Who doesn’t love buying online? It offers a bigger selection for less money, ordered from the privacy of your home and delivered there too. But if e-commerce is great for consumers, it is moreÂ problematic for citizens. The sales tax that people pay in physical stores helps pay for the upkeep of their communities. The physical stores also provide employment; these workers can afford in turn to buy things and thus keep the economy afloat. Few such benefits flow from e-commerce.Daniel Streitfeld
California, with a colossal hole in its budget and 12 percent unemployment, is confronting this quandary as it tries to compel Amazon.com to collect sales tax. Amazon is so confident that bargain-hunting consumers will rally to its side that it is essentially ignoring the law. Maybe they will.
But astechnology/in-california-amazon-pushes-hard-to-kill-a-tax.html?_r=1&ref=davidstreitfeld "> the battle between the state and the retailer was heating up late last week, news came that Serendipity Books in Berkeley was closing. Antiquarian stores like Serendipity were once plentiful. They specialized in winnowing the detritus of the past, plucking the important material for collectors, scholars and institutions. Serendipity was for decades one of the best such shops, and eventually one of the last. In the years to come, people will have a hard time appreciating there were such places, where anyone who wanted to could look and learn and buy, or maybe just while away a rainy afternoon. So let’s spend a moment giving Serendipity its due.
The store was founded by Peter B. Howard in the early 1960s with the notion that the best bookshop in the world would have one copy of everything. It sometimes seemed as if Serendipity fulfilled this dream. Potential customers were confronted with a warren of rooms, some two stories high, with good books stuffed absolutely everywhere, including in shopping bags blocking the narrow aisles. Although there was clearly an underlying order, its nature was hard to discern; there were no signs. People would wander in a daze, sometimes asking, “Do you sell books here?” They thought it was a library or perhaps a museum.
The lack of direction was on purpose and in earnest. Mr. Howard wanted people to search for books and find not just what they were looking for but the book next to it, which they might want more if they only realized it existed. “The bookstore is an infinite array of material and knowledge of which you know nothing,” he said. “If you’re focused, you go to the library.”
Or, these days, you go online. Serendipity largely ignored the Web
as a publicity and selling device and the Internet returned the favor.
Mr. Howard might have created a wonder-filled shop, but on Yelp the reviews were few and grudging. One reviewer complained that prices were too high. Another said the store offered too little when it was buying your old books. Neither seemed to appreciate that the store could exist only because there was a merchant in the middle of these transactions trying to make a living, and that there was a benefit to the community that it was this way.
Mr. Howard bought and sold collections as well as individual books, including the worldâs greatest assortment of lost race fiction (a peculiar American fixation in the early years of the 20th century; Tarzan was its most famous exemplar); a 5,000-item gathering of material about baseball dating from 1819; proletarian literature from the 1930s; classic film scripts from all eras; geoscience and paleontology published between 1550 and 1850; pioneering collections of fiction and nonfiction about the oil industry and the Vietnam War. The store featured Carl Sandburgâs guitar and Jack Londonâs spears. The poetry sections were a trove of obscure versifiers, unrivaled by any store in the country. There were vast holdings of Canadiana, books in Russian from the early Soviet period, every book in seemingly every edition by John Steinbeck, from $20,000 inscribed copies of The Grapes of Wrath to paperback reprints. Mr. Howard believed in volume and breadth.
You needed to know what you were doing to take advantage of Serendipity, which used to be the way the world worked. Finding the books was only the beginning. After you stumbled on things you wanted to take home â" perhaps through persistence, perhaps by serendipity â" you would be making a mistake to take your choices to the bookkeeper in her alcove, the closest the store had to a checkout till. Instead, the smart customer would take them up to Mr. Howard, pausing first to see if the Giants had won their most recent game.
The fortunes of the team often affected how much he would charge for books. This quirk was so pronounced it was immortalized in print. In Samuel Gottlieb’s “Overbooked in Arizona,” the tale of a book collector gone mad, the protagonist is driving from Phoenix to Berkeley to buy books at Serendipity when the Giants lose a game they had been winning. He cuts across the median and heads back home, knowing the trip is now in vain.
If your chosen books were already priced, Mr. Howard almost always lowered the sum demanded for each unless he didn’t like you. If they were unpriced, four out of five would be less than you hoped while one would be much more. But you had to take all of them if you wanted a similar deal next time. The books would be written up by hand on an invoice, a tedious process but on Saturdays Mr. Howard nourished all comers with pastries and coffee. When the books finally changed hands, money did not necessarily follow. Like a good bar, which in some ways it resembled, Serendipity allowed customers to run a tab and pay more or less when they wanted. As I write this, I owe $388.
Suppose you took a book home and belatedly decided, for whatever reason, you did not want it? All Serendipity catalogs were emblazoned with the remark, âAny book may be returned for any reason.â I returned a book. Once. As Mr. Howard complained about my bad faith, I referred to the guarantee. Mr. Howardâs wife, Alison, who was listening, responded sweetly: âWe said weâd accept back any book. We didnât say weâd do it happily.â
Downloading ebooks was nothing like this. Serendipity was a refuge and an education.
And sometimes a pain. Mr. Howard could be a difficult man. âHe always had an instant answer he would throw in your face in the manner of some biblical prophet,â the bookseller David Mason wrote. Yet he was also wildly generous, a quality never more on display than in his famous biannual parties when the store would be swept clean and a fabulous all-day feast put on, with suckling pigs and fine wine. It was a way of rooting himself in the community. Customers would walk in with an interesting tale and interesting books, and Mr. Howard would buy them. âBecause I own the building, I can have a lot of books, and because I have a lot of books in a visible place, things can happen,â he said.
Mr. Howard was too irascible to train a successor but when he developed pancreatic cancer two years ago, he began trying to sell the store. The price would have been about the seven-figure sum that it takes to buy a nice house in Berkeley, a pittance really. There were no takers. Who wants a half-million books in the Internet Age?
The bookseller was 72 when he died on March 31, Opening Day, while watching his beloved Giants. He checked out in the bottom of the sixth, when the score was still 0-0 and before the Giants could lose. The store hung on a couple more months as the Howard family considered its options. Late last week, Nancy Kosenka, Mr. Howard’s longtime deputy, posted on her Facebook page that Saturday would be it. Sales were brisk. Late in the afternoon, a first-time customer walked in, scanned the shelves in bewilderment and inevitably asked, “Do you sell books here?” Not anymore.