Booksellers Speak Out Against Amazon, Educate Customers

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President Obama’s jobs speech at an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on July 30 set the stage for an outpouring of disappointment from bricks-and-mortar bookstores as the president lauded Amazon for creating jobs and supporting the economy.

Widespread media attention following the event highlighted the American Booksellers Association’s letter to the president as well as the many letters written on behalf of booksellers by regional bookseller associations.

Independent booksellers across the country have also expressed their disappointment, crafting their own responses to President Obama’s choice of venue for his speech.

Sheri Olson, co-owner of Reading Frenzy Bookshop in Zimmerman, Minnesota, and Reading Frenzy Corner in Elk River, talked with her local newspaper last week about the president’s appearance at the Amazon facility, which happened to fall on the same day that Zimmerman wrapped up the month-long, buy local celebration Find Waldo Local.

In a town that relies on local dollars to support its Main Street businesses, Olson wrote a passionate letter to the president before his visit to Tennessee, asking him to change the location of his speech. “I am trying to understand how supporting a monopoly such as Amazon helps small businesses and middle-income Americans,” she said. Her advocacy on behalf of small businesses earned her words of praise from community members and fellow business owners.

Olson’s motivation to speak out against Obama’s visit to Amazon comes from a deep place. Tomorrow, Reading Frenzy’s Zimmerman location, which opened in 2010, will close its doors to the community for good. “That’s why I was so passionate last week,” said Olson. “If people don’t shop, the stores aren’t going to be there. There are no magic investors for any of us; we’re just normal people trying to run a business.”

Reading Frenzy Zimmerman will close following a “Shopping Local Rocks” sale that serves as one final reminder of the importance of shopping local. While the smaller Reading Frenzy Corner in Elk River will remain open, Olson said that the closing of the Zimmerman location will leave a hole in the community. “We gave it everything we could,” she said. “We’re going to try to focus on Elk River and tell people to come visit us there.”

Olson will continue to educate consumers about supporting independent businesses, noting that it’s important to stay positive and refrain from sharing negative information about online competitors. Instead, Olson stresses the fact that she and her husband are small business owners and that shopping local is important to keeping communities strong. “The products you see? We bought them. The lights and the employees? We pay for them. And we pay our taxes,” she tells them.

“The bottom line is that people need to support and spend their dollars at their local businesses, or else they’re not going to stay in business,” said Olson. “If you don’t spend your dollars in your town and at the places that you love, they’re not going to be there.”

Mike DeSanto of Phoenix Books, with locations in Burlington and Essex, Vermont, also used President Obama’s speech at Amazon as an opportunity to address and inform his customers about the reality of the online retailer.

The bookstore co-owner called on fellow Vermonters to “wake up,” declaring that Amazon is not only a threat to bookstores but to all industries. Amazon owns such retailers as Zappos and, and even earns a profit from Kickstarter and CreateSpace authors, DeSanto said.

Normally an Obama supporter, DeSanto detailed his frustration with the president’s work in favor of Amazon, calling him, “the greatest political disappointment of my life.”

“I see him as a thief in the night, scurrilously sneaking up and stealing my hard earned business right from under my nose and giving it to Amazon in order to further his illusions of economic growth,” DeSanto wrote in a letter to his customers. “More to the point, by endorsing Amazon he completely undercuts our own Local First Vermont program, helps destroy our city centers, encourages non-payment of state and local taxes, and furthers Amazon’s extremely monopolistic agenda, to say nothing of implicitly encouraging the entire population of the country to shop online.”

Local newspaper Burlington Free Press published a version of DeSanto’s letter as an op-ed on August 4. He has since received words of praise and positive feedback from Facebook followers and community members. “I haven’t seen a negative response yet,” he said.

In its newsletter, Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur, Georgia, shared an August 8 letter from the ABA CEO Oren Teicher, which detailed the issues with the president’s assumption that Amazon is a boon to the economy and provided a list of articles and other sources highlighting the reality of Amazon’s business practices.

Co-owner and store manager Charles Robinson recognized how important it was to share the store’s views regarding Amazon. “It’s common knowledge to people like us in the book industry, but the average Joe on the street is pretty oblivious,” said Robinson.

Even Robinson was shocked to learn about some of the working conditions described in a Mother Jones article last year. Obama’s visit to Amazon’s warehouse was another surprise, particularly because the president stressed the supposed value of the jobs that Amazon is creating. “This is not job creation, this is job destruction,” said Robinson.

Fellow booksellers can easily educate customers, said Robinson, either by writing their own letters or sharing the ABA’s. Plenty of information about Amazon’s true impact on the economy and job growth is available, and the highlights of what is happening in the industry and the importance of shopping local will stay with readers, said Robinson.

A note of good news made its way to Eagle Eye this week, however, as the state of Georgia will now be requiring Amazon to begin collecting sales tax. “I’m definitely also very happy that finally they’re going to have start collecting sales tax come September. That’s something we’ve been working on for a long time now,” said Robinson.

With the array of resources detailing Amazon’s business practices made available last week by ABA, CEO Oren Teicher reminded booksellers that the information’s “ultimate utility is in framing the best story you have to tell — which is about the remarkable and invaluable contributions to your community that indie bookstores make every day.” New articles added to the list include:

“Bezos’ Quest for Total Retail Domination” (Fast Company)

Washington Post Myths About Its New Owner, Jeff Bezos” (Beat the Press)

“Ready for Washington Post Prime?” (Washington Post)

“Reinforcing elite power: Bezos/Washington Post edition” (Columbia Journalism Review)

For additional resources on this issue, visit the American Booksellers Association’s Advocacy page. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has also developed a list of resources on Understanding Amazon, and the American Independent Business Alliance has made available its All About Amazon reference list.