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.