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The success of Amazon is impoverishing the landscape

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a literary tourist, a book-lover who likes to visit bookshops. I was in Pittsburgh recently, a town once known as ‘Hell with the lid off,’ and my thoughts turned to Andrew Carnegie.  Hardly surprising I suppose, given all of the beautiful bright yellow steel bridges that span the Allegheny, and that every other cultural institution in the city seems to carry his name.

Not only was Carnegie a brilliant businessman, he was an outstanding philanthropist.  He funded the building of thousands of libraries all around the English speaking world.   

I reincarnate Carnegie because he, like Jeff Bezos, achieved spectacular success in his chosen field of endeavour. 

Amazon has revolutionized the way we read and buy books. It’s now easier, cheaper and more convenient than ever to access written material of all kinds.  Bezos’s achievement rivals Carnegie’s -except in one important regard. Carnegie used his wealth in tangible, creative ways to establish places in which people could read, learn, congregate, exchange ideas.  His magnificent legacy created spaces in cities all over the world in which people who love books could congregate and participate in community and intellectual life. Bezos on the other hand is destroying them.

In part because of his success, new and used brick and mortar bookshops have, during the past decade, been closing in starling numbers, in Pittsburgh and all around the world.  As a result there are now fewer places for book lovers to haunt, commune in, browse, or read a book in. Cultural and community life has been diminished in cities everywhere .

Some countries have recognized the important role that physical bookstores play in fostering an intelligent and creative society. France and Germany, for example, have one-price book policies which enable their small shops to compete with large chains; there are also favourable tax regimes.

Germans, as Bill Morris notes in a post at The Millions website, are willing to pay a fair, strictly regulated price for new books because they believe that the health of the book industry – that is, of publishers, booksellers, and writers – from the famous to the unknown – is vital to the health of society as a whole.

The French in fact have six separate programs, in addition to the single price system, that exist specifically to help booksellers stay in business. This past week French culture minister Aurélie Filippetti  (Melville House’s vote for coolest culture minister) attacked what she called Amazon’s “parasitic business practices”, accusing them of dumping – slashing prices to enter markets only to raise them once they achieve near monopoly status.  Filippetti also announced a €9m plan, shouldered jointly with French publishers, to support independent booksellers. The money will go toward modernizing existing stores, and helping them to expand their online sales. This in addition to a €5m fund announced earlier this year to finance booksellers that are experiencing cash flow problems,  and a budget hike for ADELC, the organization that subsidizes booksellers to assist shops when they change hands.

The success of Amazon is impoverishing the landscape. I know, I’ve travelled extensively during the past five years visiting bookstores, those that are left.

Although laudable, and successful in helping to sustain unique, interesting cities, German and French-type policies will never be implemented in North America, capitalism being what it is. Rather, it’s time to call on America’s great tradition of philanthropy: time for Jeff Bezos, in the spirit of Andrew Carnegie, to give back – to develop a program that will help reverse, not speed up, an alarming trend which, if left unchecked, could well doom all of our cities to a future in hell, with the lid off.

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8 Responses to “The success of Amazon is impoverishing the landscape”

  1. Catherine Petruccione Says:

    Hello Nigel,
    Can’t agree more! Ron and I make pilgrimages to visit book shops around the U.S.A. every year, and they are disappearing rapidly. Thank you for helping to alert people to this sad fact.
    I am doubtful that Jeff Bezos will ever lend a hand to mitigate the damage done by Amazon.
    Readers and collectors, please visit and support independent new and used book shops, and buy real books! At least you have something tangible for your money,and the pleasure of keeping a library (however large or small), and keeping book shops available for all to enjoy.
    And for those of you who have been led to believe that e-books save trees, check out the facts here:
    http://printgrowstrees.org/paper-facts.html

    Catherine Petruccione
    Old Scrolls Book Shop

  2. Steve Ferrara Says:

    I believe reading is the issue, no matter how words are transmitted.

  3. Catherine Petruccione Says:

    Regarding Steve’s “I believe reading is the issue…”, it is more than that. Upon entering a used & rare book shop, we are exposed to evidence of our culture and reading materials from humanity’s long and storied history, and all of this is available at our fingertips. We gain a much larger perspective on the printed word through time, the book themselves inspire our curiosity. There have been so many wonderful authors and subjects explored simply because the book itself beckoned to a browser.

  4. Chester White Says:

    Carnegie did all that only after he sold out and retired. To draw an equivalency, you need to give Bezos 20 more years.

  5. Nigel Beale Says:

    I agree Chester. Problem is that, by then, many more shops may have fallen, little more than smoking cinders; old memories. Can’t blame Bezos for being a brilliant business man. Can try to appeal to his generosity of spirit. His civic mindedness. Desire for immortality :)

  6. Jack Haldane Says:

    I was delighted to read your article, reproduced in the current issue of Sheppards.

    What has happened is exactly what I forecast when I first heard about Amazon. I warned publishers at the time that, if they supported this then upstart by allowing credit, the upstart would in the end destroy their regular clients – book shops – and thus put itself on a position to demand ever-increasing discounts from publishers. This would inevitably lead to a reduction in what publishers could afford to pay their authors. And the ultimate result would be the destruction both of the old-established and honourable profession of bookselling AND that of writing for a living.

  7. Jo Ann Bender Says:

    Chester:

    We can’t place the blame for the demise of bookstores only on Amazon. Let’s call what’s happening the influx of technology. I shudder to think that some day folks will not be able to hold a book in their hands. There’s something about holding a different thing, a nook or kindle, which feels uninviting to me as a reader. These can’t be found in a bookstore.
    The world has come a long way from the l950′s. That was a time of a closed-information society. Now, if we want to learn about the business of a bank, insurance, investment or publishers, we can readily find information.
    Our time means a lot for would-be writers. My WWII novel, Lebensborn,
    for example, might never have found its way to being on a Beijing bookstore
    shelf except for a publisher who is marketing their authors in Asia.
    Because that’s where the money is.

  8. Roger Crook Says:

    Think of the hundreds of millions of people who don’t have and never have had a decent book shop in which to browse, not just in the developing world but in remote Australia, Africa and the USA,South America, everywhere, they can now buy what is available to the rest of the privileged city centric would-be literati world.
    The big publishers have killed the bookshops, flooding them with so-called best sellers all on sale or return. The same publishers now use supermarkets to sell their wares.
    Philanthropy should start with giving every child an eReader.
    Nearly forgot, I like trees.

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