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eBook Guilt, or Is My Kindle Reading Harming My Beloved Community Bookstore?

11698524166_8de029ecb5_hSome readers have long wrestled with the the morality of buying used books and buying books online in place of shopping at their local bookstore, and now this sense of guilt has spread to ebooks.

Writing over at the Huffington Post, Heather Garbo expresses concern for how she is neglecting her local bookstore:

… about five years ago my husband bought me a Kindle. I was curious but hesitant. I downloaded my very first book. Perhaps if I had begun with a book that was not quite so addictive, I would not have fallen quite so hard. But, I had begun my Kindle experience with The Hunger Games. I devoured the entire trilogy over the next few days, immediately downloading the next book upon finishing one. It was incredibly compulsive and I couldn’t stop myself. It felt almost magical to immediately get my hands on the next book from the comfort of my home.

…  I love the local bookstore as a community gathering place. I love the vibrancy it brings to our neighborhood and greater community.

For a while this didn’t even occur to me. Perhaps naively, I regularly visited my bookstore with my Kindle. I loved reading there, surrounded by books and other book lovers, sipping the glass of wine they graciously served me. Only later did I wonder if that was rude, like bringing food from another restaurant into your favorite cafe? Was I cheating on my bookstore and flaunting it in their face?

So what do you think, is she cheating on her local bookstore? Would you feel guilty in this situation?

My answer follows, but I would also like to hear what you think.


My answer is simple, straightforward, and negative.

No, I would not feel guilty about buying ebooks elsewhere. A bookstore is a business, and not a charity or philanthropic venture. I would no more feel guilty about buying ebooks than I do about buying used books or checking books out of the library.

The reason I bring up used books is that Garbo’s post reminded me of something Neil Gaiman said about used bookstores:

Don’t ever apologize to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library (that’s what they’re there for. Use your library). Don’t apologize to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend’s copy. What’s important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone. And that people who like things, tell other people. The most important thing is that people read.

Had Garbo asked Gaiman whether she should feel guilty over heating on her bookstore, he would tell her not to be ridiculous. What matters is that the books are being read, not how she acquired them.

What do you think?

image by keepitsurreal

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Thomas April 26, 2016 um 8:54 pm

Given that the only bookstore in my area is a Barnes & Noble that seems to be transitioning into a vinyl records nostalgia store, I’m not going to worry much it. I’ll stick to ebooks.

Bill Rosenblatt April 26, 2016 um 9:06 pm

If you’re lucky enough to live near an indie bookstore (not B&N), try talking to the owner(s) about why they do it. It’s not to get rich. Our neighborhood is improved for the indie bookstore that opened about a year ago, so we patronize it regularly, even though the B&N is closer to where we live.

Will O’Neil April 26, 2016 um 10:30 pm

Many decades ago we had what was very much a hole-in-the-wall local bookstore run by a dour, literate, sophisticated Hungarian, rather like strong Turkish coffee, straight. I loved it and him, and got some good books from him. But the search for some of the books I needed for research led me often to drive many miles, and still I often returned without what I really needed. And the expense!

Oh, how I rejoiced when Borders — Borders! — opened a store not two miles distant. At last a store with a selection of books relevant to my needs and interests. But not the books I truly needed, often. I prowled vast, ill-organized used-book warehouses, finding many treasures, but still too frequently not the treasures I truly treasured.

My astringent Hungarian? Oh, he had folded up shop and stolen away without a word of goodbye. I hope he has done well, but he is not my charge.

And then the Internet started to read. ABE! Bookfinder!! Amazon! Books I had sought for decades now came delivered to my doorstep. When I read of a delectable title in NYRB or Economic History Review I could get it quickly, even instantly with Kindle. Sometimes it made a real difference in my business.

What did I owe Borders? I still visited Borders, especially to browse in the days before Amazon’s browsing facilities were less developed. I made it a point of honor never to order a book from Amazon after finding it at Borders, even it it cost me something.

But it did no good, nor did I expect it would. Is the loss of Borders, or of my Hungarian bookseller, more a tragedy than that of Hudson Brothers, the greengrocers? Or of Mr. Sutton and his pharmacy? Or the local hardware store?

Creative destruction, Shumpeter called it. At least in the book business it has been creative.

Nate Hoffelder April 27, 2016 um 12:10 am

You raise a good point. This question might comedown to whether someone values books and being able to get them versus valuing book culture fostered by some bookstores.

I value books more than culture.

BDR April 27, 2016 um 12:29 am

Do you suppose the first purchasers of automobiles worried about the future of their local blacksmith??

Before ebooks & the internet, the selection of authors was tightly controlled by publishing houses and works by the few new authors in existence were uncovered more by accident than design. The process was archaic, inefficient and oligopolistic. Personally, with that system I typically discovered about 2 new authors per year that I liked.

Since ebooks and the internet, I now have a limitless selection of a limitless number of authors; complete with reviews of most. I’m now finding 2 new authors per week (at least) that I like.

The point? Things change and just as the auto rid us of archaic modes of transportation and tons of horse excrement per day in the streets, the electronic age has rid us of that inefficient, oligopolistic-enabling thing called the bookstore.

Time to move into the future and quite your whining about a past that, frankly, wasn’t so great.

Matthias April 27, 2016 um 2:21 am

In Germany you don’t have this Problem. Buy an Tolino at your local Bookstore and you have the best of both worlds. Instant reading ebooks and buying them in your local store with contact to your favorit bookseller. Reading books is also abouttalking about them. And with your bookseller you have an always interested partner for a good talk and you get hints better than every algorithm could give you.
Things have changed you have more choices and you are able to do what’s best for yourself but when you are able to do something for your local community, why not do this either?

Shari April 27, 2016 um 9:14 am

I very rarely find myself talking about the books I read. If someone asks me what I’m reading, I will tell them, or if they ask for a recommendation I will give one, but I don’t usually participate in "social reading". I’m just not comfortable with it.

Alain April 27, 2016 um 1:22 pm

There is a similar system in place in France where you can buy books through the Epagine website and select a local bookshop that will benefit from the transaction.
I do not feel guilty about reading ebooks but the last thing I want is for a number of bookshops to fold – although I prefer to read on my ereader I also enjoy browsing for books in a real bookstore so if I can support them through such schemes then all the better.

Hayden April 27, 2016 um 5:20 am

I also don’t feel I owe anything to my limited local bookstore. However, I would not walk in there with my ereader, read my books and drink the wine provided by the bookstore. That is incredibly inconsiderate.

I would take my ereader to my library and read my books there (as I can download ebooks from my library), unfortunately they do not supply any wine.

R Coots April 27, 2016 um 7:04 am

Noooope. I’ll buy books where I can find them and not care if I’m making the world a better place by doing it at my local shop or Amazon or Powells or even the local comics shop (which has a table full of donated second hand books that I myself have contributed to). I tend to buy non-fiction books in hardcopy, but even then, I don’t make a point to go to the local store. For one thing, the owner is a bit condescending and for another, they’re so small they don’t have much a selection anyways.

Straker April 27, 2016 um 8:37 am

Ms. Garbo is looking for an excuse to feel guilty, which seems to be a popular pastime in certain circles. I recently watched a documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records, which in some ways parallels what’s happening in the book trade right now. The title, "All Things Must Pass," says it all.

Anonymous Librarian April 27, 2016 um 9:55 am

If the wine is complimentary, yes, she should feel guilty about drinking it while reading books she didn’t purchase there. But if she’s paying for the wine, she shouldn’t feel guilty at all.

MKS April 27, 2016 um 11:12 am

I’m sure her local neighborhood bar would welcome her custom and her Kindle. Personally I consider taking up a seat at the local bookstore, drinking their wine, and effectively advertising for Amazon to be unforgiveably rude.

Guy April 28, 2016 um 8:41 am

As an ebook-reader and bookshop lover, I do suffer conflict. I want bookshops to thrive into the future, and feel bad that me not supporting them financially puts that at risk. I wish they would come up with more ways to let us support them – say memberships, events, etc.

But I don’t have guilt – I don’t feel I owe them anything (I don’t take their seats or drink their wine!).

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