Invest in Your Community, Not Amazon

WhyLocalShopsSuffer.jpgThe cover of the latest issue of The New Yorker makes a powerful statement. It’s worth ten thousand words on the economic challenges that the local economies of our communities are facing.

In the image (by one my daughter’s favorite graphic novel writers and illustrators, Adrian Tomine) shows the young woman in apartment 6908 accepting a delivery of a book from Amazon while next door, at the bookstore, the owner has the keys in the lock.

As I’ve offered a number of times before, the local retailers of books, music and videos will order anything for you. Generally, the items arrive at least as quickly as those from the large, centralized and out-of-town vendors, and you don’t pay for shipping. In some cases, the local folks will let you know that they can get a fine copy, used, for much less cost than new.

So shop, or order, local(ly). Keep your money in town and your neighbor in business.


  1. Jerry Bilek said:

    Bill McKibben tackles the issue in Deep Economy.

    the ABA has posted some economic impact studies here:

    here is a good story about that exact cartoon:

    CHICAGO — Adam Brent knew his 11-year-run selling bestsellers and new releases was over when mail carriers started walking into his building to deliver books from Amazon to the tenants upstairs.
    “Literally, they didn’t walk downstairs or take the time to make a phone call,” Brent said of the neighbors of Brent Books & Cards in the city’s business district.

    June 7, 2008
  2. Nick Benson said:

    Emily and I just finished college and moved to Hudson, WI, where I took a job as a web applications developer. In order to be close to work, we rented a place right downtown (and I now enjoy a 4 minute commute).

    We needed to pick up the Scrabble Dictionary, so we took a stroll to the local book seller, right down the street. Unfortunately they didn’t have any in stock. The shop keep assured us that more were already on order, but as we left the store, we could hear the folks working there wondering out loud why the Scrabble Dictionary hadn’t already been reordered…

    It’s time to get over the fact that small-box retailing is a thing of the past. Buying local (in Minnesota) now means buying from Best Buy instead of Circuit City, or from Target instead of Wal Mart.

    There’s still plenty of opportunities for little guys to fill niches via the web. My employer’s biggest client is a local manufacturer and distributor that caters to kids going to camp. Nearly all of their business is generated through their website.

    In closing, support your local web developers – ignore those folks overseas who can do it for less!

    June 7, 2008
  3. Ross Currier said:

    So Nick,

    let me get this straight…

    …you’re saying that we should shop local when it comes to web pages, ignoring those “who can do it for less”…

    …but when it comes to books, music or videos, we can’t afford to be inconvenienced by a clearly stated time schedule offered by a local supplier, so instead we should go with a vague “ships in 3 to 6 days” from a distant vendor?

    Perhaps you’re being facetious and I’m just not it the right frame of mind.

    – Ross

    June 7, 2008
  4. Jerry Bilek said:

    Nick said:
    “It’s time to get over the fact that small-box retailing is a thing of the past.”

    Nick, should I close my doors because you have declared me a “thing of the past?” Or all of Division st. for that matter? we must have missed the memo. Struck a chord I guess. I’ll try to get over it.

    When opened for business around 1995, people declared the physical bookstore dead. Didn’t happen. About the same time, the book was handed a death sentence because of the electronic book. Didn’t happen. Now the small retailer-“a thing of the past.” I’ll give it some thought, but in the meantime, I plan to keep selling books, globally and locally.

    June 7, 2008
  5. Paul Fried said:

    Another consideration for boosting the local economy: Paying by cash or check means the credit card companies don’t siphon off a cut, resulting in more for the local economy, and a little less of that great sucking sound.

    This is something I struggle with as a person who loves the convenience of credit cards, and likes the rebates like flight miles and cash back, not to mention the occasional 0% interest with no fees, etc.

    But it’s worth striving to pay by check or cash more often.

    June 7, 2008
  6. David Schlosser said:

    I sincerely hope you’re joking.
    As the Director of the Carleton, St. Olaf and River City Bookstores, I can tell you how challenging it is to operate a profitable/break-even Bookstore in a town the size of Northfield. While we try to do everything within our power to get people (including our students) to buy locally, the message doesn’t resonate with many.
    We’re in a bit of a conundrum. Because of our sales volume, there are a whole lot of books that we can’t carry…and even if we could, we simply can’t carry every book that a customer may want. Yet I can’t tell you the number of times that, when we offer to order a book for a customer, the response is “No thanks, I’ll just order it from Amazon” or “I’m running up to Burnsville, and I’ll check Barnes and Noble”. And those are just the people who check with us first before ordering online.
    In addition, because of our volume, we can’t always match the deep discounts of the online conglomerates.
    The American Booksellers Association reported last year on its website that total book sales were flat, but that online book sales had experienced double-digit increases. Try doing the math. It doesn’t bode well for brick and mortar Booksellers.
    Combine this fact with the advent of “Kindle” and other eBook technology. Digital delivery of books is on the upswing as well (up 22.8% this year alone according to the ABA), cutting even more into the sale of hard/paper bound books.
    Does it sound like I’m whining? Perhaps. I just know from experience and 23+ years in the book business that it’s getting harder and harder to keep independent, small Bookstores in business. We have a web presence at each store and a River City Books’ blog that are updated regularly, but our web trade book sales are negligible. We rely greatly on our local community to support us. Ultimately, the community will be the ones to decide whether or not they want to support—and have—local Bookstores.
    We have many loyal and wonderful customers in our stores. Many do buy from us when they might be able to save a buck or two here or there buying online. We’re grateful for their support.
    To me, buying your books locally and supporting your local stores is akin to buying your food at Just Food Co-op or buying directly from local farmers. It supports the local economy. It’s more sustainable, resulting in less packaging and transportation costs. Yet buying food locally has caught on and is “the thing to do”. Buying other products locally hasn’t quite made it to that level.
    Sometimes, to buy your food locally means you spend a few extra dollars…and people are ready and willing to do that to support local farmers and to support sustainability. However, many are not willing to spend an extra dollar for a book from a local store and will order online to save that dollar. What’s the difference?
    I’m passionate about this issue, as I know Jerry is. The implication that buying your books locally won’t make a difference just isn’t true. I know otherwise.

    June 8, 2008
  7. Felicity Enders said:

    Paul, that’s a very interesting point. Thanks for the tip.

    June 8, 2008
  8. Nick Benson said:

    [This ended up longer than I wanted it, sorry for the rambling!]

    I was being a bit facetious guys… I wanted to stimulate further conversation because I think this is an interesting topic.

    Point: Local guys will order anything for you
    Counter: I can order anything for me via Amazon

    Point: Orders will arrive at least as fast as Amazon
    Counter: If speed is what you want, brick and mortar wins – but if they don’t have the item in stock, it doesn’t make a ton of difference to me.

    Point: No shipping charges / Lower transportation costs
    Counter: Many etailers offer free shipping

    Point: Used copy might be available
    Counter: Amazon offers used books, available from a plethora of resellers. (Full disclosure: I’ve sold many semesters worth of my textbooks via Amazon’s reseller program)

    Point: More sustainable / less packaging / like a local farmer
    Counter: Books can’t be grown locally. Regardless of the source, a book is going to travel from the printer to a distributor and sit in a warehouse or two along the way. Given the efficiency and numbers of an operation like Amazon, I would be shocked if the carbon footprint of getting a book delivered to my door from them is smaller than it would be from a local shop. The amount of carbon coming from the last step in transportation is going to be about equal – the UPS man will probably be stopping at your store and in my neighborhood regardless of where I order my book, and if I have to drive to my bookstore it gets even worse for the environment. The local guy may well end up using less packaging, but that’s recyclable.

    Point: Keeps money local / neighbor in business
    Counter: Touché! It’s great to support your neighbor, but if the service they offer is doing something for you that you could easily do yourself (e.g. ordering something and waiting for it to show up), I would argue they’re not in a very good business.

    Advances in technology have lead to big changes in the way a lot of folks do business (computer programmers and web developers included). The reason I’m employable in this area is because there’s a tangible value to being able to talk face to face with a client, speak the same language, and be in the same timezone. You could certainly get a website for less from someone in a different area, but it’d be a hassle. This is more or less the same reason that my father, Curt, can successfully manufacture things locally.

    It seems to me that small box retailers work because they’re selling an experience, not a product. It’s fun to go to a small shop, browse, and discover something interesting. Since I didn’t want an experience (I wanted a Scrabble Dictionary), I clearly wasn’t in their target demographic. Perhaps my attempt at buying a book from the local [Hudson] bookseller jaded my perspective…

    Obviously small box retailing isn’t a thing of the past, but if I was looking to start a business, it wouldn’t be selling books.

    June 8, 2008
  9. Jerry Bilek said:

    I stock books amazon won’t touch. I offer better prices on many of the books we both stock. Realize not every book on their website is a book they actually have. Many are obtained from the same suppliers all bookstores use. Using that model, my inventory is similar to amazons, about 1 million titles. I compete, but I don’t spend $80 million a year to advertise these facts.

    The one flaw in your argument is that you ignores the community. How much has amazon contributed to our tax base? Income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, yes taxes that pay for our schools and roads. If everyone took your approach, we would see a huge increase in taxes. You will have to pay higher taxes to pay for the loss in revenue the small retailer generates. States are currently wrestling with this issue as more retail has gone online and reduced the amount of sales taxes collected.

    Read the economic impact study I posted the link to and see how much the independent retailer contributes to the local economy. What about the donation requests I receive from local organizations? Saturday’s Northfield News mentioned how fragile the businesses downtown are, that statement was dead on.

    June 8, 2008
  10. Curt Benson said:

    Awhile ago, I came up with a book idea for a friend whose birthday was coming up in a few days. I looked on line and found that the book was available, but out of print. I wanted to get the book in time for the birthday party. I called Jerry at Monkey See and explained my problem. He hopped on line, and we looked at the various alternatives together. After spending probably twenty minutes of his time, he concluded that in this case, it would be best for me to order the book from a particular source and have it shipped overnight–I don’t remember the details exactly. The point is that Jerry, who didn’t know me at the time, spent twenty minutes of his time with me–and didn’t make a nickel from the transaction.

    After that experience, I’ve made a much greater attempt to do my book purchasing face to face at Jerry’s store. However, I confess that too often I succumb to the tantalizing seduction of “one click” ordering, the crack cocaine of retail sales. Typically, I get interested in a book from hearing about it on MPR. I order it online, instantly saving my brain from devoting any more neurons to my mental “to do” list. This is a very difficult nut for the brick and mortar stores to crack.

    One benefit I get from shopping in Monkey See is finding interesting books that I wasn’t looking for. On line, I tend to zero in on a particular book. And at used book prices, I can pick up a handful of books for the price of one new one.

    Jerry, I thought your in store book reading with Tom Swift was a great event, even featuring homemade treats. I think events like that, coupled with your superior service are what will allow you to continue to succeed.

    June 9, 2008
  11. Nick:
    Of course you can’t “grow” books locally.
    Hang with me here.
    At River City Books, we receive somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-6 boxes of books per day. Each box contains say, on average, 12 books. Let’s say that’s 72 books arriving in 6 boxes in two shipments (UPS and FedEx).
    Now suppose each of those 72 books were ordered individually by customers from Amazon and shipped to each of those 72 customers individual addresses.
    That would greatly increase both the packaging and transportation costs of those 72 books.
    And yes, the packaging is recyclable, but I have seen plenty of Amazon boxes thrown in with regular trash on both campuses. Just because packaging is recyclable, doesn’t mean it will be recycled…and even if it is, justifying the use of more packaging just because it’s recyclable doesn’t do it for me. It still has to be produced in the first place.
    That’s my point about sustainability and having a smaller carbon footprint when buying locally…and where the comparison to buying food locally comes from.

    June 9, 2008
  12. Jerry Bilek said:

    thanks for the comment. I think your behavior is typical. Shopping online is easy and convenient. I buy and sell online everyday and amazon is my biggest sales venue. I don’t blame anyone for doing it as long as we understand the consequences of the internet being our only source of shopping. Stores definitely provide the browsing experience.

    I could close my shop and sell online exclusively, I know plenty of booksellers who do just that. I have sold books online for 10 years. I choose to have a physical store, bricks and clicks.

    Like I said, Division street retail is very fragile. I know of 5 businesses within one block of my store that are closed or getting ready to close.

    I believe the key to our collective success is reaching the 60% of Northfielders who do not shop downtown.

    June 9, 2008
  13. In Northfield, there are three non-school bookstores. What makes each one unique? Can I browse and sit at each one? Can I talk to the people who are selling the books with ease, and do they know their wares? Is the store clean and airy? Do you offer volume discounts? Do you facilitate book clubs?

    Could all three of you sponsor an event? Could you all join into one magnificent store? What would an out of town person say about your
    store when she or he went home? What out of the box type idea can
    you come up with to allow people to feel like they might want to spend
    time and money with you and your store?

    I like to read fiction and biographies and so on, but end up reading
    technical books and nature books because there is a lot of drivel out
    there on the market. I don’t have a lot of time or money to waste on
    trying to find out who I like and who is a good author. If there was a
    few seminars around town with that take on it, I’d be there right quick.

    June 9, 2008
  14. Jerry Bilek said:


    my answer is yes to most of your questions. Have you ever been in my store? I’d say it’s unique in the selection and layout. The prices are competitive. I host events, book clubs.

    A Carleton student blogged about public restrooms downtown and said mine was the nicest, for what it’s worth.

    June 9, 2008
  15. Ross Currier said:

    Hey Jerry –

    I’ll be down later this week to blog about your restroom…

    …for the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation site:

    – Ross

    June 10, 2008
  16. kiffi summa said:

    Let’s face it guys; there’s a big really basic question underlying this thread.
    You live in a small town; one that wants to remain an “independent” small town. Presumably, if you did not want to live in this small town environment, you would be spending all those small dollar amounts saved by shopping on line, for a move to you preferred living environment.

    If you want this town to “survive” as the community you enjoy living in, you are going to HAVE TO SUPPORT IT. Otherwise it is going to stagnate… or morph totally into a bedroom community… or become another ubiquitous suburb.

    If you want Northfield, to remain “Northfield”, you have to invest the time and effort to insure its existence as a “small town”. In my mind the investment is totally worth it, along with the small amount of extra dollars it might take to support that investment , and that town form.

    I am truly thankful that there is now open talk about the economic fragility of the DT; for so long that was a hidden issue.

    The rent rates DT are less than half to half of the rental rates on the Highway. Does the highway have twice the value of the DT to the nature of this community? Obviously the answer to that is “No”, but the highway is the preferred corporate model, even the little corporate fish need to feed off the big box corporate fish…

    If a town like this is your preferred place to live, raise your family, run your business, then you must support it, even fight for it…

    June 10, 2008
  17. Since I have gotten to this town, I often feel like I am being badgered into buying from downtown. If downtown is so great, there should be a continual stream of people from the region, and those who are traveling by car through Northfield. There are only 5,000 plus households here, and I know many of them are living week to week.

    We go out to eat two or three times a week. We buy books from other places, because we usually buy technical books, but I have bought cd’s and books locally. But how many times can we eat out and buy books and flowers and candy. Life is so much more than that.

    If downtown cannot flourish, it’s because the economy if off, or there is not enough to draw people, or the prices are out of sight, simply not enough human traffic to support all those stores, or some combination thereof.

    The last three times I have driven through downtown, this last three weeks, there is so much traffic being blocked up by trucks, and other vehicles that you feel like you should leave to relieve the congestion.

    June 10, 2008
  18. Jerry, yes I have been to your store three times and made a purchase each time.

    June 10, 2008
  19. David Henson said:

    The Internet shopping hurts Mass Merchants much more than main street – and in in hurting mass merchants the web is helping Main Streeet. As individuals come to know they can purchase almost anything imaginable then buying what is offered at Bloomingdales cheaper at Target has less appeal. In turn infinite buying options and exceptional communications (Internet) and logistics (UPS) are huge assets to Main Street stores. Consumers are going to need agents (small retailers) to help them sift all the options.

    June 10, 2008
  20. Jerry Bilek said:

    Kiffi nailed it.

    Who has badgered you? Personally, I’ve never badgered anyone into shopping at my store including my friends. We do see a lot of tourists, especially in the summer.

    Downtown can flourish. The prices are not out of sight. I think that is a myth. I sell used books in the store for half the cover price or less and new books are cover price or 20% off. I offer discounts on special orders every time I can. I’ve checked my prices against Target. sometimes they were lower, sometimes I was. In general we were pretty close on books we both stock.

    I bought my running shoes from Champion for well below mall prices. read the Just Food monthly sales flyer and the prices are better than Econo or Cub on those items.

    Downtown Northfield has a lot to offer. the bottom line is if people want it to exist, they need to spend money in the businesses they like otherwise it will go away.

    June 10, 2008
  21. Julie Bixby said:

    I also agree with Kiffi.
    How many people would move to Northfield if the downtown was all empty buildings? No one.
    To encourage locals to shop local is not, IMHO, badgering. If we all, and I mean all, did a little more shopping downtown it would have a huge impact. You won’t know what shopkeepers offer if you don’t visit their stores. Things we use everyday can be found downtown.
    I love it that Digs has needles, thread and basics like that. (Not that I have much time to sew anymore!)
    Northfield is one of the best places to find unique gifts.
    I just learned yesterday that the dinosaur puzzles at Sweet Pea’s Loft are made by Jerry. He and his wife Nicole are the owners. These puzzles are fantastic!
    I think we would all agree that time is money so if you think the shops in Northfield are more expensive (which I personally do not think is the case most of the time) and you take the time to find a better deal, is it really a savings?
    Plus, it is so much fun to go into shops, restaurants…and the owners know you by name! Can you find that in the burbs?

    June 10, 2008
  22. What we moved to Northfield for was clean air and the colleges. I grew up int the neighborhood of and worked for the University of Chicago and am used to the college aura. The downtown shops had nothing to do with it at all. It’s fun to go there and shop, but I am not a shopaholic, and I don’t have a large chunk of money to spend on trivia.

    I have said over and over again, shops need to be of some significance to thrive. Unique in the most unique of ways. For instance, there is a shop in Chicago where you can bring your old stereos and exchange them for new ones, plus cash usually. It is called Saturday Exchange. It is only opened on
    Saturdays, and it only performs that one function. When that ceases to be profitable, the people will either change the focus of their selling choices or
    close shop. People come from so far away to go to that store, and to get into that neighborhood on a Saturday morning, well it’s very busy, hard to find parking, you need to go with someone so you aren’t carrying your stereo down the street for a half mile…and they are so busy, you usually have to wait fifteen or thirty minutes.

    If shops depend on selling the same things over and over again for years,
    the markets get saturated, it’s time to move forward, get some new interesting things that people are interersted in. How about a hobby shop, or what are kids intereseted in besides beading? These are questions downtown needs to answer for itself.

    Who badgered me? Well, no one person, but the whole of the downtown backers, maybe. And the conversations that inevitably turn to it.

    June 10, 2008
  23. In the interest of accurate reporting, I turned my putie back on to tell you that the name of the specialty store in Chicago was or is Saturday Audio Exchange. It was bugging me cuz I alway thought how good it was to have a name that made the statement that told all what the store was about.

    Sorry for the preposition at the end, I said ‘accurate’ however, I said nothing about perfect grammar.

    June 10, 2008
  24. Griff Wigley said:

    I’ve temporarily removed crobin’s recent post about River City Books, as I’ve not heard back from them re: first name and real email address.

    June 11, 2008

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