It’s not often that bookstore owners are able to peek out from behind the rattle and hum of our daily operations long enough to engage with the larger economy. Recently, my partner Jarek Steele; Betsy Burton of King’s English Bookshop of Salt Lake City; and I visited Washington, D.C., with a delegation from the Small Business Majority, an advocacy group focused on solving the biggest problems facing small businesses today.
In our visit to Washington, our band of business owners kept to a tight schedule, and in barely two days we met with a number of Beltway heavyweights: White House senior advisor and assistant to the president Valerie Jarrett; assistant to the president for economic policy Gene Sperling; EPA administrator Gina McCarthy; deputy secretary of Health and Human Services Bill Corr; and Small Business Administration chief of staff Jonathan Swain. We also made trips to see senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Lamarr Alexander, and Debbie Stabenow, to name a few.
Everyone we met with received us warmly, as we expressed our support for the Affordable Care Act, explored means of giving business owners easier access to capital, and decried the devastating impact that both the sequester and climate change can have on small businesses. We reminded folks that small businesses are the leading creators of jobs in this country. It was heartening to find general agreement from these policy makers on our larger concerns.
But our concern about one issue that is critical to independent bookstores, other retailers, and the economy in general surprised some officials, particularly in the White House and the Department of Justice. I’m referring to the government’s blind support of Amazon’s questionable business practices.
When I spoke with Ari Matusiak, special assistant to the president and director of private sector engagement, he expressed genuine surprise that the running joke among bookstore owners is that the DOJ has become Amazon’s legal team. He and others were not aware that Amazon is not a job creator, but in fact has cost this country some 42,000 jobs. Until Betsy pointed it out, it had never occurred to some officials at the Department of Justice that Amazon might be engaging in predatory pricing. It also came as something of a stunner to these officials that the group most affected by the ruling on e-book price-fixing is independent bookstores, who are left unable to compete with Amazon.
Their responses did not surprise us. Booksellers groaned when President Obama smiled and waved beside that stack of boxes imprinted with Amazon’s creepy smile logo in a warehouse in Tennessee. We groaned again at the form letters we got in response to our letters protesting this photo op. For no apparent reason, independent bookstores—the very job creators, community leaders, and taxpayers Obama’s administration and government officials should be heralding—have become targets rather than heroes in this economy.
Why? Amazon controls the message. Just as tissues came to be universally referred to as “Kleenex,” e-readers have become “Kindles,” and shopping online has come to mean shopping on Amazon. Amazon’s hegemonic control of all things bookselling has meant that few—even those in positions to know better—realize that its message is just propaganda.
Booksellers need to speak up loud and clear and set the record straight with folks in Washington: we may not have a multi-million-dollar lobby, or $600 million to spend on advertising the Kobo reading devices, but we do have the voices of over 3,000 small business owners and elected officials with whom we can meet. And now we have the ear of some open-minded officials who are ready and willing to listen. Public engagement is the cornerstone of democracy. It is what will drive this economy in the direction it needs to go.
By all means, independent bookstore owners should be involved in the ABA and the Small Business Majority. But don’t stop there. Engage. Write letters to the editor. Blog. Get other small businesses in your community involved. Talk to those conservative Republican members of the House about how we support the Affordable Care Act, need the Marketplace Fairness Act, and will be devastated financially by a government shutdown. Include your representatives’ names in your articles so they will see them.
It sometimes seems impossible to do much in addition to the work it takes to stay in business. But this is the work it takes to stay in business.