Americans wear several hats: citizens, workers, shareholders and customers among them. We don't always realize that each involves countless votes that can be as important to the future as a real election. And often times the roles clash. So it is with Amazon and me.
This being Valentine’s Day, I thought I might write about my complicated relationship. Not to be a name-dropper, but it’s with Amazon.com.
I’ve been around the block a few times, so what keeps me under Amazon’s spell is not its low prices or convenience — not even the cool Kindle electronic reader. It’s that Amazon is a hometown success story: the kind of innovative company Seattle must keep creating in the hope that enough will stay and grow to maintain our strong competitive position.
As we learned with Washington Mutual — talk about a painful breakup — large headquarters matter. They attract talent and capital while playing an outsize role in community stewardship and spinning off executives who start their own new companies. Amazon’s importance is on display with its new buildings in South Lake Union, rising despite the Great Recession.
But I didn’t move to Seattle to be closer to Amazon. One big reason I did: We’re one of America’s few cities that still supports a significant number of independent bookstores, a critical sign of a healthy, literate place, and the anchors for livable neighborhoods. Yet Amazon and its business model are a lethal threat to these shops, which are already suffering from the recession and the legacy (how time flies!) chains such as Barnes & Noble.
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It’s ironic, to say the least, that a company that has done so much to hurt independent bookstores was born in a city that cherishes them.
I’m also an author, and Amazon carries all my novels. Many people would never try my books if they couldn’t get them delivered by Amazon. But my most loyal readers tend come to the small indie bookstores around the country, which I try to pamper. Didn’t I tell you the relationship is complicated?
As the economy has radically changed over the past 30 years, most Americans haven’t realized the consequences of their consumer decisions. The collective American thought bubble might read: “Wal-Mart sure is great; gee, why did Main Street die?” We wear several hats: citizen, worker, shareholder and customer among them. We don’t always realize that each involves votes that can be as important to the future as a real election. And often times the roles clash. So it is with Amazon and me.
Amazon has been one company to come through the recession in fairly good order. It has long since moved past books and other media into an array of online retailing, including grocery delivery, together generating $25 billion in sales last year. Its sophisticated distribution network is built around huge operations, such as a 605,000-square-foot warehouse in Phoenix.
Amazon makes the Kindle and moves Wall Street. It’s so big and omnipresent that its fortunes are closely scrutinized and its battles are big news, the most recent being with the publisher Macmillan over who gets to set e-book prices. The New York Times asked, “Will Amazon become the Wal-Mart of the Web?”
If so, the problem about our relationship moves beyond my devotion to local bookstores. It’s this: Can I learn to love the hometown monopolist?
That might sound overwrought. After all, Amazon faces at least some competition in every merchandise category. But if it really wants to go Wal-Mart’s route, Amazon must seek to gain de facto control of the supply chain and pricing power. That may not be quite the power of the Standard Oil Trust of a century ago. But the goals and reach are similar.
For decades, Americans worried about the power of bigness: the danger of giant companies killing off healthy competition and buying political power. But antitrust enforcement has been eroding for 30 years with the ascendancy of neoclassical economics and conservative politicians. Technology and globalization have further muddied things (the Microsoft case being a prime example).
As a result, many industries are more consolidated than at any time in history. And in sector after sector, a few giants battle for the commanding heights. Whether this is good for America, or even for those companies, remains to be seen. General Motors, Citigroup and a long list of other giants were damaged by their very size.
I also wonder how much Jeff Bezos and his rivals at Google care about whether thousands of nonstar authors and musicians can work if they don’t get paid enough to support themselves. I’m sure Amazon’s leaders believe they are enhancing the spread of ideas. But their job is to keep shareholders happy, not to sustain a civilization.
In an ideal world, I want a successful Amazon.com for Seattle’s sake. I want thriving independent bookstores because they’re part of the foundation that makes this place extraordinary. The world, of course, is not ideal.
So, Amazon, I may still see you on the side occasionally. But, because I want the city that created you to keep its true riches, I’ll mostly be committed to giving my love to local merchants.
I’m sure you’ll do fine.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org