Monday, October 01, 2007

The Inkwood Penalty: Are locally owned businesses worth the tax?

Tampa doesn't have a very large market of independently-owned businesses that carry things I consume. One of the few that does have stuff I want is Inkwood Books on the corner of Armenia Avenue and Platt Street in South Tampa.

The small bookstore became popular when I was a high school student at Plant in the mid-90s during an era predating - the store was the place to go for english lit books throughout the school.

As I got older, and the non-fiction market grew, I turned to Inkwood more because it simply was the best place to go in hopes of actually locating a new book that I wanted to read. While Amazon was prevalent by the late 90s, always carried what you wanted, and almost always cheaper - instant gratification could not be found online. Thus, local bookstores did - and still do - win out when I wanted/needed a new tome.

However, Borders began to expand their selection in the late 90s -- stocking their shelves with more "independent" and "small" publishers. Thus, the choice between the mega seller and Inkwood became less clear cut.

In addition, the social attraction to Borders over Inkwood also became clear as a college student and grad student looking for a place to take up space. Coffee, couches, music are all good ways to pack customers into a store and keep them there until they buy a book.

Furthermore, new books at Borders sell for about 25% off the list price. A select handful of new books each month sell for 20% off the list price at Inkwood. Therefore, in many cases, shopping at Inkwood results in paying a penalty and receiving less goods (no coffee, couches, music) for a higher dollar figure.

In addition, if you sign up online for Borders Membership Rewards club, you receive a coupon every Friday for for 20-30% off any item in the store. You can print out as many coupons as you want - there is no limit on hitting the print button and no link to your exact account (to be more clear, I'm sure Borders would prefer you to come in and buy infinite products at 20-30% off then no product or 1 only product).
Furthermore, every time you buy something at Borders, you get another coupon for 20-30% off anything in the store, allowing you to keep the purchasing cycle alive ad nauseam.

Essentially, you can find everything at Borders that you can at Inkwood (plus a whole lot more stuff you don't really want to find). You can also get it cheaper with more hours in the day to get there(Borders is open until 11pm everyday, Inkwood is open as late as 9pm only 1 time in the week).

If price and convenience were the sole factors, certainly Inkwood would be out of business (at least out of the direct retail business - maybe they would subsist instead only with contracts/deals with local schools). So why are they still in business? More importantly, why did I go there this weekend and pay $13 more (30%) for a book I could have also purchased at Borders, less than 1.5 miles away? What makes a consumer willing to spend such an exorbitant penalty?

Branding. Inkwood has a prius in the parking lot. Inkwood carries a wide range of books but certainly has all the liberal non-fiction and the small-press fictional literature that is hot in the Democracy Now!, NPR, McSweeney's circles. Inkwood is an independently-owned local business with a connection to other independent news sources, radio stations, and stores within the community.

The bottom line for me is that I almost feel as "duped" by buying within my brand - feeling some intangible need to support local business. Moral economics?

I buy a lot of books and I'm not convinced that conscious consumerism is really worth such a high economic penalty. I suppose one way to look at it would be - Who can do more with the extra dollars? The local business you are supporting or you --the individual? Well, if that's how you look at it, then I would say that the answer is dependent on what percentage of income we are talking about. Until I'm an attending physician, $13 - potentially over $100 per month - is still a decent chunk of change on a med student or resident's salary with a teacher for a wife who doesn't exactly rake in the millions.

At this point (and maybe at any point) I could probably "do more" with the excess dollars by purchasing more books at a cheaper price. Wouldn't this scenario lead to larger support of the publishing industry as a whole by supporting a larger group of people then just one store? Not too mention, increased knowledge acquisition by me and a better return on my money at every purchasing event (comfort of borders, etc).

Inkwood does do a service that should afford some extra price of their products - they bring in many authors for book discussions. I would be open to the argument that this service offsets the services provided by Borders of comfy confines. Only problem is, Inkwood rarely brings in the folks I want them too. Thus, this happens to be a matter of personal taste and I can't feel guilty about neglecting the store on that point. For example, this weekend I bought a book by Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine). The author is currently on tour but not coming anywhere near Inkwood. Perhaps if the author was going to speak at the store I would have no problem paying the extra $13 for my copy of her work?

I think my conclusion, for now anyway, is that " The Inkwood Penalty" is one that I just can't pay - especially when you know you are getting less material return for your dollar.

Now, if Inkwood wants to start honoring those competitor coupons I get each week, maybe, just maybe, we could talk.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I follow your reasoning, but yet you still purchased the book there.
I'm confused.