“The Amazon Two-Step” by Lacey N. Dunham

This is the latest in Lacey N. Dunham’s Bookseller I’d Like to F***. To go to the column page, please click here.

Call it the Borders effect.

Ever since the news of Borders’ closing was announced, it seems I’ve been fielding a single customer question: “Are youclosing?” The answer is no. Most customers are relieved. One or two smile wryly and say: “Not yet, huh?” A few who expected a storewide sale are disappointed.

Even though I work at an independent bookstore, I take little pleasure in the demise of Borders. Sure, there was a bit of Schadenfreude when the news was official. I now have one less mega bookstore competitor at which to leer – take that you corporate chains! – but contrary to the assumption of all my friends, I haven’t relished in Borders’ demise. Many of my colleagues formerly worked at one of the mega chains (Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million) and disturbed as I am by the horror stories of their time there – forced to wear nametags! And uniforms! And earn minimum wage! – Borders’ Chapter 11 filing puts people out of jobs and leaves communities with one less place to purchase books.

Besides, as much as I loathe when customers bring a book they bought at Barnes & Noble to an author signing at my bookstore – usually with the watery excuse of “Well, I wasn’t sure if you would have the book” – I think the greater evil resides elsewhere: Amazon.

While the brick-and-mortar mega chains certainly haven’t been great friends to the indie bookstore, we’re at least distantly companionable cousins whose mutual inheritance is threatened by an enormous, faceless bully. Amazon’s business practices overstep the boundaries of the competitive marketplace as it leverages its magnitude against state governments and publishers, some of whom (like Texas, Illinois, and the publisher Macmillan) have attempted to fight back.

Yes, Amazon sells books at a less expensive price than my indie bookstore can, because they don’t pay taxes in most states where they operate.  They aggressively wield their enormous market share to strong-arm publishers to agree to pricing tactics that cleverly step around antitrust laws. They also aren’t concerned about profiting from book sales; similar to Wal-Mart and Target, whose foray into bookselling usually extends no further than mass market editions of Dan Brown and Nora Roberts, encouraging readers to shop for books often results in non-book purchases that deliver a greater kick-back. The book is incidental to the toaster, sweater, pair of socks, and electronic item that render a loss of money on a book sale a profit to the retailer.

People have told me that shopping at Amazon is easier because it’s an online retailer. This entirely neglects that indie bookstores worth their weight in first editions have websites where books can be purchased online and shipped directly to your home, often in the same amount of time it takes Amazon. Even without an indie bookstore nearby, you can still support indie retailers.

Amazon doesn’t care about readers or books. What differentiates most indie bookstores from Amazon and the chains is a staff passionate about reading and who will go to lengths to put the right book in someone’s hand. I once had a customer ask me for a book recommendation and listed the following perimeters: non-fiction, written by a woman, funny but not too funny, no New York City or high society settings, nothing overly academic or involved but also not a mindless read, paperback, published in the last year, shorter than 350 pages and, oh yes, preferably a cover that was either blue, light purple, or green, because she was tired of books with garishly red and dark covers. How is Amazon going to find this book for someone? Is there an algorithm for “highly demanding, extremely particular, if slightly unrealistic reader”? I handed her a copy of Rhoda Janzen’s memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. She said it was perfect.

* * *

With a shift in publishing toward larger profit margins, Amazon has become instrumental to publishers’ bottom lines. This isn’t a surprise; the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. has been cut by more than half in the past two decades and their influence on the big six publishers has waned. But as Amazon siphons more and more readers from bookstores and publishers by positioning themselves as both a retailer, including the top position as the electronic book retailer via the Kindle, and as publisher through their Amazon Encore enterprise, the company threatens to redefine the entirety of publishing. If publishers are at Amazon’s whim—and publishing representatives frequently attest that they are—is a publisher going to take a risk on books that might not have the immediate commercial success of, say, Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy? Is there a place for debut authors or writers of literary fiction? In the world of “cheaper is better” for the consumer, will the consumer really benefit if the only books available for purchase, even at the price of $9.99, are Danielle Steele, John Grisham, and Alexander McCall Smith? Wallets might benefit but the literary future of America will definitely lose.

Amazon is an “it,” an entity without personality whose defining characteristics, driven by our consumer culture, is “cheap” and “fast,” whereas my indie bookstore has a very strong personality largely defined by our founders: cultivated, literary, opinionated, political, curious, helpful, socially liberal and slightly old-fashioned. We look up your books for you instead of directing you to a computer terminal. We ask after your kids and grandkids. We invite you to join us over our lunch break in the café, where numerous writers—from novelist Carolyn Parkhurst to culture journalist Judith Warner—are clacking away at their laptops. If requested, we walk your purchases to your car parked three blocks away.

At work, I have never been pressured to up sell – if a customer asks for a good beach book, I’ll put three or four in her hand and tell her whichever she doesn’t want she can leave with any employee. I’m not required to sell a certain number of memberships each time I work the cash register. I’m honest with customers about books and won’t give them one I can’t genuinely recommend. I believe firmly customers respect this because they know whenever they ask for assistance finding a book, they’re not going to feel like they have to buy four others. They trust us to sincerely recommend good books, not just ones the publisher is paying us extra to promote.

* * *

When someone says the word Amazon, I see flames and pitchforks and hear the desperate choral strains of the Carmina Burana’s “O Fortuna.” The prick of irritation I feel when someone I know shops at a mega chain – or worse, buys me a book from a mega chain – is nothing compared to the rage that overtakes me they buy a book from Amazon. For Christmas, I asked my brother for the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. I told him he could order online through my bookstore or, if he didn’t want to pay shipping for something I could easily pick up from work, he could purchase a gift card that I could use toward the book. He ended up buying the book himself and had it shipped – from Amazon. To me, it’s like driving a Toyota when your whole family works at GM.

If Amazon’s corporate fortunes were built upon oil or coal mining or snapping the necks of baby kittens instead of on books, I think more people would reconsider shopping with them. While it’s true that businesses’ main preoccupation is the bottom line, for my indie bookstore, profits are as much about reaching out to our local community, creating a public space for discussion and debate, and supporting the careers of authors we truly believe in as it is about dollars and cents. Amazon doesn’t care about its customers or its authors. It doesn’t even care about books. It just wants to sell you something.

More of Lacey N. Dunham’s Bookseller I’d Like to F*** at Used Furniture.

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