The Bricks-and-Mortar Bookstore: Last Bastion of Privacy?

Elizabeth Bluemle - March 17, 2011

Image by B. Tal

I have a friend — let’s call her “me” — who recently became interested in an unconventional topic. (Lest your curiosity lead you in bizarre directions, let me assure you that no weapons dealing or illegal activity of any kind were involved.) In researching books I might want to read, I quickly realized how little privacy is left to the modern-day consumer.
While I, as a bookseller, have the luxury of ordering books from distributors and making purchases in relative privacy, my customers must choose between online book ordering — which seems anonymous but in fact leaves quite an information trail — and in-store purchasing, which—while it involves face-to-face interaction with the cashier— is also the only method left to buy a book anonymously.
Think about it. Anyone can come into The Flying Pig, or another store, plunk down some cash, and leave with a book no one can or will trace. Nor will that purchase generate recommendation lists that pop up whenever the customer—or his wife, or children—logs on to the website. No one at the bookstore will sell that information to marketers in order for them to build profiles of customer preferences, spending habits and abilities. No one will violate that reader’s freedom to read, or his privacy.
That is no small wonder in this day and age when every street corner has a surveillance camera, and every online click garners a cookie.
Note: many bricks-and-mortar stores do use their point-of-sale systems to create frequent-buyer programs that reward customer loyalty, and those programs can track customer sales histories. This comes in handy for parents and grandparents wanting to check past purchases, but also creates temptation for federal agencies wanting to link suspects to reading materials. Many stores stopped using these systems altogether after the infamous case during which the Tattered Cover in Denver valiantly defended freedom of speech and privacy for their customers, attempting to protect those records from a search warrant.
As an experiment, I did some random recent Google ebook purchasing, a little like Link and Violet in M.T. Anderson’s Feed, who defiantly typed in a ridiculous variety of search terms to throw off corporate trackers trying to analyze their consumer preferences. I’ll be interested to see what, if anything, will crop up as a result. Will I start getting woodworking- and ballet-targeted ads in my Gmail account?
Does privacy make a difference to you as a reader? Or are you willing to trade that for the convenience of downloading? Where and when does a reader draw the line? And is privacy a thing of the past? Let us know what you think.

15 thoughts on “The Bricks-and-Mortar Bookstore: Last Bastion of Privacy?

  1. Haila Willliams

    Good point! I’d hate for everyone to know I’m codependent on my dog! In a bookstore I can sit down and quickly skim the books to see which has the best information BEFORE I buy it. Also I can go to a section and see all the relevant titles at once, whereas, online, without the exact title or author, I may well miss a lot of books because I can’t search it.

  2. Suzanne Arruda

    Libraries are also a bastion of privacy. In defense of freedom of speech, Librarians will NOT divulge what books a patron has checked out. I am using that fact in my latest manuscript when an officer of the law tries to find out who’s interested in particular information.

  3. pauline klein

    I do think about it. I order online from several bookstores and therefore get email from them suggesting other titles based on my previous orders or browsing. that puts me off, my interests vary and some of my ordering is for gifts or work. anyway, I don’t plan to give it up anytime soon, but I do miss anonymity.

  4. Ann Manheimer

    Another reason not to let our wonderful brick and mortar booksellers become extinct! Northern California and Vermont are so lucky to still have independents, and I’m hoping the e-book revolution will help keep them going. Which raises the question — can privacy be maintained with e-books?

  5. MC Jones

    Interesting that I think of the “online” option as the more anonymous way of purchasing books, when, in fact, they do keep a much more detailed profile of me than does my favorite local bookstore. Of course, for me, one of the joys of reading is social, and this includes picking my local bookseller’s brains for their opinions. (And then giving them min when I am done!) Much more personal and enjoyable than reading reviews online from folks I don’t know. If I wanted true anonymity, I’d have to cross the border…

  6. Maureen Wheeler

    Great post. I told someone just today “I look at my bookshelf and it tells the story of my life. I will never be a Kindle person.” A book in my hands is better than a glass of wine and sitting in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night – now THAT’S saying something!
    As for privacy, I feel so old fashioned that I even want any. We seem so willing to sacrifice it all for technology. Not a great trade off in my opinion. I adore my local bookstore (The Flying Pig!) and enjoy the purchase as much as the book. Who ever enjoyed ordering online?

  7. Jeannie Mobley

    Good post. It reminds me also of a recent commentary I heard on NPR about the sharing highlights feature on the kindle–that it allows you to see what other people have highlighted in a book, and allows others to see what you highlighted. The commentator (wish I could remember who it was) was pointing out how the privacy of reading is destroyed for him that way. That going to a new book and reading it is supposed to be an intimate moment between you and the book, and to him this feature allows the whole world to intrude on that moment and tell you what they think is important in what you are reading instead of letting you form your own opinion in private.

  8. Becky

    This issue is sooo muddy. I track my customers’ purchases for a loyalty program, but only by dollar volume, not title or ISBN. I search Google for medical information before I call the doctor – or after I’ve seen the doctor, or when a friend is ill. I buy everything from music to lightbulbs (but not books!) online. I use Facebbok. I bank online. Some of this makes me nervous; I wouldn’t want my insurance company to know that I searched “mammogram guidelines” and “goiter,” for instance, but I don’t care if my Facebook profile yields ads for “belly fat secrets.” So what? I ignore them. But when a customer I know comes to the counter with “Divorce in Vermont,” I get very squeamish. I don’t see, then, how buying it in my store yields them any more privacy than going online – and risking recommendations for titles on child custody and personal finance, which they may well need, but I’m not going to offer. If the FBI came to me wanting to know if a customer of mine bought a Communist title, I’d tell them to go screw and hire a lawyer. But if they asked if that creepy kid being investigated for planting a bomb bought “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” I very well might give them what they want. I don’t mind being video taped while at the ATM, but I don’t want to be photographed in my home. Privacy issues come in every shade of gray, but also in black and white, in my opinion, and it’s our responsibility as thinking beings to recognize what is important and what is not.

  9. Ronald Czarnecki

    An interesting way of looking at the value of bookstores vs. on-line purchasing. Privacy, however, is now but a figment of imagination in the minds of some.
    The real value of the bookstore experience is that ability to browse through the walls of book covers, scanning the jackets for reviews and comments by other authors. I could easily enjoy days lost amongst the shelves of any bookstore. My vacation trips always involve time spent in the local bookstore looking for that special discovery. Even my trips to Costco end with my wife dragging me away from the newest “first editions” displayed there. As my collection grows, I will soon be needing another room to store them. My books are now double parked on every shelf.
    My dream was once to own a bookstore, but that dream quickly disappeared as I have seen most all of my favorites closing. It’s up to all of us to continue to support our local bookstores. The loss of our bookstores would be a horrible tragedy.
    The next time you visit a bookstore, scan the children’s section of the store and look at the mesmerized, happy faces of the children browsing through the books. Imagine a city without libraries and without bookstores and you will see a population less educated and more stressed.
    We’ve got to save our bookstores before it’s too late. Take your children and your grandchildren to the bookstore. Spend some time with them there. Show them the world available, right there, for them to see. Help them pick out a couple of them, buy them, and let the little ones enjoy an experience they will always remember and will often repeat!

  10. Nick Bruel

    And then there’s the problem posed to folks in my line of work… you can’t sign an eReader.
    Well, I guess you can… but I find that people sometimes get upset.

  11. Kitti

    I don’t spend much time worrying about privacy, tho I’m assured by others every day that it’s important. But when I stop to think about some stranger being able to track where I am or what I’m doing? If I do let my imagination run that way? All my hair stands on end.
    That said, I don’t have an independent bookstore and never have in my life. I begin to wonder if that may change soon. The thoroughfare near my house is slowly going from residential to commercial. Maybe one of those big old houses will get transformed into a lovely bookstore/cafe`… Ok, now I’m just daydreaming.

  12. Susan Riley

    Don’t forget that you can check out books at libraries and once you’ve returned them, your record is completely wiped out and can’t be tracked. If you want privacy, use your library and return your items on time.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      That’s good to know about libraries, Susan. I’m a huge library supporter in general, but I didn’t know that the records are now being wiped out — so now I am even more of a library fan. (Really, if I had to choose between bookstores going out of business or libraries, I would shut down the store. Um, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, thought.) I was talking with a senior at the store the other day, who was lamenting the lack of circulation cards in card pockets where people’s names were listed. She said she loved being able to see who’d read the book before, and know that she could strike up a conversation with them. That was the system for much of my life, too, but it seems unthinkable now!

  13. Cindy Orr

    Librarians are passionate about privacy.
    If you don’t think privacy is anything to worry about, read here about four librarians who refused to turn over records and how they were treated:
    This was a huge issue in libraries at the time, and many put up signs saying “The FBI Has Not Been Here (watch closely for the removal of this sign)” because the Patriot Act said that if the FBI approached you you could not tell anyone about it under penalty of jail.
    This is a good time to remind people that the Senate is considering new revisions to the Patriot Act. Please contact your Senator and urge him to vote to get rid of the “library provision.”


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