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

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 17th, 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.

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