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The Neverhood of Internet Commerce

New technologies sometimes offer an illusion of benefit that holds true only within a narrow economic frame. While we eagerly chase the savings in money and effort that a new tool seems to offer, we may disregard the wider, social costs that may eventually mock our sense of prosperity.

This bane of false economy haunts today’s push for Internet shopping. A vast cybermall has recently moved into every village, town, and city, selling clothing, CDs, computers, automobiles, and other products to millions of potential customers. Digital entrepreneurs predict that people will relish the convenience of buying things on the Net, flocking to stores whose electronic doors are always open and where parking is never a problem.

The hoped-for bonanza of Internet commerce has not yet materialized; most online establishments are still in the red. But a few retailers have begun making strong inroads into traditional business domains, especially in the realm of book selling.

At first glance electronic book vendors such as Amazon.com, Book Stacks Unlimited, and others have much to recommend them: enormous catalogs searchable by home computer, 24-hour-a-day service, literary reviews on the Web, and other nifty services. Amazon.com, for example, carries 1.5 million English-language books, roughly 10 times the number available in the largest conventional stores. Adding to their appeal, Internet sellers typically offer impressive discounts of 10 to 40 percent.

But before we shift our purchases to Internet vendors, we need to recognize a hidden price we may end up paying: the demise of traditional shops. A bookstore is first and foremost a gathering spot for those who care about books and reading. In these places the purchase of a product is only part of the experience. As we enter the stacks, we often expect to talk with store clerks or other patrons about what’s new or interesting in a particular genre.

This aspect of browsing is especially important for children as they approach a life with books. “I’m finished with all the Brian Jacques stories,” my son recently announced to Muriel, proprietor of a bookshop in our town. “Are there any more of that kind?” The kindly white-haired woman raised her eyebrows, smiled, and led him up the stairs to a shelf of children’s novels, enthusiastically describing each volume. The $9 we paid for the book cannot approach the real value of Muriel’s gift-a child’s heightened sense of the horizons between two covers.

Some will argue that fast search engines supplemented by online help desks can replace the human touch that traditional stores have to offer. But this reflects an impoverished understanding of what the social life of books involves. Even if a Web site learns our names and buying habits, even if it automatically notifies us when “books you want to know about are published,” can it connect us to the world of living readers, the place where the pages come alive? I don’t think so.

The personal benefit that bookstores and other local shops provide is magnified by the way they buttress the civic culture of our towns and cities. One sign that a community is flourishing is the presence of well-maintained, well-stocked shops in downtown and neighborhood centers. There is now widespread awareness that the arrival of huge, corporate superstores tends to kill small businesses, leaving main street with boarded-up buildings, prey to the social ills that spread when the economic core of a community expires. It is this realization that has spurred citizens in many towns to band together to resist the coming of Wal-Mart and its ilk.

But I wonder if those residents newly vigilant about megastore sprawl are aware that potentially greater destruction will occur as people abandon local concerns to start buying online. The threat to those concerns from Net vendors is far more insidious than that posed by the large national chains. Communities may summon their powers to unite against a Borders or Wal-Mart. But QuickBucks.com will creep in under their radar screens. Many shops survive on a precarious margin and are not robust enough to withstand the onslaught of electronic commerce. If 10 to 15 percent of the sales of your local bookstore quietly migrates to the Internet, it’s likely that the shop will eventually fold.

This suggests that we will have to become more judicious about where and how we make purchases. In my view that means avoiding Internet commerce when there are reasonable, local sources of supply. It is not a question of altruism, but of self-interest broadly conceived. The short-term advantage of sending money to a data-processing organization in Seattle for a bargain-priced book makes no sense if the action depletes the economy down the street and undermines the integrity of community life.

Yes, we should use every Internet resource to explore the market and make intelligent comparisons. But when it comes to casting “dollar votes,” we can better spend the money closer to home, in a neighborhood where people actually live rather than the neverhood of digital bits.

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