Saturday, March 14, 2009

Going against Amazon

Truth be told, I love Amazon. Not only do I have friends who work there (hi, Ted!), but it is an impressive space where one can find almost anything. I have found all sorts of obscure movies, CDs and books, many from used bookstores and bought at wonderful discounts. (Hour of the Assassin for 85 cents plus shipping! Woohoo!!) As a soon-to-be-published author myself, I will also admit that it has given me a minor kick to find my own book up there already available for pre-order, even as I am frantically in the midst of doing the index as I type this. (Although I am not actually attending my 20th high school reunion in a month, somehow the Amazon listing legitimizes my work for all my former classmates who otherwise could care less about academia.)

And then, on the blogroll to the right, I saw this: "Saving Shaman Drum."

Oh no, I thought. Not Shaman Drum.

The fact that Shaman Drum might be on its last legs probably should not be a surprise to me, but it fills me with great sorrow. I arrived in Ann Arbor right around the time that they moved into their current space on State Street, and I attended the opening party because it was a cool thing for a first-year graduate student in the humanities to do. I remember wandering around that party with my old friend Jack Chen (now atUCLA, apparently) as he made faces at a baby facing backwards in a backpack. I also got a phone call two days afterwards with a message that I had won a door prize: a new dictionary. I don't need a new dictionary, I have a perfectly good old one, I thought, and went in intending to ask to trade in the dictionary for perhaps a gift certificate so that I might be able to buy more textbooks. That is, until they handed me the gigantic, lovely American Heritage Dictionary, which immediately and inexplicably made me drool, causing me to say "thank you" and head for the door with a book that sits on the main floor of my house and still gets used regularly.

That book-love is what makes news of Shaman Drum's near-passing so sad -- and, as I read with horror, I realized that the reason it is probably failing is something I currently practice at my own institution: making my reading lists available to students early so that they can purchase them online. In my case, the reasoning is simply because the only option for our students at AU is the soul-less Follett bookstore which routinely has horrible service, never orders a sufficient amount of books and prices everything way over the list price. I have a number of saved e-mails where I tried to get someone to contact me about a book I had ordered that I was assured would come in, which never came in at all. This set my whole syllabus for that semester in a tailspin. I have not forgiven them for that. As such, I have actually recommended to students that they not buy at the bookstore, that they take the search into their own hands.

In part, however, my reasoning behind this was simply because our own university bookstore has a monopoly on the situation; at Michigan, I had the option of choosing between two more mainstream stores, or this little local one. I opted for the latter and loved it. At Dartmouth and UCSC, there were also other grass-roots oriented textbook-stores that successfully cut into the monopoly stores with better service and prices; in the case of the former, Wheelock Books, I was actually one of the first employees when they opened in the year after I graduated. I always wished I had another option at AU, but perhaps the large nature of Washington couldn't support that.

Shaman Drum, however, was much more than a textbook experience for me: they really do have an amazing commitment to the humanities and cultural studies in general, and I spent hours as a graduate student poring over their shelves for stuff that I should probably read. Given that my parents still live in Ann Arbor, I have actually gone there now that I am much older and done something similar (although doing it with a two- or three-year-old in tow is less of an idyllic experience, since he wants to visit a different section from the one I want to go to).

I miss Shaman Drum and it pains me that they might go. That said, I am now actively considering joining their Great Lakes Literary Arts Center solely to help them out -- and if there is a book I need, I may even bypass my own local bookstore (that would be Politics and Prose) to have them ship from Ann Arbor, if it will help them out. I certainly hope they stay alive, as that store helped shape me into the academic that I am in many ways. They deserve the support.


Jeffrey Buras said...

Did you know that your book "promulgates a fruitful area of scholarship on the importance of print culture and film criticism"?

Middento said...

I did! Of course, I knew this before anyone else, hahaha.