A few years ago, my family took a multigenerational road trip to the great American West. During the days of driving, we 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!”
This is not an unreasonable position to take if you live in the middle of nowhere, where even the nearest superstore is 45 miles away. In the late-20th century, what Walmart offered rural people is exactly what the Sears catalog used to offer them in the 19th and what Amazon.com is offering them in the 21st: 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 21st 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 70 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 past three years?
You see where this is going. It’s the holidays, and holiday shopping — which represents 20 to 40 percent of the annual profits for small and midsize 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 everyone who shops at Amazon. A great many people in this country buy books and almost everything else through Amazon because it is the only realistic way to 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 e-books 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 best-selling 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 20 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. 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 toy store, 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 45 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. On Dec. 10 the online behemoth offered customers a discount of 5 percent — up to $5 per item, up to $15 total — to go into a local store, scan the barcode with a smartphone, and then go home and order the same product from Amazon. Book-buying customers have already proven the effectiveness of this predatory strategy: A new study has confirmed what bookstore owners have long suspected — that for many shoppers, these stores are merely cozy, well-lit showrooms for books the customer will later go home and order for a lower price from Amazon. If people shopping for electronics (and clothes, makeup and everything else under a store’s marquee) begin to buy in equal numbers from Amazon, too, it won’t be just the book business that Amazon owns virtually outright.
People, please stop. 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 shelving 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 $5. As 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.”