The book news all week, and a lot of the retail beat in general, has been dominated by Amazon—most notably, the one-day “price check” promotion that gave their consumers a discount on purchases they first scanned at in-real-life brick-and-mortar stores. Though the promotion hit electronics retailers the hardest, and books themselves were exempt from the promotion, booksellers, authors, and even one U.S. Senator (Olympia Snow, R-ME) made their displeasure known in public statements, on social networks, in newspaper op-eds (like Richard Russo’s New York Times piece), and on the sales floor (like Third Street Books, in Oregon, which declared a Ditch Amazon Day in retaliation). Still, Amazon’s tough-sell tactics also found some defenders, including author Farhad Manjoo (True Enough: Leraning to Live in a Post-Fact Society), whose contrarian piece in Slate.com, “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” drew a surprising number of like-minded comments agreeing that bookstores have become a “frustrating” experience: “a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine.” Further, he states that “As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books.” Russo himself responded to the piece, which he said was as “cleverly parsed” as it was “unexpected,” on his Facebook page.
Far be it from me to pile on Amazon for doing what companies have been doing forever: attempting to gain the biggest share of the market (in Amazon’s case, make that every market) by squeezing their competition as hard as they're able. Plenty of other people have said it, often and at length: that’s what businesses are for, to make money.
But take a look at another business that just found a new spot in the news cycle: Shakespeare & Co., the world-famous English-language bookstore in Paris, France that's served as a meeting place for literary types since the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s. The man who re-opened that store 60 years ago, George Whitman, died this week at age 98, resulting in a flurry of universally fawning obituaries, including this personal remembrance from our own Claire Kirch, hailing him as a literary icon on par with Shakespeare & Co.’s famous clientele—everyone from Ernest Hemingway (in the shop’s earlier, pre-WWII incarnation) to Allen Ginsberg (one of the reopened shop’s earliest customers). I myself caught the news on NPR, where the obituary included stories of Whitman’s unique generosity, such as his all-night open-door policy: Whitman would literally leave his door unlocked at night, providing lodging for poor writers and others without a place to stay, in exchange for an hour or two of behind-the-counter work.
My point being that, yes, businesses do have to make money—but that’s only the beginning of what they can do. When we're all looking back at the legacy of Jeff Bezos, who's going to be sharing fond memories of his strong-arm sales tactics? Will anyone except Manjoo really credit him for having “ignite[d] a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books”? Passion for books, at least from where I’m sitting, doesn’t have a lot to do with convenient new methods for buying books, or with getting them at half-price, or even with lower barriers-of-entry for aspiring authors. Passion for books comes from reading good books, from the conversation about those books, and from the real-life connections that people make because of that conversation.
So maybe, with this latest move, Amazon should be thanked for coming up with such a powerful conversation-starter. Not only has it brought the cause of local brick-and-mortar businesses, especially bookstores, further into the mainstream, it’s helped strengthen the resolve of small business-owners to nurture and provide for their community in ways a multi-national discount retailer can never match.