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Kindle vs. Nook: A Tale of Holiday Returns with a Surprise Happy Ending

January 15, 2011

Riding around New Haven with my husband the other day, this holiday story came on NPR. It was about a new feature on Amazon that is supposed to ensure that you only get gifts you actually want. It works like this – you sign up for it and set it up with parameters that reflect your gift receiving preferences.

Know your Aunt Sally has terrible taste in sweaters? Set it up so you’re notified if Aunt Sally buys you a sweater. Instead of the a polka-dotted wolly thing arriving on your doorstep, you will receive an instant credit for the value of the sweater. And get this, Amazon will automatically send Aunt Sally a thank you note – for the sweater.

According to the story, you can also set it up to notify and ask you first before sending you sweaters from anyone, or before sending anything from Aunt Sally, or before sending anything at all, I suppose.

Great for Amazon because you’re not sending back stuff you don’t want, making a dent in the 30-plus percent of Amazon.com purchases that are returned. Great for you because you’re getting the option to put Aunt Sally’s Christmas cash toward something she would never have picked out, and she is none the wiser.

The downside, of course, is that it all feels kind of sneaky and wrong. Maybe Amazon is taking a cue from Facebook’s stealthy unfriending, but it doesn’t seem quite in the spirit of giving. People shouldn’t be able to weasel out of wearing the itchy monstrosity the next time Aunt Sally visits by getting Amazon to do their lying for them via a bogus thank you card for a gift they blocked before it was ever even sent.  Anyway, while this might work for far-flung relatives, for close friends and family, this sort of deception won’t pass muster.

Which brings me to my husband, my birthday, the library, Radio Shack and why I’ll be lucky if I ever get another gift after what I did this year.

Everything started beautifully. For my birthday, my sweet husband bought me a Kindle. This was a thoughtful and generous gift, and one he knew was well suited for a commuting voracious reader like me. I’m sure he had visions of my Kindle and I with a travel mug of coffee on Metro North, sliding toward Grand Central as the sun came up.

These are just the sort of visions that came to be, for a while. I finished up several books I’d started reading on my last long plane ride and even made it through Deliverance in just a few mornings and afternoons. Then came the day I (temporarily) ascended to the mayorship of the Mitchell Branch of the New Haven Public Library. This is an office I earned through five months of library days: Wednesday evenings with Elisio when we play centers, check out books, and fend off an annoying boy named Charles who eats too many cookies and then chases the little kids around with a dinosaur puppet.

Every time I go, well every time I remember to do it, I check in on Foursquare. This time, a couple of weeks ago, I ousted Chris M. as mayor. This guy is also the mayor of the Milford Hooters, so he did not deserve to hold office at a library too. Immediately after claiming my badge, while standing at the checkout counter, I noticed a flyer for ebooks and audiobooks that could be borrowed from the library.

I was thrilled!  Now I’d be able to read new books and ones I haven’t had time to catch up on in years on my Kindle on the train, and for free!  Blogs, online newspapers and other free online content – and a mayorship at my local library – have created a not uncommon expectation of free content. It is difficult to justify paying even $9.99 when I know I can borrow them for free with my library card.

As a result, my new Kindle was loaded up with the few (free) classics I’d missed as an English major. I was several chapters into Moby Dick. Great reading, sure, but a little dense for the morning commute or the end of a work day. So I was super excited to learn about the new electronic books available at the library. Until I asked the librarian and found out the service was not compatible with the Kindle.

“Oh, crap!” I said, a little too loudly for the library and a lot too vehemently for my husband’s taste. I think he suspected even then that something was up. The librarian handed me a list of e-readers that were compatible, and as I scanned them, the first seed of my becoming part of that 30 percent who return gifts to Amazon was born.

It took a week, but I finally decided to do it. I did further research online and learned that, in yet another savvy business move, Amazon had created a proprietary format of ebooks that is only compatible with its own device. The more common ePub format, used by other readers as well as Overdrive, which my library subscribes to for electronic books, cannot be read on Kindles.

The salesman at the giant kiosk in the Barnes & Noble downstairs from my office assured me that their ereader, the nook – which was on that list from the librarian – was a much more flexible and user friendly device than my Kindle. I played around with one of the dozen or so demo models in the store. For an iPhone user, the touch screen felt much more familiar than the clunky Kindle scroll buttons. I didn’t need the nook color – or its heftier price tag – so I debated for another week or so and, once the refund from Amazon was confirmed via email, I decided to buy the nook.

I didn’t buy any accessories, though, not even a case. I felt bad enough that under the Christmas tree had been a clip-on reading lamp and cover for my old Kindle that I had never even opened. I had just logged into Eduardo’s Amazon account, printed out the return label, and shipped them right back.

Meanwhile, I had also learned that Overdrive is compatible with the iPhone, but only the iPhone 4. That meant that just as I had been doing for over a year with the free Kindle for iPhone app (whose interface is much better than the actual Kindle, by the way), with a new device I could be reading books on my phone and have one fewer device in my already heavy bag. The iPhone lets me do most everything I need to do with content – read, write, watch, shoot, share – so it feels superfluous to carry other devices around.

I was still hanging onto my old 3G phone, however, hesitant to take the plunge for the iPhone 4 because I didn’t want to spend the money, was half afraid I’d break it, and wasn’t particularly interested in renewing a long term commitment to AT&T. I’d even explored switching to T-Mobile, the carrier Eduardo is now on. I decided not to when the chat help guy in India advised me to jailbreak my iPhone rather than recommending a comparable device. 

After that, I’d gone so far as to drive to the AT&T store to try and sort things out with them. I’d hoped a friendly customer service person might be able to help. Uh, no. No such person was in existence in the AT&T store on Boston Post Road in Orange, Connecticut. I gave the AT&T store one last try when my mom, who was visiting from Atlanta for the holidays, forgot her charger. I was attended by the same grumpy woman who had provided me non-answers to my iPhone questions that all seemed to just add up to me spending a lot more money.

While she was kind enough to break open the packaging on a Samsung charger that ended up not being a fit, it did not make up for the look of disdain she couldn’t disguise when she said, “This is a really old device.”

“You should try Radio Shack,” she added. My mom was getting desperate to get some juice to her phone at this point, so I pulled out my own phone and mapped the nearest Radio Shack. It was a featured location on Google Maps, and just across the street.

For what felt like the first time since I’d needed nine-volt batteries for a remote control car I’d gotten for Christmas, I walked in the doors of a Radio Shack store. The guy who helped me, well, get this, he actually helped me. When he couldn’t find a wall charger, he thought a minute and picked up the iGo car charger, reminding me I had been in The Shack more recently.  Two years before, to be exact, somewhere lost in the grid of mainland Miami, I’d purchased the charger along with a spare seat of earbuds.  

“Let me run out to the car. I think I’ve got one of those.”  I hopped over six inches of unplowed, dirt-flecked snow, opened the door without a word to my mom, and yanked the charger out of the cigarette lighter.  I brought it in with the iPhone nub still attached.

“What happened to your iPhone?” he asked, sympathetic, not salesy. His eyes driftted between the charger and my mom’s scratched up free upgrade flip phone. In them there was a hint of real dismay.

“This is my mom’s,” I answered.

“You like your iPhone?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I love it.”  

“You have the 3G or the 4?” I knew this was the start of the sales pitch, but this guy seemed knowledgeable and helpful, so I let it continue.

“3G,” I said. “The first generation.  I haven’t gotten the courage to upgrade yet.  Any other phones you think I might like better?”

He finished ringing up the new nub for the car charger. It was $9.99 and a perfect fit for my mom’s phone.  I just had to drive around for an hour or so and charge it up. He walked out from behind the counter, and as he did, he let me know about Radio Shack’s trade-in program.  He told me I could get up to $75 credit for my old phone.

“Do an upgrade, and you’re ony looking at $100 or so for the iPhone 4,” he said. “But if you’re looking for something else that’s cheaper, you probably can get a phone, a case and still have money left over. One of my buddies who works here tried the iPhone 4 and brought it back to trade for this one,” he said, pointing at one of the models that was connected to the display with a strip of velcro and a retractable cord.   

He showed me the Samsung Galaxy and I was intrigued, but I remembered my poor mom sitting out there in the cold and said, “Thank you very much, really.  Another day, though.”

“Sure,” he said, and he sounded sure.  Like he’d seem my kind before: unwitting victims of Genius counter snobbery and AT&T store rudeness who wandered in Radio Shack and found an unexpected oasis of actual customer service.

He was right.  I did go back.  Two days later.  

But not before succumbing to gift-intention guilt and buying myself the Barnes and Noble nook to replace the Kindle I’d returned.  With its touch screen, lovely white casing, and supposed compatibility with the library’s Overdrive software, I thought it would work.  When I emailed Eduardo when I got back to my desk after lunch, he sounded happy I’d at least kept to the spirit of his present.  

On the train home, however, I unwrapped it, turned it on and got the unfortunate message, “Please charge fully before using.”  Not good.

So a half an hour after the train got into the station that night, I found myself at Radio Shack again spending the  cash my in-laws had tucked into a Christmas ornament on a shiny new iPhone 4.  Sure, the nook offered a bigger screen and vastly better battery life, but the iPhone let me have books inside my phone and came with a built-in illumination.

When I tried downloading some titles from Overdrive, the mayoral catalyst for all of this electronics experimentation,  I spent nearly an hour of annoyance and didn’t get even one book onto the nook.  Ten minutes after I downloaded Overdrive for iPhone, I had five titles in there waiting to be read, maxing out my library card in just a few moments.

“But you don’t want to read a book on your phone,” Eduardo had said in an early objection to me essentially using the money he’d spent on the Kindle to upgrade my phone.  What I accepted on my way back into the city the next day is that I actually do.  

I had this moment while reading Nora Ephron’s latest collection of essays when I panicked – as I often do – thinking, “Ah! Where is my phone?” It was in my hand. I was looking right at it. Despite the screen size and all of the other limitations of reading books on a telephone, I had gotten so lost in the story that I forgot how I was taking it in.

I marched right back down to Barnes & Noble with the now slightly less than new nook carefully tucked back in its original packaging with the plastic wrapping wadded up inside the box.  You should have seen the look of confusion on the saleslady’s face when I pulled it out of my purse and presented it for a refund.  

“Jordy!” she called across the floor from the register to the nook kiosk area that was taking up most of the sales floor on the lower level of the store. “I’ve got a return.”

Jordy came over with the same puzzled look on his face. “The reason for your return, ma’am?” he asked, and it seemed he genuinely wanted to know.

“It’s just not for me,” I said, not wanting to spend the rest of the afternoon explaining why.  They finished the transaction and handed me a receipt.

“Well,” he said, “we can’t make people keep them, I guess.”

No, I thought, you certainly can’t.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lyn permalink
    January 15, 2011 10:52 pm

    Glad you’re happy with your choice(s)! I love my nook. Perhaps it’s the age of my eyes? Reading on my phone is not for me!

  2. February 3, 2011 9:51 pm

    Be glad you made that choice. I ha d a Nook for 6 months before a glitch caused it to dump all of my books. I spent a total of 4 hours on phone, multiple phone calls, repeated promises that someone would contact me because a replacement hadn’t been shipped. Oh, and the tracking number they gave me was for the Nook i was supposed to ship back to them after receiving my replacement. It was quite ridiculous. I told them i would be out of town, nobody gave me a correct tracking number, my new Nook ended up sitting on my doorstep for three days because nobody could give me the right information. Honestly, their customer service is atrocious. You made the right call.

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