Bookstores in Pioneer Valley

Last week, Carol and I spent four days at a retreat center in Deerfield, Mass. We managed to visit four bookstores in those four days. Here are some notes about each bookstore:

World Eye Bookshop is quite small. As is often the case these days, about half the store is taken up with gifts, toys, art supplies, etc. But although the book selection is small, it’s well chosen. A number of interesting books on local history (I almost bought a book on the history of the Mass Central Railroad). If you’re in downtown Greenfield, it’s worth stopping in.

I was sad when Raven Used Books closed their Cambridge location, so I made Carol drive down to Northampton because I wanted to stop in at the store’s original location. Not what you’d call an expansive store, but they pack an enormous amount of books into their relatively small space. Fewer scholarly books than I remembered, but used scholarly books are hard to sell these days so the fact that they had any at all made it worth the thirty-minute drive.

Federal Street Books in Greenfield is an absolute delight. They have a good selection of both new and used books. Not many scholarly books, which is my always my main interest. But the selection of fantasy and science fiction books was especially good, and there were lots of quirky fun books, like the children’s book titled “Goodnight Krampus.” I like the fact that they require masks in the store — lately I’ve been forgetting to put on my mask when I go in stores, and I liked being reminded. This bookstore is worth a special trip.

The real find, though, was Roundabout Books in Greenfield. They’ve just re-opened in a new location. They’re still bringing in books, so the shelves looked a little bare when I walked in. But once I started looking around, I realized that there are actually a huge number of books; they’re just lost in the huge space. I was happy to find both new and used scholarly books mixed in among the more mainstream books. I found an excellent selection in most of the subject areas in which I tend to buy books, including religion, poetry, science fiction and fantasy, and nature and the environment.

Just to give you an idea of the range of the titles they stock, I bought a complete translation of the Ramayan; a trashy science fiction novel; three books of poetry, American, contemporary Chinese, and contemporary Greek; a field guide to the grasses of New England; and I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar Ibn Said’s America by Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst.

Roundabout is so good, it’s worth a long drive to visit.

In our four day trip, I bought a dozen books. The only reason I purchased any of these books is when I leafed through them I realized they were exactly what I needed to read right now. It’s still important to be able to pore through dozens of books, brought into the store by someone who knows books, so you can find books that you didn’t know you wanted, though once you see them you know you need them. (The same principle holds true for libraries, by the way.) This is why Amazon can never replace real bookstores. And that’s why we need to buy our books at real bookstores; even if it costs a little more than Amazon, we need to make sure the real bookstores stay in business.

(And before you ask: No, we did not visit the Montague Bookmill. We’ve been there; you should go if you haven’t been before; but it isn’t a perfect match for us. This, by the way, is why we need a wide variety of bookstores: everyone should have access to a bookstore that’s a perfect match for them.)

On average, Amazon charges you 29% more than they should

Maybe Amazon has the lowest online prices (maybe), but odds are that if you shop from Amazon you’ll pay more than you should.

Legal scholars from Boston University have been researching Amazon’s anti-competitive practices. They have documented how Amazon manipulates buyers into paying 29% more, on average, than they should be paying:

“As one of many examples, we present the first evidence that Amazon’s search results systematically bury the lowest priced items even if they have high ratings.(18) We find, for instance, that the best deal on the first page—factoring in ratings and price—was on average located in the seventeenth slot, where few consumers look.(19) Moreover, consumers who chose the first relevant item returned in the search results would have paid on average 29% more than if they had located the best deal.(20) One of the reasons these findings are important is that more than half of Amazon’s regular customers always purchase the top result provided.(21) And filtering the search results by ‘Price: Low to High’ does not solve these problems on most searches, particularly since this feature still ignores unit price and shipping costs.” Rory Van Loo & Nikita Aggarwal, Amazon’s Pricing Paradox (Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, 2023), pp. 4-5.

Footnotes 18 and 21 in this paragraph give essential information to help understand how Amazon manipulates your behvior to get you to pay more:

“(18) Our findings, posted to SSRN in May of 2023, build on previous research showing that Amazon and other online companies also manipulate consumers and engage in behavioral pricing by not displaying shipping costs or by preferencing their own items. See, e.g., Glenn Ellison & Sara Fisher Ellison, Search, Obfuscation, and Price Elasticities on the Internet, 77 ECONOMETRICA 427, 449 (2009) (using purchase data to show that online third-party sellers of computer parts can raise prices by 6% to 9% through obfuscation strategies, such as hiding the shipping costs); Julia Angwin & Surya Mattu, Amazon Says It Puts Customers First. But Its Pricing Algorithm Doesn’t, PROPUBLICA (Sept. 20, 2016, 8:00 AM),’t (analyzing 250 items, each with multiple options for which vendor sells it, and finding that Amazon’s product pages push items fulfilled by Amazon to the “buy box,” even though once shipping costs are added that item would be on average 20% more expensive than the cheapest alternative); Adrianne Jeffries & Leon Yin, Amazon Puts Its Own “Brands” First Above Better-Rated Products, THE MARKUP (Oct. 14, 2021), (finding that Amazon systematically puts its own products at the top of search results, without looking at the price impact). Unlike our research, Ellison and Ellison were focused on behavior by the end seller rather than the platform and did not empirically study Amazon, Angwin and Mattu focused on obfuscation in a specific item’s product page rather than in Amazon search results, and Jeffries and Yin do not measure the extent of burying or higher prices paid as a result of self-preferencing….
(19) See infra Part I.B.
(20) Id.
(21) FEEDVISOR, THE 2019 AMAZON CONSUMER BEHAVIOR REPORT 14, 16 (2019) (‘For those who buy products on Amazon daily or almost everyday, more than half [54%] always buy the first product listed on Amazon’s search engine results page [SERP].’)”

Not to put too fine a point on it, Amazon is deliberately misleading its customers in order to squeeze more money out of them. Buying from Amazon is a sucker’s game, where in the long run the consumer always loses. (If you don’t want to read the entire scholarly article, Cory Doctorow summarizes some of the key points here.)

Yet another reason why friends don’t let friends buy from Amazon.

Why Amazon sucks, cont.

I promised a friend that I’d buy 30 of his poetry books for a reading he’s doing in our congregation this weekend.

Unfortunately, he self-published through Amazon. So I had to buy his books through Amazon. Yuck. I expect Amazon to underperform, but they outdid themselves this time.

First of all, I paid extra for 2 day shipping. The books took four days to arrive. No surprise there. Amazon consistently ships items late, even when you pay extra for their Prime service.

Secondly, here’s what the books looked like when I unpacked the box:

New books shipped in too large a box.
What the box looked like when we opened it

The books were shipped loose in way too large a box. There was essentially no attempt to keep the books from flinging themselves around during shipping. As a result, corners are damaged, covers are bent. It’s just a mess.

First lesson to be learned: don’t self-publish your books through Amazon. Your customers are liable to receive poorly packaged and damaged books.

Second lesson to be learned: Amazon. Doesn’t. Care. About. Books.

Summer reading: nature books for kids

Last week, I led some ecology programs in Maine with kids of various ages, including with the “Sand Diggers,” a group of children in preK-K. A few days before we drove up to Maine I checked the weather forecast. The National Weather Service was predicting rain most of the week, meaning we might be indoors much of the week. Uh oh. All my lesson plans for the Sand Diggers were for outdoors activities. I decided to get some nature storybooks to provide some indoors activities with the Sand Diggers.

I found a couple of good books at a nearby Mass Audubon sanctuary gift store. Our local bookstore didn’t really have any nature-themed picture books. So with the help of my librarian sister, I placed on online order for seven nature-themed picture books. Amazon was the only online bookseller who promised delivery in time for our trip to Maine; all I had to do was sign up for a month of free Prime “membership.” Of course, only one out of the books I ordered arrived before we left for Maine, typical of the poor customer service offered by Amazon. (Needless to say, I canceled my Prime “membership” before I had to actually start paying for that kind of poor service.)

Enough about Amazon, because this post is not about how horrible Amazon is. It’s a post about nine nature books for kids, all of which I think are pretty good. Capsule reviews of each book are below, with the best books saved for last.

The nine storybooks arranged on a table.
L-R, top row: I Can Name 50 Trees Today (the only book shipped on time by Amazon); The Lorax (shipped late by Amazon, but I got a free used copy from a Mass Audubon Little Free Library); Celia Planted a Garden (shipped late by Amazon); We Are Water Protectors (shipped late by Amazon); Light the Sky, Firefly (purchased from Mass Audubon).
L-R, bottom row: Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt (shipped late by Amazon); Over and Under the Pond (shipped late by Amazon); Hike (purchased from Maine Audubon); The Hike (shipped late by Amazon).
Amazon shipped just 1 out of 7 books on time. Thank goodness for Mass Audubon and Maine Audubon, so I had books to read to the Sand Diggers. Support your local booksellers!
Continue reading “Summer reading: nature books for kids”

How to repair a Kindle

Shaun Bythell, a used bookseller in Scotland, has made a video showing how to repair a Kindle:

Here’s my favorite still from the video:

We already know that friends don’t let friends buy books from Amazon — Amazon’ s business practices have reduced author income while reducing the profitability of bookstores to a razor-thin margin. Friends certainly don’t let friends buy Kindles, because they don’t want their friends being tracked by Amazon — no one needs a faceless multinational corporation learning exactly how much of every book you read, and what you underline in your book, and what color your underwear is.

A good friend will tell their friends to buy their new books from a place like the Seminary Coop Bookstore, or used books from a place like Powell’s (but not from ABE, it’s owned by Amazon), or if you’re in the U.K. from Shaun Bythell’s The Bookshop — or better yet, buy your books from your local bookseller, so they don’t go out of business.

Shelter in place

We got the shelter-in-place order from the San Mateo County Board of Health:

“Effective midnight tonight, the Health Officer of San Mateo County is requiring people to stay home except for essential needs. The intent of this order is to ensure the maximum number of people self-isolate in their places of residence to the maximum extent feasible. … This order is in effect until April 7. It may be extended depending on recommendations from public health officials.”

We’re allowed to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy, and we can go for walks outdoors if we stay away from other people, but that’s about it.

So Carol and I went up to the local grocery store at 5 p.m. We usually go shopping every day, but now we’d rather minimize our trips to the store, so we thought we’d pick up a few things. The store showed all the signs of panic buying — I call it panic buying because while there were no bags of rice on the shelves, there was plenty of bulk rice available. I also noticed that the only canned beans left on the shelf were good old B&M Baked Beans; Californians don’t really like New England style baked beans, not even when they’re panic-buying. In any case, we found plenty of food for our needs.

Then we went off so I could do my own panic buying. You see, the libraries closed a couple of days ago, and I’ve already finished the books I had taken out. I hate ebooks because they make my eyes tired. I hate Amazon. And if I don’t feed my reading addiction, things get ugly. So we went to our local Barnes and Noble, and I bought some books:

Yes, most of the books I got are junk — pulp fiction and cozy mysteries and science fiction magazines — but I got some serious books too. The book by Thomas Piketty should be dense enough to last me a while.

But … I don’t know … this may not be enough books … maybe I better rush down and buy more books before the bookstore closes….

Update, Friday, March 20: The Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago is offering free shipping to its book-deprived customers. Amazon doesn’t need your business right now! Feed your book addiction, and help keep one of the last independent coop bookstores in the U.S. alive. I just place an order with them, why don’t you? Below is an excerpt from the email they sent out:

Learning from the Gadfly Papers controversy

I have been following, at a distance, the controversy about the publication and distribution of The Gadfly Papers, a book of essays critical of the UUA’s antiracism approach, written and self-published by Todd Eklof, the minister at the Spokane, Wash., Unitarian Universalist church. Eklof distributed the books at General Assembly (GA), the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA); GA was held in Spokane this year.

As someone who didn’t go to GA, and as someone who doesn’t trust social media for reliable information, it wasn’t easy to figure out what went on. So far,, usually an excellent source of information about GA, has not reported on what happened; instead, in their media round-up column, they pointed to an article from the local newspaper.

That local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., published an article on June 25 titled “Unitarian Universalist minister in Spokane stirs controversy for calling church too politically correct.” The article gives a basic outline of the story. Unfortunately, while they interviewed Eklof, they didn’t interview anyone opposing him, relying instead on public statements issued on social media platforms. (The simple, non-conspiracy-theory, explanation is that the reporter was under deadline pressure, interviewed the local guy, and relied on public statements to fill out the opposing side.)

If you want to see some of those public statements, provides links to statements from Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUM), and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Assoc. (UUMA) People of Color and Indigenous Chapter, and an “Open letter from white Unitarian Universalist ministers,” as well as a letter from the Board presidents of the Liberal Religious Educators Association. Elswewhere, I found a statement from the Allies for Racial Equity, and most recently a UUMA letter formally censuring Eklof.

What about the book itself? Well, I refuse to buy a copy: Eklof self-published the book on Amazon, and I won’t buy books from Amazon because they reduce the already meager incomes of working authors. I haven’t talked to anyone who has actually read the entire book. And most of the online reviews of the book that I have found simply state that it represents a white supremacist point of view, but don’t offer critiques of the actual arguments of the book.

However, Scott Wells did read the entire book, and posted a two-part review of the book on his blog: part one and part two. Scott reports: “It might surprise non-readers that he [Eklof] has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist. … You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. ” However, says Scott,”some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness  and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics,” meaning that Eklof’s sugestions for anti-racism probably aren’t going to be heard. The book also offers at least one solution that I can only characterize as bizarre: in one essay, Eklof proposes splitting the UUA back into separate Unitarian and Universalist denominations, which Scott sums up as “Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading” of Unitarian and Universalist history. Scott does not seem to care much for the book; if I were to pick one statement from his review to sum up the book, it would be this: “This is a work of controversy.”

After Scott’s dismissive review, I concluded I won’t spend my limited free time reading this “work of controversy.” And if I haven’t read the book, I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. But I do feel qualified to comment on the controversy surrounding the book, from my perspective as a religious educator.

Progressive religious educators like me spend a lot of time thinking about how to move people to a place of greater understanding; how to get people to change their perspective; and how to get people to act in more humane ways. While a confrontational approach utilizing a “work of controversy” might work in a few educational situations, if the goal is to move people towards greater understanding and more humane action, then there are many situations where a confrontational approach will not be effective. One such situation is when you, as the educator, are talking about racism and anti-racism and the U.S. today, and your auditors include people who have been rubbed raw by racism; in that situation, a confrontational approach is less likely to lead to greater understanding or more humane action, and more likely merely to piss people off. Thus, speaking as an educator, passing out a “work of controversy” on the subject of racism seems to me to be a waste of everyone’s time.

So where do we go from here? As a religious educator, I’d say it’s fairly obvious we in the U.S. all need to deepen our understanding of how racism has affected us, and continues to affect us. And I believe we would all like to figure out a more humane way to act with one another. The Gadfly Papers has proved yet again that controversy is not a particularly useful anti-racism strategy here in the U.S. — but that doesn’t mean we should give up.

Still speaking from an educator’s perspective, I would suggest that race is such a difficult topic here in the U.S. that we are going to need a wide range of strategies to address it; no one strategy is going to work for everyone and in every situation. But how do we judge what is a good strategy? I would propose a pragmatic criterion: if an educational strategy reduces systemic racism in a measurable way, then it is a good educational strategy. For example, for a religious educator working within a majority-white local congregation, if an anti-racist educational strategy leads to an increased proportion of non-white people in the congregation without a decline in absolute numbers of white people (beyond the usual losses to death or moving away), that strategy has succeeded quite well indeed.

Speaking from my own experiences in several local congregations, I believe that educational strategies based on behaviorist models (where we modify external behaviors) are generally more successful than therapeutic models (where we attempt to influence the way people feel). Similarly, educational strategies based on progressivist models (where we work together to confront or reduce racism in the wider world) generally work better than models based on logic or rhetoric (where we try to get people to think differently about racism). While I am not good at creating educational strategies at the denominational level, I suspect the same will hold true there; in which case, books about racism, or blog posts about racism, or social media chatter about racism, are not going to be particularly effective, except where they show us how to change behaviors and increase external action.

POD for liberal religion

With the ongoing evolution of print-on-demand (POD) and ebook technologies, the publishing industry continues to change rapidly. Here are three new items in the publishing world that recently caught my eye:

(1) The November, 2013, issue of Independent, the member publication of the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), has part 3 of a series titled “What POD Can Do,” in which various small publishers report on how print-on-demand fits into their business model. In this issue, Dave Biesel of St. Johann Press reports:

“One of our early authors was John Shelby Spong. When his current publisher was not interested in reprinting his early titles, he asked if we would keep six of his books, including Honest Prayer, in print. Since we did not have deep pockets, we started by printing 50 copies using POD technology…. We ahve purchase rights to other published books, including Jim Burklo’s Open Christianity….” (Burklo, by the way, just spoke at our church on the topic of homelessness.)

St. Johann Press’s model would work well for some older Unitarian Universalist titles. For example, I’d like to see some of James Luther Adams’s books get put back in print using this model — it would take very little front money, but you could have copies on hand to ship immediately.

(2) One of the teens at church pointed me to, a platform that she uses to put finished drafts of her writing online for comments and feedback, which she then incorporates into final revisions. Yes, this sort of thing has been done before — comes to mind — but Booksie looks like it is emphasizing the social networking side of writing. Might be a good way to solicit feedback on one’s writing.

(3) The UUA might finally be catching up to the advances in digital publishing. From Long Ago and Many Lands, a great Unitarian Universalist story book first published in the 1940s, was reissued by Skinner House in 1995. Skinner House finally stopped publishing it a couple of years ago; I still use it as a curriculum resource, so when I need a copy I search used booksellers online.

But recently, the UUA decided to reissue From Long Ago as an ebook. This is an obvious step to take: you can keep the title in print, but you don’t need to keep any stock on hand. Unfortunately, however, it was only reissued in proprietary Amazon Kindle format, instead of in an open ebook format.

Furthermore, as long as you’re going to go through the trouble of setting up a book as an ebook, you might as well run it through Quark Xpress or Adobe InDesign and lay it out as both a print book and an ebook. Then you can send the files for the print version to a POD printer, and drop-ship small orders from the POD printer instead of carrying books in inventory. And if you want to have printed copies to sell in person at, e.g., General Assembly, you only buy as many as you need.


It’s a whole new publishing world out there, and we liberal religionists should sit up and take notice of the possibilities opened up by POD. In the article “What POD Can Do” mentioned above, one small publisher notes, “Because of POD, our books are effectively ‘out of print’ only if we decide to delist them. Most of our books continue to sell long after their peak. There is very little cost to keeping a book active, and POD makes this very easy.” So many liberal religious classics could be made available, either as ebooks or print copies — and interesting new books can be developed very inexpensively.