As the owner of an independent bookstore, I am entirely biased in what will follow. However after reading about Jeff Bezos owning as much wealth as the combined wealth of three billion people, it seemed time that I speak up.
Three billion people. I couldn’t fathom this intellectually so I did some math to make the whole thing easier to conceptualize. When I divided Bezos’ net worth: 67.8 billion (USD) by those 3 billion suffering folks, that equalled 226 USD each. This amount is perhaps not that much to really matter to an average US or Canadian citizen, but for someone living in India, where much of the world’s poverty is concentrated, 226 USD is 15,390 rupees. Someone living in dire poverty in India might be earning the equivalent of 1.50$ a day or 100 rupees a day. Now we must consider that there are approximately 270 million people living at this level of poverty in India (this number has recently been revised but official numbers are still murky). Approximately 9% of Bezos’ wealth could theoretically be redistributed in India, lifting 270 million people out of poverty and he would still be disgustingly wealthy.
It is perfectly safe for me to claim that Jeff Bezos does not pay taxes. I would happily be proven wrong but I am certain I am being charged more in taxes just on my location than he will ever have to dole out, thanks to the billionaires’ ability to dodge the taxman. It is incredibly hard for a small business owner to dodge his or her taxes in Canada because they are so tightly regulated. It might be fun to say at parties that every business owner is a crook deep-down, but the reality is that unless one has the power to hide their money, their taxes are pretty high, even with that written-off lunch. This ensures that hoarding does not occur and that instead, money flows back into the society.
This is the number one argument I turn to for not buying books through Amazon. When you throw your money at Amazon, not only is none of it going back to the social services all Canadians depend on, it is not even going back to Canada. It is being funnelled from your pocket to Mr. Bezos’, losing maybe a cent or two along the way in expenses. Your money could instead be going to a responsible business owner whose taxes go to maintain the society you find yourself living in. As it stands, Bezos, among other billionaires, can easily justify his unmitigated income and hoarding through his “philanthropy,” which is honestly a farce, all things considered. Charitable donations can often serve as a façade to confuse clients into thinking the business they are supporting is run by a compassionate human being and therefore encourage more business. However I might argue that the whole point of taxation is that humans are intrinsically greedy and cannot be trusted to redistribute their wealth in a fair manner all of the time. This is something that has been recognized over time and institutionalized as a result. Whether or not one agrees with taxes, in Canada and the United States, we are all paying them. Except dear old Jeff and his billionaire and millionaire cronies.
In addition to non-taxation (or because of it?), Amazon receives heavy retail discounts as well as shipping discounts that no small bookstore could ever imagine. This has to do with volume but also with highly secretive and unfair contracts between publishers, distributors and Amazon itself. When Amazon threatens to end its business with some publisher, the reaction is increased benefits to keep Amazon on. When I threaten to end my business with a publisher I am laughed at. The average retail discount for independent bookstores hovers around 40%, however it can go as low as 10% on certain obscure academic titles sometimes down to NET, meaning there is no profit margin unless the bookstore over-charges for the book, something that is impossible when anyone can check the title out online and see a big difference between the indie price and Amazon’s. We are also charged for shipping, which between borders, incurs ridiculous fees. My shipping fees over a year generally amount to 3000$ or more and this is a low-traffic bookstore. The disparity between the monolith that is Amazon and an independent bookstore is enormous; however when it comes down to the actual price of the book, the difference is often expressed as 3 to 10 dollars in a clients’ savings. This small amount makes the whole thing seem like a sad joke. I would like to emphasize that purchasing power is real. What will be bought with 3 dollars that inspires one to decide that it is just unreasonable to shop instead at their local bookstore? That 3 dollars means potentially closing the gap for the independent bookseller, given enough people decide to bypass Amazon.
I am aware that there are many products in circulation whose prices are jacked up to a nauseating degree. Books are not one of those products, which is why I considered this career at all. Anyone who knows me knows that I do not take kindly to the ravages of the capitalistic mindset. Books, despite being paid for with money, come nowhere near the ridiculous profit-mongering enabled by some other types of products. Take eyeglasses for an easy example. I recently had to replace mine and if I were to have purchased them in-store, the lenses alone would have cost me 250$. When I went to the eyeglass-equivalent of Amazon, I was able to buy three pairs, lenses and all, for 150$. I saved around 600$, and am ensured that even if I sit on a pair this year, I will still have extras to see me through.
This incredible jump in price is because the eyeglass industry is a legitimatized racket. Almost all frames are owned and produced by the same Italian company, Luxottica, and then the retail prices are determined in the end according to brand and the generosity of a particular optician. There is no difference in production value whatsoever between Ray Bans or the super “discounted” frames the store pushes at those who can’t really afford them in the first place. Considering that opticians can sometimes pay as low as 3$ for a pair of lenses and then charge 250$, adding the frames to this whole mess is too absurd for me to comfortably describe here. Where fashion meets necessity a whole lot of greed is bred.
Looking at this in terms of books, a brand new 20$ paperback costs me 12$. Always, no exceptions, other than for the cost to go up. There is no leeway in this because the prices are printed right on the book covers. I cannot overcharge even if I wanted to. The glasses I bought online do not have a brand stamped on them and they came directly from the factory, which is why I got such an undeniably good bargain. The same cannot happen with books, which cannot be produced particularly cheaply. There is a very long process that happens from the author’s brain to yours and it is costly. The 3 dollars you are saving on Amazon is not only a laughably small amount to save, given the inherent immeasurable value of a good book, they are also contributing to and maintaining a force that is directly killing independent businesses without recourse. While the same is true of the eyeglasses example, the difference I see is that the optician is knowingly ripping its customers off in a huge, terrible, and abhorrent way. Independent bookstores on the other hand, are not ripping anyone off because we can’t.
So your local bookstore pays its taxes and prices its stock in a fair and transparent way, but these are not its only positive contributions to whatever society it calls home, they are merely the most pragmatic and obvious. There are of course the social and experiential aspects to a small independent bookstore. These cannot be readily measured, however if you can attach a feeling to the smell of books then you probably know what I am referring to, although it is subjective and personal. For me, it is the slowed pace, the room to discover, the wisdom contained in four walls. It is also a place for writers to congregate, share their work and possibly even sell their books directly. For a lot of travellers, a bookstore is where one gets a real feel for the place they’re visiting and booksellers typically know where the best and cheapest restaurants and bars are or the cafes that will make a good cup of coffee and let you sit there for hours milking it.
There is the alchemy that happens when the unexpectedly wonderful book lands in your hands. It is alchemy; not an algorithm. I firmly believe this after years of serendipitous connections between readers and writers. It is not unusual for folks to come back after years and tell me how much a book they found here changed their life. I take issue with the algorithm technique because it is safe. It is not expansive of one’s intellectual and imaginative borders: it works within the existing borders marked out by invasive tracking methods. Amazon’s algorithm, which attempts to replace booksellers themselves, can only work within those borders. How can ideas ever be new or exciting if we are only being presented with that which is already expected of us? That which is acceptable and mundane.
So now, dear patient reader, you might just throw your hands up and tell me, “but everyone knows the book industry is dying. Why bother?”
I hear this every day. This strange myth that arose in reaction to the creation of the e-book leaves me irritated and dumbfounded. The book industry is not dying of its own inherent antiquated-ness. I would argue instead that while no one was watching, Jeff Bezos swept in and created a company that obliterated the industry, killing off thousands of small bookstores, and he is in no way paying for it. He saw that no one gave a damn about the “book industry” except booksellers themselves and that there was an untapped well of revenue that was loosely, if at all regulated, that he was able to monopolize and capitalize on. No one expected anyone to exploit the book industry because of its perceived whimsy. Independent booksellers and publishers, the ones hurt most by Amazon, do not possess the wealth to fight the process so we quietly die out while our friends and family tell us “it was inevitable, what were you thinking running a bookstore in this day and age?”
I firmly believe that a city is only as good as its bookstores and so long as you are willing to support them, then you help to create the sort of place you deserve. Thankfully, there are still enough people out there who recognize these problems and who continue to trek out to their favourite bookstores to splurge on a few books and I always hope that after the books are read, some new facet of the world, however small, has been opened up to them and that every time they smell some musty books they’ll remember the experience.
Independent Bookstores in Montreal to Visit this Year
(Let me know if I missed any)
Les Bons Debarras
Canadian Centre for Architecture Bookstore
The Concordia Community Co-op Bookstore
Drawn & Quarterly
Encore Books and Music
Le Port de Tete
Russianform Russian Books