The Random Factor
I'll order online again, but not until memories of my book purchase gone awry have dulled. Eventually I sent Harry back to Amazon.com, but to this day, Amazon.com's computers insist that I was shipped two copies of the book I really wanted: My friend Mary Sharratt's debut novel, which was published this year by the nonprofit Coffee House Press. Hardly the latest best-seller.
As I thumbed through Summit Avenue, I thought of the last time I saw her, in Harvard Square. It was snowing great wet flakes that night, big as your thumbnail, but Mary had been going to bookstores doing guerrilla marketing: taking the books her press had published and putting them in the fronts of shelves, facing them forward so that more than a slender spine showed. Big publishers pay big bucks to get fancy display space for their books; the Coffee House Press has book lovers like Mary.
The biggest thing missing from online selling is the random factor. You're walking through a store and something catches your eye -- not the best-sellers displayed on a website's front page or items that match your search, or the selections that the collaborative filtering software is convinced you'll like because complete strangers exhibit similar buying patterns, but an item that someone left in the wrong spot. And you pick it up, and it becomes part of your day.
Or maybe there is the random factor, except now it only happens when your order lands in the wrong box. I like to imagine that Kevin and his family are reading Mary's book right now. Who knows, maybe I'll end up reading Harry Potter. I could order it from Amazon.com; as an apology, I got a $5 credit.