THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

City Lights Becomes a Waxworks

She seemed like what you might call 'a nice person.' He seemed decent enough, too. His voice a tad too loud, but not meaning to be obnoxious. They were just enjoying the days between Christmas and New Years, chatting, flirting, browsing the new non-fiction cases at City Lights. Multitasking ran deep in their veins. They were joking, scanning book jackets and discussing several topics at once.

I would have turned back to my browsing, when suddenly it caught my eye. She wasn't even looking at her phone, but in a well-practiced gesture that you might not have seen if you weren't paying close attention, she hovered her phone over the book and snapped a picture of the cover. It took less than a second but there was no mistaking the intent. City Lights had lost another sale. That $35 book would soon be coming her way from Amazon at $24.95.

The store was bustling with customers. We try to visit regularly because the browsing is always so superb -- it's impossible to glance at a shelf without discovering a terrific book that you haven't heard of before. A year ago I had been scanning a category of books near the cashier called "Books With CDs" and Arnold Steinhardt's exquisitely crafted Violin Dreams fell into my hands. (And I bought it there.) I'd never heard of it before and never seen a mention of it in print since. If not for City Lights I would never have discovered one of my favorite books of all time.

Browsing is like middle children -- something you take for granted but when it's gone society loses something important. Middle children are the buffers in a family, the ones who learn to negotiate between the typically aggressive eldest child and the clingy youngest siblings. Middle children are like saints, actually. (Full disclosure, yes, the author of this piece is a middle child, but you probably already knew that.) It was predicted a generation ago, and clearly now come to fruition, that with the shrinking American family and the decline of the numbers of middle children, we would become a more contentious people. Clearly this explains what's going on in the Senate.

Browsing has a big role to play in society, too. Browsing is the enabler of serendipity. Without browsing, the chances for the out-of-frame discovery are terribly diminished. I am still waiting for someone to say, "I discovered this really great book on Amazon." What would our world be like without serendipity? That would be gray, dear reader.

Busy as the store was, the City Lights cashiers had nothing to do but chat with each other and answer the occasional reference question. They just weren't ringing up sales. City Lights had become a free browsing service for Amazon.

We took a break from browsing and headed out for some non-touristy North Beach food. We stopped in front of a restaurant and were immediately assaulted by a hawker who swept down, apparently attempting to entice us with a breath that sang of fresh garlic. She announced the specials in an accent so obscure that even as we read the menu along with her, not a word could be understood. The dim sum parlors provided a different sort of browsing: plates of wax food that was meant to speak directly to one's salivary glands.

And then I got it. Both the restaurants and City Lights were providing a browsing experience. The difference was that the customers browsing the restaurants came in and actually bought stuff. But people browsing the books at City Lights were buying their books from Amazon, even while they were still right there in the store!

What to do?

If I ran City Lights and wanted to stay in business, I'd put big signs in the windows and behind the cash register: "We'll meet Amazon's Price!" Apparently City Lights management believes that they can't make enough money trying to match Amazon, but I have news -- making $7 on a book is better than making nothing on it. The day I was there thousands of dollars in sales were being lost. And as long as you have the traffic, do what the carwashes do. Sell other stuff to your customers at full price: accessories like reading lamps and bookmarks, gift cards, even Smithfield hams, dammit! But don't turn your bookstore into a browsing facility for Amazon. You can't go on like this.

I left the store a little depressed, fearing for a great institution. As we walked by The Stinking Rose, another North Beach fixture, I noted a woman in her thirties deep into her book as she sat by herself in the window. There was no question where she had bought her copy: she was reading a nice fresh volume of Kerouac.

So City Lights had managed to make at least one sale. I hope it wasn't the last.