Ho, ho, ho, my sweet wee wassails, it’s the end of September, so naturally we’re talking about the holidays. It may not be time to select your tree, light the menorah, or dance beneath a solstice moon, but it is time to start thinking about where and when you’re going to buy gifts. Because “supply chain,” darlings, two words I rank only slightly higher this year than “COVID-19,” “caffeine-free,” and “new adult.”
You’ve probably seen the articles explaining supply chain disruptions, but the physical and logistical mechanisms of e-commerce are confusing, and I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how books are being impacted and what a conscientious local shopper is supposed to do when every option points to online shopping.
I hope my answers, below, help alleviate some of the confusion or stress you’re experiencing. And remember, whatever retail road you choose, “presence not presents” is what counts in the end. The best gift is almost always the attention of those we love.
÷ ÷ ÷
Dear Aunt Paige,
I keep hearing about the "dysfunctional supply chain," but I don't understand what that means. Can you break it down?
I’m not surprised you’re confused. A whole lot goes on behind the scenes to get one lovely book into your hot, little hands. The basic supply chain for most bookstores looks like this:
Printer --> Publisher --> Distributor --> Bookstore --> Customer
Behind each of those little arrows hide any number of issues that can cause delays: the weather, supply, staffing, and more. Toss in a good measure of COVID and you’ve got a recipe for cascading slow-downs across the industry, which is where we (and many industries) are right now.
The arrow between printer and publisher is a biggie. With many printers in the U.S. having closed in recent years, a lot of book printing has moved overseas. The overseas arm of the supply chain is plagued with understaffing, shipping backups, and skyrocketing shipping container costs. As I write, there are thousands of shipping containers filled with books enduring weeks- and months-long waits to get on ships.
And that’s just the beginning of the journey. Once they cross, they encounter congestion at the ports. Then they’re off to trek across the country: from ports (with delays due to trucking shortages) to publisher warehouses (where they encounter employee shortages); from publisher warehouses to distributors (more trucking shortages, more employee shortages); from distributors to Powell's warehouse (yes, more shortages). Eh, I’m exhausted and I haven’t even gotten to possible delays in shipping due to postal carrier shortages!
My advice for the holidays? Shop early, shop early, shop early
. And keep an open mind. Even in times like these, the world of books is an abundant candy store. Be that proverbial kid in it. If you can’t track down that one book you think would be perfect for that person on your list, ask a bookseller, read some staff recommendations. Trust me, lollipop, you’ll still find that perfect gift.
÷ ÷ ÷
Dear Aunt Paige,
Shopping at small, local stores is expensive and I'm on a budget, particularly around the holidays. It's a nice idea, but isn't "indie" for rich people?
The answer I often hear when this question comes up is that the hidden costs of larger businesses — their lack of contribution to local taxes or the local economy, the environmental damage they cause, the strain they put on the social safety net by underpaying their employees — means that purchasing from them is more expensive in the long run. That is certainly true, but as your Aunt Paige well knows, it can feel like an incredibly pat answer. When you are staring down the $78.39 in your checking account, trying to figure out how you are going to pay your bills and also participate in the heavily commercialized and stress-inducing yearly tradition of somehow distilling your love for your friends and family into the perfect purchase, the long-term costs aren't always top of mind. Eh, I'm already feeling the pressure.
There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution here, sweets. I'm not one to judge if your shopping habits don't always align with your indie values (those who live in glass houses, etc.). I will say that over the years I've shifted towards buying more things locally and sustainably, because it supports the local community, but also because the story behind those things gives me a feeling of place and connection when I use them.
That goes double for gifts. And they don't have to be expensive to be heartfelt. Anyone can purchase gifts from Amazon, but local gifts have a story. Your sister loved Nong's Khao Man Gai when she came to visit? Send her a bottle of that incredible sauce
. Your best friend is a board game buff? Ask an expert at Guardian Games
for a wallet-friendly recommendation. Know any beauty product lovers? Portland's Mister OK's Essentials
is a Powell's staff favorite for their affordable soaps, body butter, and candles. For the booklover in your life, may I suggest a used copy of a favorite book? Bonus points if it has thoughtful notes in the margins. Are you both locally based and vaccinated? Use The Portland Book of Dates
as a guide and give an experience instead of an object.
Don't forget that the most meaningful things in life are not the most expensive. And if you're interested in learning more about why it is important to shop independent and local, try Fulfillment
or How to Resist Amazon and Why
÷ ÷ ÷
Dear Aunt Paige,
I understand intellectually why I shouldn't be shopping on Amazon, especially for books. But a lot of my favorite local stores have half-empty shelves or incredibly long wait times for orders. It feels like I don't have choice. Help?
It’s a jungle out there
First, you’re not wrong: Amazon is front of mind for most shoppers because Amazon is a great retailer.
, sweetheart. But stick with me.
Unlike most large companies, Amazon has spent years stalling its shareholders while reinvesting its profits in everything from warehousing and distribution to publishing, streaming services, and creative content development. Amazon has always played a long game in a commerce environment more focused on sparse, short-term investments that keep supplies thin and costs low. The latter can be a smart strategy, and for independent businesses is often a financial necessity, but it leaves companies vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and customer dissatisfaction
The other key thing Amazon has done is steadily change consumer expectations regarding product choice, pricing, and shipping times. With an insanely diverse range of options for every kind of product
, most of which ship for free in one day, it’s a lot harder to motivate yourself to drive to the local hardware, home supply, beauty, cookware, etc. store, which might not have what you want, and if it does might be charging more for it — due to supply chain issues but also (drum roll, please) because there’s no value in stocking it anymore since everyone’s just buying it on Amazon anyway.
So, there are really two things going on that are leading to those half-empty shelves and long delays: real supply chain issues that are making raw materials scarce and increasing shipping costs and
the reaping of our online shopping addiction, which has hollowed out the main street economy we still rely on to keep our neighborhoods, towns, and cities strong.
Shopping local is the best way to make your money work for your community. It encourages entrepreneurism, supports local makers and labor (and tax-payers), helps limit the environmental impact of our consumer habits, and even fills those empty shelves because if people demand it, local shops will supply it.
We do all have a choice about where we shop, but avoiding Amazon requires a willingness to make do with fewer choices and longer waits, and sometimes doing research to find either better online alternatives or the companies and stores in your town that have or will order what you’re looking for. This makes shopping less spontaneous, but it also gives you time to consider the purchases and to really appreciate what you buy and who you’re buying it from.
÷ ÷ ÷
The holidays aren't the only exciting dates around the corner! National Novel Writing Month begins on November 1, and I'm answering all of your questions about how and why to participate. Send them to [email protected] by October 10 for a chance to be included in my next column.