Ethical Acquisitions?

5 Dec

Photo by Steve Rhodes

What is the difference between a public library purchasing their books through a local independent bookstore as opposed to shopping online at Amazon or buying new releases at Costco or Wal-Mart?

In general, I am a huge proponent of buying locally. Yes, most of my clothes were made in developing countries and I do buy bananas and avocados (obviously not grown locally) but I strive to uphold a certain ideal which means that given a choice I will buy “local” even if it means paying a higher cost.

This ethical obligation that I feel towards buying locally and from independent sources might come from my years of working at a small independent bookstore in Quebec City. At the time, we truly viewed Amazon as our evil competition because we felt powerless to rival their fantastic discounts that are only possible when items are purchased in large bulk quantities. Most often distributors will set the cost price of a book (aka the wholesale price) depending on the quantity that the retailer is purchasing. Therefore if my bookstore ordered 15 copies of a new bestseller, we were paying more for each copy than a large chain store who might order 500 copies and then distribute the copies amongst the different store locations. Since our initial cost of the book was higher, we already made less money on each sale making it more difficult to match online or large-store discounts. However, we provided an excellent service; our entire staff was passionate about books, customer service, and recommending the right book for the right person. We developed special relationships with our regular clients calling them by name and knowing which new books would interest certain clients.  When people would say how great Amazon was I would reply “but who do you know who works at Amazon?”. I tried to communicate to people that when purchasing something on Amazon you don’t know exactly where your money is going whereas when you buy from a local store you know that you are helping to pay the wages of the staff who greet you on the front lines.

Since I’ve been a public library director, I’ve been doing my library acquisitions of French books at Le Bouquin small independent bookstore here in Tracadie-Sheila. I know the owner personally and she is always friendly and available to respond to my questions, my requests for rushed billing, or my surprise visits to the bookstore. Unfortunately, my public library’s budget for collection development relies almost entirely on fundraising. When volunteers and staff work hard for every single dollar raised for the collection, it is normal that they expect that the money be spent in the most effective way possible.  Therefore, recently I have been questioned as to why we shouldn’t buy books from time to time at the Atlantic Superstore. Now for those of you outside the Maritimes, the Atlantic Superstores are a chain of big box grocery stores owned by Loblaws, Canada’s largest food distributor (source Wikipedia). In addition to groceries, they also offer a pharmacy, home supplies, a clothing section, and of course books, CDs and DVDs. The majority of books they sell all have a sticker boasting a 25% discount off the retail price.

Now, I love books and I am passionate about anything that gets people reading. I feel then that I must tread carefully with what I say next. Although no one that I know goes into the Superstore specifically to buy books, due to clever in-store marketing and great discounts a lot of people do end up purchasing a book as a type of impulse buy. Am I really going to complain that the store strategically places Caillou books amongst the kids’ clothing so that parents are more likely to buy books for their kids while they are shopping for clothes? No…like I said if people are buying books then I’m happy.

Now obviously the Superstore does not offer the same type of service as a bookstore. Although they always tend to have the bestselling fiction and non-fiction in stock, I cannot place orders through them, and I cannot request that they inform me when the latest title of a popular author will be released.

Also, by doing library acquisitions at the local independent bookstore, I believe strongly that I am having a more positive effect on the local economy. The people who raised money for the library’s collection are from Tracadie-Sheila and therefore I want that money to stay at the local level instead of going off to enrich the already affluent owners of the Loblaws chain.

I am very curious as to what others think about this. Is my self-righteous attitude hindering my library’s collection? If it meant being able to purchase more books with the same amount of budget would you shop at the big box store?

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One Response to “Ethical Acquisitions?”

  1. Larry Marshall December 19, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    If one spends locally, the money turns over faster and more times than if the same money is diverted to ‘corporate’ somewhere else. The result is an actual generation of local tax dollars that exceed that of taxes generated by spending at stores owned by companies from elsewhere.

    If your big-box store is Canadian, then from an overall Canadian economy point of view, it makes no difference. But buying local would make a difference at a New Brunswick level. So, when you get down to it, the answer of your question about whether you’re short-changing your job by buying local is dependent upon whose tax dollars you’re spending 🙂

    Great post.

    Cheers — Larry

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