Amazon Is Not Ten Feet Tall: Independents and Writers Take On Amazon

I've just returned from a 12 day trip to the San Francisco Bay Area. I visited my daughter Eve and her husband Richard, many friends and attended a professional conference. I also spent time hanging out with bookstore friends Christin Evans (Booksmith) and Sheryl Cutleur (Book Passage). Each store is doing well; Christin and Sheryl love what they do! But while with them, I learned of Amazon's latest outrage.

Four months ago, I wrote how Amazon was trying to avoid paying its fair share of sales taxes, thereby placing an even greater squeeze on publicly supported education, health care and police and fire protection just to name a few. Over 30 years ago the late Senator and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, in the midst of nuclear arms negotiations with the former Soviet Union, said the Russians aren't ten feet tall. Don't be afraid of them, Muskie urged,  if you're smart in negotiating with them and learn of their vulnerabilities. Strong opposition to Amazon's public rip-off proved that Jeff Bezos and Amazon are not ten feet tall. Amazon had to back down.

However, my bookstore friends reported to me that Amazon continues to undermine and trespass on local physical retailers across the country, including independent bookstores. As reported by journalist Ryan Tate, announced publicly that it "will pay customers up to $5 to go into a local store, scan an item, walk out, and buy the same item on Amazon."

American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher weighed in as well. Teicher sharply wrote Bezos that the Amazon retail price app in effect breaks the Amazon pledge to obey the law and collect sales taxes by allowing "shoppers to browse Main Street stores that do collect sales taxes, scan a product, ask for expertise and walk out empty-handed in order to buy on Amazon."

Teicher called Amazon out on what it's move really is: "the latest in a series of steps to expand your market at the expense of cities and towns nationwide, stripping them of their unique character and the financial wherewithal to pay for essential needs like schools, fire and police departments, and libraries."

New York Times / Rumors

On December 13 Richard Russo, a novelist many of us admire, weighed in with an op-ed in The New York Times. Russo, a savvy organizer, asked other fiction writers who do well on Amazon, what they thought of Amazon's new attack on independent retailers. To a person they had nothing good to say about the move or Amazon. The authors included Andre Dubus III, Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Ann Patchett, Tom Perrotta, Anita Shreve, and Scott Turow, who is president of the Authors Guild.

Lehane called it "scorched-earth capitalism. They don't win unless they destroy the competition." Dubus expressed his outrage by stating that Amazon is trying to turn its customers into "Droid-packing" spies and "devalue, as a cultural and historic necessity, the book" itself. Anita Shreve said losing independent bookstores is "akin to editing...a critical part of our culture out of American life."

Ann Patchett is a new independent bookstore owner in Nashville--a highly regarded novelist and entrepreneur. Her comments also bear listening to. 

“There is no point in fighting them or explaining to them that we should be able to coexist civilly in the marketplace,” she wrote ... “I don’t think they care. I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.” 

Russo learned about Amazon's move from his daughter, who is a bookseller in Brooklyn. I thought about the prophet Malachi's call for parents and adult children to stand together. Passion for books - and the passion of those who write, read, and sell them - makes that happen!

David Cohen