A few years ago, my family took a multigenerational road trip to the Great American West. Our itinerary included Native American burial mounds, the Gateway Arch, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homestead, Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, and the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle. During the days of driving, we passed through miles of cornfields, followed by miles of prairie grass, followed by miles of what was essentially barren rock. We also passed the backside of every Walmart and Sam’s Club on Interstate 90, each looming above a squadron of spilling dumpsters. Once, I made a disparaging remark from the back seat about that great American purveyor of Chinese-made goods, and my father-in-law turned from his map-reading duties up front to exclaim, only half-jokingly, “But, Margaret, God gave us Walmart!”
Signs that Amazon is in the process of out-Walmarting Walmart, in exactly the same way that Walmart destroyed Main Street, are now unmistakable
This is not an unreasonable position to take if you live, as my in-laws did at the time, in a rural community with a “shopping district” that consists of a single block of storefronts, most of them vacant and boarded up. And though Walmart has driven countless mom-and-pop stores out of business all over this country, destroying the livelihoods and tax bases of thousands of communities, Walmart isn’t to blame for the shuttering of retail businesses everywhere: for people who live in my in-laws’ home town, the nearest superstore is forty-five miles away. In the late-twentieth century, what Walmart offered rural people is exactly what the Sears catalog used to offer them in the nineteenth and what Amazon.com is offering them now in the twenty-first: the chance to buy the same stuff everybody in the big city buys, and at prices rural people can afford.
We are well into the twenty-first century now, and signs that Amazon is in the process of out-Walmarting Walmart, in exactly the same way that Walmart destroyed Main Street, are unmistakable. There’s a rich irony in the fact that Walmart, which underprices bestselling books so badly—by up to seventy percent—that even big-box retailers like Barnes & Noble can’t compete, is now a primary bankroller of efforts by the Alliance for Main Street Fairness to force Amazon to collect sales taxes. For Amazon enjoys a pricing advantage with which even the bulk-rate buying power of Walmart, the largest retailer in the entire world, cannot compete. Where sales taxes are concerned, Walmart suffers the same pricing disadvantage of tiny Parnassus Books, Nashville’s newest independent bookstore. Given the tax advantage alone, is it any surprise that “Before the end of 2012, Amazon could own more than half of the U.S. book business across all formats,” according to at least one analysis of the company’s growth in the last three years?
People don’t buy from Amazon because they’re greedy, or because they’re stupid, or because they’re lazy, or because they’re evil.
You see where this is going. It’s the holidays, and holiday shopping—which represents twenty-to-forty percent of the annual profits for small and mid-size stores—can make or break a business, so you know good and well I’m about to make the case for buying local. But I don’t mean to demonize anyone who shops at Amazon. I understand that people don’t buy from Amazon because they’re greedy, or because they’re stupid, or because they’re lazy, or because they’re evil. A great many people buy books and almost everything else through Amazon because Amazon is the only way they can get what they need.
They aren’t only rural people and shut-ins, either. Thanks to Amazon’s own publishing efforts, and to the rising number of ebooks available only through the Kindle and Kindle apps, there are some books you literally cannot get any other way. Let’s say you’re an aspiring writer and passionate reader who loves the work of Ann Patchett, the bestselling Nashville novelist who’s now also the co-owner of Parnassus Books. Maybe you’re wishing Patchett would write down some of the tips and tricks she’s picked up in twenty years as a novelist; perhaps you might like to read any words of reassurance she can offer to assuage self-doubt? In fact, Patchett has written just such a book: it’s a wonderful little thing called The Getaway Car, but you can’t buy it at Parnassus. It’s available only on a Kindle or any Kindle-enabled electronic device.
But here’s the thing: God really didn’t give us Walmart, or Sears, or Amazon.com. Most of us live in a place where we can get almost everything we need right in our own hometowns. And as a nation we are finally coming to understand that there are practical as well as deeply human reasons for helping the local bookstore—and hardware store, and shoe store, and jewelry store, and sporting-goods store—survive. These are the businesses that employ our neighbors, whose taxes pay the salaries of our police officers and firefighters and schoolteachers, whose very presence means we are not obliged to drive forty-five miles to get what we need. Moreover, these shopkeepers are the people who know us, who make us understand that we are not anonymous or inconsequential in the larger world. Do you think this buy-local movement has escaped Amazon’s notice? It has not: tomorrow the online behemoth will offer customers a discount of five percent—up to five dollars, total—to go into a local store, scan the barcode with a smartphone, and then go home and order the same product from Amazon.
There are practical as well as deeply human reasons for helping the local bookstore survive.
It’s a one-day-only promotion, and it will save customers very little money, probably less than the cost of the gas it takes to drive to the local store and try out that little price-checking app on the iPhone or Android. Consequently it will cost Amazon itself relatively little money, certainly not as much as to costs them to sell the Kindle for less than the price of manufacturing it. But, just as underselling the Kindle is really an effort to drive the market for ebooks, the point of this promotion is not to drive additional online sales on December 10. The point is to get more customers comfortable with a gizmo that will make it even easier for Amazon to drop the local bookstore, and every other kind of store selling nonperishables, onto the dustheap of history.
To be clear, books aren’t a part of this particular promotion, but that’s only because Amazon doesn’t need to sell readers on the plan: book-buying customers are already far too comfortable with shopping in a bookstore before ordering from Amazon. When Barnes & Noble at Vanderbilt opened last month, one shopper told Chapter 16’s Sarah Norris, without a moment’s self-consciousness, that she fully intended to buy online, but first “I wanted to hold the book in my hands and check it out.” Unfortunately, she’s far from alone: a new study has confirmed what bookstore owners have long suspected—that for many shoppers, these stores are merely cozy, well-lighted showrooms for books the customer will later go home and order for a lower price from Amazon. If tomorrow’s scanning scam can inspire people shopping for electronics (and clothes, and makeup, and everything else under a store’s marquee) to buy from Amazon, it won’t be just the book business that Amazon owns virtually outright.
The point of this promotion is not to drive additional online sales on December 10. The point is to get more customers comfortable with a gizmo that will make it even easier for Amazon to drop the local bookstore onto the dustheap of history.
People, please don’t do it. As Chapter 16’s Liz Garrigan recently pointed out, Amazon’s exemption from sales-tax collection already “puts other booksellers and retailers at a competitive disadvantage. In Memphis, Burke’s Book Store and The Booksellers at Laurelwood don’t get that deal. In Nashville, Parnassus Books and Mysteries & More and Fairytales Books don’t get that deal. In Knoxville, Union Ave. Books doesn’t get that deal. They all dutifully collect sales tax and turn it over to the government to fund education, workforce development, services for the poor and disabled, and all the other functions that governments are required to provide for their citizens. Those are the rules of a civilized society.”
But if you’re going to shop online anyway, at least take the inherent risks of any sight-unseen purchase: that it won’t fit, that it’s cheaply made, that it’s ugly, that it doesn’t feel good in your hands. Don’t tie up a busy clerk’s time with questions, or waste the money a struggling shopkeeper has already spent on rent and shelf space and utilities and employee salaries and benefits, not even to mention the expertise the store owner has gained during years in the business—and which she will gladly share with you if you ask for advice—all so you can save five bucks. As Ann Patchett told The New York Times in a front-page article on the day Parnassus Books opened last month, “This is not a showroom, this is not where you come in to scan your barcode. If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.”
For more updates on Tennessee authors and books, please visit Chapter 16’s News & Notes page, here.