I remember how excited our town was when we found out that we were going to be getting a Walmart. Big selection, cheap prices: good times were coming. And they came.
Walmart drove out the smaller stores, who couldn’t compete with price and selection, even if they could on quality. But what about with books and bookstores? Here’s what seems to have happened:
1. Small bookstores predominated
2. Borders and Barnes & Noble (big-box bookstores) drove out the small ones
3. Amazon drives out big-box stores
Amazon accomplishes this by underselling the big-box stores, having lower overhead (no big brick-and-mortar stores with all the expenses associated with them), and having a bigger selection (since it doesn’t have to keep all its selection in an actual store for someone to walk into).
I’ve got something of a love-hate relationship with Amazon. Their services enabled me to self-publish my book. But they made it very clear that I was not to offer the book for sale at a cheaper price anywhere else. Amazon was to have the lowest price or at least an equally low price.
This seems like the Walmart way as well: you better give Walmart the lowest price for your product because otherwise they won’t sell it. “Hey, it’s a free country–sell your product elsewhere.” But the fact is of course that not being able to sell through Walmart (or, through Amazon nowadays) means you lose 90% of your business.
I still like going into bookstores. Even big-box ones. But the Borders are now closed and B&N is all that’s left. How soon can it hold out? And once it’s gone, what then?
My hope is that the rise of the mega-giant Amazon actually allows a space to be carved out for a smaller store again. Maybe something like a coffee shop/bookstore that emphasizes the local aspect: hosts local authors and features their books, writing classes, reading groups, book clubs, and so on. Sure, bring in your Kindle and get a coffee, but the advantage would be that this is a destination where people actually want to go, that would foster some local community. You don’t go there expecting to find the latest Harry Potter or Grisham book (or whoever is popular nowadays–I don’t keep up). You go there to relax, read a book, and if you like connect with other people in your area.
Amazon’s endgame victory would be the complete domination of the marketplace. And does anyone really want that? You order everything online; it gets shipped directly to you home; you never leave to go flip through some books at the local store, chat with some people, etc. And you even buy most of the books electronically to your Kindle, downloaded invisibly over the internet. Completely automated isolation and disconnection from real life encounters.
Catholic bookstores, being a niche, are still largely of the mom-and-pop variety, thousands across the country owned locally by a devout Catholic family. And since many Catholics are still old-school, they go to these stores rather than order online. But how long will that last? Won’t Amazon eventually catch up with them and as their clientele gets older, more will just go online and buy that (Catholic) book or first communion gift?
One Catholic bookstore wanted to carry my book, but when they realized that the only way they could get it (even wholesale) was through Amazon, they demurred. And I didn’t blame them. Amazon must look like their arch-enemy.
So Amazon does what Walmart once did: offer the consumer the lowest price. But they do so by underselling everyone or blocking that product from being sold through them. While we used to cheer that we can buy junk from China at Walmart for pennies on the dollar–and now we do the same thing but through Amazon–the real cost of these products and this business model remain hidden, including the increased isolation of people from one another in the community.
Thus, Amazon seems the ideal capitalist achievement, and in being so, the antithesis of a local economy and distributism.