I went looking for a particular book the other day, and started in my usual place: Amazon.com. Turns out the book is long out of print and somewhat uncommon, but of course Amazon had several used copies to offer, from various bookstores throughout the country. Since I wasn’t looking for a pristine, mint copy, just one in decent shape, I spotted one that fell into the sweet spot of price and condition: “Very good” at $39.95.
Then I noticed that the bookseller, coincidentally, is an actual bricks-and-mortar shop here in town that I have frequented many times in past years. Occasionally I’d pass by it and think, that place is great, I should stop in again sometime. So when I saw the name in the Amazon list I figured, what the heck: I’ll stop in and buy it direct, get the book sooner and save the shipping cost. And I’ll have an excuse to browse an interesting place and support a locally owned business.
The result: disappointment.
This afternoon when I walked in, there was a spirited conversation going on at the front counter between the proprietor and a customer, which sounded to me more like bickering than dickering. They had clearly been at it for a while, and almost certainly this was far from their first time. It wasn’t exactly ugly, just strained, and it cast an odd pall over the place. Meanwhile, as I looked around I had a sense that the place had changed.
This shop has long had a reputation as being almost impossibly cluttered, but this was usually considered to be part of its charm. In the past when I’ve shopped there I would find interesting books jumping off the shelves at me, if only figuratively. This time, however, it was as if everything had reached a state of calcification. I felt as if even if I’d spotted a book I really wanted (although I didn’t) I would have been unable to remove it from the shelf as it would be fused with all the books surrounding it.
Then again, maybe that impression was just a side effect of the vibe at the front counter. In either case, I grew impatient for the bothersome customer to finally leave so that I could ask the proprietor about my quarry.
And so, at last, I did. He thought for a long moment, querying the catalogue in his head, and replied, “Ah, yes… I know the book. I believe I have that for sale online.”
I nodded, agreeing.
He gestured none-too-vaguely at a massive pile to his right, giving me the sense that, even though their spines were not facing him, he knew exactly which anonymous book in that stack we were discussing. “I believe I had that listed for $100. It’s been up there for a while.”
I asked, “Was that on Amazon?”
“Yeah,” he said, brightly. “Did you see it?”
I nodded again and said “I noticed it was you selling it and figured since I’m in the neighborhood, I’d just stop in.”
“Did you happen to see what it was listed for?”
I pondered for a moment, not so much trying to remember what the price had been but debating whether I should try to lowball him. I decided to play it straight. “It was $40.”
“Oh,” he said. Then he went into some digression about how he might have lowered the price once or twice, because it wasn’t moving, and something about how his prices on Amazon are 20% lower because he has to pay their commission—which maybe I misunderstood, because that makes absolutely no sense. I assume he meant that he loses 20% of his return to Amazon’s commission, but that would mean a direct sale would be preferable… yet somehow it was not, to him.
Then he said, “Can you call me tomorrow? I need to check on the listing first.” He started to jot down a reminder to himself on the notepad on the counter.
“Well…” I hemmed slowly, “I’m going to be kind of tied up tomorrow…” My uncertainty was meant to give him the chance to change his mind, to decide that he was willing to sell me that book, and to take the few minutes needed to locate it.
I guess he didn’t hear me. “Yeah, call me tomorrow, I’ll let you know.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said, and left. Which really meant: not a chance.
The way I see it is this. He tried to take me to the cleaners for a hundred bucks, for a book that I just don’t need all that badly. I offered him forty, a more than fair price that he passed on—even though if I’d pulled out my mobile phone and punched up Amazon in its browser and ordered the book from him through that, I would have paid a few bucks more for shipping—but a considerably smaller portion of that same forty bucks would have made it into his pocket.
I guess he wasn’t really interested in the $40 cash I was ready to plunk onto his cluttered countertop.
No matter. After checking out another used book store in the area (where I found a couple of very interesting items), I came home and ordered the book from Amazon. My book is on its way… from a shop in Oregon. And I won’t be back in that cluttered bookshop again—not so long as its proprietor has no interest in actually selling books.