Apologies to Amazon: novelist Jonathan Rabb shares why the local, indie bookshop simply does it better
Every so often, I find a message in my inbox from Amazon, with a suggestion of a book I might like to read. When I first began receiving these emails, I opened each with no small measure of anticipation: where would Mr. Bezos, I wondered, see my imagination taking me?
It turns out, his path led directly back to me — literally. Amazon was convinced that the only books I would be eager to read were ones I had written myself. In the great and grand scheme of algorithms, the faceless bookseller was happy enough to gauge my tastes on either an acute sense for my own raging egomania or a blithe indifference to the name written on the cover of each book. I still hold out hope that it was the latter but, suffice it to say, I now delete those messages without opening them so as to avoid any further self-exploration.
It’s all too easy, I know, to be lured in by the convenience and apparent (if misguided) concern for one’s reading pleasures when it comes to online book buying. I’m also well aware that, in the midst of a pandemic, who wouldn’t want to take full advantage of all of life’s necessities — and books are necessities — at the click of a button?
The trouble is, when your method of choosing books mirrors the way you pick out, say, a vegetable peeler or toilet paper (nope, they’re out of that), you come to realize you might be missing out on one of life’s true delights.
Buying books has never been about the package you leave with; that would make the effort far too passive, and no one wants a passive reader — trust me. It has to be a choice, an informed choice that, I’ll admit, you can’t make on your own. I’ve been at this reading thing for 50-some-odd years, and the books that always matter most to me are the ones that I arrive at because someone who knows me has led me to them.
Yes, I enjoy a library as much as the next guy (well, to be fair, writers don’t like libraries at all, unless they’re buying 20 copies of our book), so the pragmatist in me, and the one who needs to hold a bound copy in his hands so that he can take out a pen and write notes in the margins to his heart’s content without fear of repercussions, needs a place where that gentle leading paves the way to educated ownership.
No caveat emptor here. In a world of online everything, the only place where that singular joy remains possible is in a local, indie bookshop. And what great good fortune for me, then, that I live in a city that might just boast the best of them.
It’s a strange, almost symbiotic relationship that exists between Savannah and its bookshops. They feed off each other. Maybe it’s because the city feels like a small town, and the booksellers seem to know all of us, our tastes and what we’re reading. Or maybe it’s the history of the city itself (the dark, haunting kind) that makes each perfect suggestion of a book feel like a little bit of witchcraft.
You can’t help but be fascinated by this city, and its invitation to a past and present that is always just in reach at places such as E. Shaver, Bookseller, or Neighborhood Comics or The Book Lady, to name but a few. Somehow, they each transform the act of book buying into an essential part of the Savannah experience.
To wander through any of these bookshops — to take that slow moment and chat with an owner, whether you’re from here or not, to find that one book, to carry it with you as you amble through the squares — is to take a little piece of the city with you, one that extends well beyond the book itself.
On one of my earliest saunters through a Savannah bookshop, I came upon, or rather I was pointed in the direction of, a bookshelf that happened to hold an early edition of Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty, first published in 1969. Let’s be perfectly honest: at the time, I never would have imagined finding it here. Berlin? A volume for political theory enthusiasts, written by one of the great minds of that century, though by no means a household name?
But, of course, there it was. And, of course, the bookseller had led me right to it, having spoken to me for, at most, five or 10 minutes (on Amazon, by the way, a first edition — though this wasn’t quite that — runs around $970). Two weeks later, the volume was in my father’s study up in New Jersey, so that he, too, could have a little bit of Savannah’s magic for himself.
Savannah is a book city. Why else would the place seem to be infested with writers these days? (Even the doctors write beautifully in columns for the local paper, and that just seems unfair.) And when the city opens itself up to the very best writers in the country and beyond for the annual Savannah Book Festival, there’s always a group of stragglers among them who seem ready to pick up roots and settle here. Why? Because they know.
They know this is a place that revels in books, that prizes books, that thrives through books, and nowhere is that more evident than in the bookshops themselves, where a few minutes chatting with an unassuming owner can have you discovering your own connection to this city in ways you never imagined. I can guarantee there’s no algorithm for that.
Which brings me round to the most recent email I received from Amazon. Never shy with their suggestions, they’ve noticed I’ve been itching to travel given the last 10 months or so. Imagine that! They’ve also let me know that, as I’m a sucker for indie bookshops and secret his- tories, festivals and nooks and crannies to discover, my best bet is Savannah.
And wouldn’t you know it? For the first time, they’ve gotten it right.