It’s Tricky: A Conversation about Amazon

Posted 20 March 2016 by

When I meet people for the first time and they find out I own an independent bookstore, most are usually delighted, and thankful to hear it. They often lament the closing of a favorite independent bookstore in their own community and remark on the difficult of surviving in an age where books are so easily available for purchase online. And then, mere moments later, they will talk about a book they just bought online. I have had people tell me with pride how they saved money by ordering books on Amazon, never connecting their own behavior with the closing of their favorite community store.

When I spend time talking to people about their favorite books and making recommendations for the next great read, I suspect that many of them will purchase them online instead of driving to a bookstore. People vote with their pocketbooks, whether they realize it or not. And the impact is very real to so many of us.

Consumers are infatuated with the convenience and price of shopping online. It has become an automatic response to sitting down at the computer. Thoughts about the impact of this response on their community and beyond rarely surface.

I struggle with how to approach a conversation about Amazon with people I meet who don’t connect the dots between their buying behavior and the state of bricks and mortar stores today. I feel the need to educate them, but I worry about coming across too harshly. But when I do venture into this uncomfortable conversation, I find most people have never really thought about the impact of their decision, or the economic implications of shopping online.

As a bookseller, I am aware of this impact every day. Not only have I seen bookstores fail at a rapid rate, but I have also paid close attention to the news of Amazon avoiding sales tax (for over 10 years), the displacement of jobs, and the outright bullying of major corporations with their buying power.

But even with all of that said, I am extremely uncomfortable educating my friends and family, much less acquaintances. It some ways, it is my responsibility; not just to protect the well-being of my bookstore, but also in the interest of fairness and an equal playing field for all bricks and mortar businesses. But it’s tricky … and uncomfortable, even though people seem genuinely interested in what an independent bookstore owner has to say. It’s tricky because the truth is that people don’t have the time or inclination to change their habits. Life is busy and most people, unlike me, are not in the business of sharing the love of books with everyone they meet. I care about the state of independent bookselling and think about its future every day, but that is not most people’s reality.

Much has been written lately about the impact that Amazon has had on our economies, both locally and nationally. Here are some articles, in case you are interested in reading up:

At a New America event on January 27, the panelists from the civic enterprise agreed that Amazon’s overwhelming influence in the book market qualifies it as a monopoly. This nonprofit think tank is recommending that the Department of Justice enforce the antitrust laws in this regard. More on this discussion can be found here.

In a new analysis unveiled at the American Bookseller Association’s Winter Institute trade show in Denver the last week of January, a ground-breaking study found that more than $1 Billion in community revenue is lost every year as a result of Amazon’s business practices and expanding presence in warehouses across the country. Read about this study here and here.

Recently, American Booksellers Association President Betsy Burton had this to say:

“Amazon is a bully. Over the past years we have watched them bully numerous states, their competitors, local businesses and national chains alike, the publishers they buy their books from, the authors who write them, other manufacturers they do business with, politicians at the state and national levels. Caving to their threats is wrong. And I submit that it is dangerous. They have created an untenable antitrust environment in which it is impossible to compete. It is the duty of government to protect its citizens–and its businesses. We don’t want special treatment but we do demand that you do not pick and choose among us. We all deserve a level playing field.”

Utah loses an estimated $180 million in sales tax on Amazon purchases annually.

The ABA president noted that the state of Utah, for example, loses an estimated $180 million in sales tax annually on Amazon purchases.

And finally, and most concerning, is the announcement from Amazon of plans to open more bricks and mortar stores following the opening of its first Seattle location … and they are coming to San Diego next.  Here’s the latest news on this.

Recently, Jenn Risko, who has reported on the bookselling industry for many years, had a conversation with GeekWire about Amazon’s new strategy to build bookstores across the country. You can read it here.

 

I hope you will help us continue the conversation. Everyday there are more articles on this subject in the news and a variety of responses to Amazon’s new strategy to move off line and into our communities.

Next week, Maryelizabeth Yturralde, my business partner of over 23 years, will talk about more about this disturbing development from Amazon in our own backyard.

Terry Louchheim Gilman

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