Ruth had announced at a PBS party that I watched Fox news.

Yeah, it’s true. I own a Kindle. And it’s finally weighing on my conscience.

Let us argue no more about the merits of e-ink versus actual ink. You want the tactile experience of book pages? That’s fine. I want all my reading on one portable device. And Amazon.com delivers – all too well, actually, including The New York Times by 5am each morning. It’s the future of news.

I support that future … but I’ll shoot the messenger when it undermines our downtowns and local businesses. My turning point came last month, when Amazon recruited shoppers as spies. It encouraged us to visit local book stores, check the price of an item, and then use a smartphone app to report the price back to Amazon. Customers who went on to order the item from Amazon.com got a discount.

Vermont has already lost enough home-grown independence in the past couple of decades. Many of our local banks are gone or wholly owned subsidiaries of mega-banks. Our second largest power company is now owned by a Canadian utility (which now wants to acquire our largest power company). Even our home-grown ice cream company has sold out to the global conglomerate Unilever.

Sure, Amazon delivers the goods. But it doesn’t employ my neighbor, who actually works at Bear Pond. Neither does it hold author talks on Tuesday nights, like the talks I myself have delivered at local bookstores around the state.

Merchants know all too well that many customers go window shopping locally but actually make the purchase online. And I think Amazon has taken its marketing model too far. So here’s my plan:

I’m going to replace my Kindle with another e-reader, because many independent bookstores are starting to sell electronic books that can be read on anything except a Kindle. I get my e-book, and the local bookseller gets some of the proceeds. I’ll also buy genuine books more often because I want independent businesses to thrive. I think I can still remember how to turn an actual page.

And here's how I'll take my protest one step further: I’ll do some of my browsing online. Then, when it comes time to buy my book, I’ll turn off the computer, walk downtown, and actually spend money at one of my favorite bookstores.
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