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A place to be

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On Sept. 1, Amazon.com announced that all information about its customers was a salable company asset. Depending on what Amazon.com services you use and what affiliated companies you purchase from, that could include your phone, Social Security and driver's license numbers, as well as your address and credit card information.

Amazon.com presented its announcement as a reflection of their concern for their customers. "We want to make sure our customers know exactly how their information will be traded," spokeswoman Patty Smith told The Seattle Times.

The frank admission that our lives are an open data file should hardly come as a surprise to anyone. But hopefully, it will warn many of the bad bargain presented by Amazon's "convenience." When you buy a book from Amazon.com, you've sent money to Seattle that otherwise would have gone to a local business, augmented your community's tax revenue and helped maintain local (albeit low-paid) jobs.

I like bookstores without idealizing them. I like browsing through rows and rows of bookshelves, and reading a few pages of a book before deciding to buy it. Of course, local bookstores are businesses, but their success depends upon certain humanizing characteristics. We get in and out of many commercial establishments--the dry cleaners, the grocery store, the drugstore--as fast as possible. Bookstores are places where we browse, linger and look.

Any bookstore worthy of the name is more than a business. It's a place in the community, in the fullest sense of the phrase, where people chat, friends catch up, strangers flirt.

And while you're there, you can break off conversations, keep your distance, say, "I've got to be going." Customers can't keep their distance at Amazon.com. Under the new policy, the company no longer allows customers to restrict use of their personal information. Everything you have ever given them is theirs for good.

People tell me in utter seriousness that local bookstores don't have the books they want, but Amazon has everything. The fact is that any bookstore can get any book in print by requesting it from their distributor or directly from the publisher.

I admit that I once bought a book from Amazon. I needed it for a class, and Amazon ships in three to five days. It can take weeks to get a book ordered at a store. But how often are we truly unable to wait for a book we want? Take my own lapse, due to supposed academic necessity. As it turned out, I dropped the class.

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