Drowning in the Amazon

Just how big and mighty has Amazon become? Last week the marketplace behemoth announced a new “subscription service” for it’s popular Kindle reader called “Kindle Unlimited” where the customer can subscribe to an unlimited e-book service for $9.99 a month. For those of us who buy more books than we know what to do with, this might be a good way to save money and space. But then, I never believed that one should aspire to buy fewer books for the sole reason of saving money. In a way, books are a much better investment than the stock market, 401 K plans, and especially savings accounts, to name a few. Space, on the other hand, is a problem for us bibliophiles. Unless the bibliophile is willing to place most of his or her book collection in storage, and most of us are not, then space does become a concern that approaches crisis level. But I will speak more of this in another post.

When examined closely, Amazon is less a bookseller than it is a giant virtual marketplace where one can get anything one desires. Whenever I go onto Amazon to search for a book I always come to something else first, like house wares, electronics, or diapers, and I therefore have to dig down deeper to get to the actual book. The idea of buying anything one wants online, at any time of day or night, does have its appeal. I admit to purchasing my fair share of books on Amazon. It’s convenient, it’s cost effective, and it’s addictive. But it’s also damaging. Amazon’s mission, like the mission of all big businesses, is to put the little guys out of business. In the book industry this means the small, independent bookseller. In the not too recent past independent booksellers where closing up shop faster than Starbucks put up stores in Manhattan. Thousands of independent bookstores around the country were forced to close due to the onslaught of first, the Barnes & Noble superstores, and now Amazon. For me, one of the great tragedies of this new way of buying books was the demise of the great Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, which closed its doors for good in 2007. For me, Manhattan has never been the same.

I’m lucky to have cultivated a relationship with my own bookseller who owns the outstanding Gibson’s in Concord, New Hampshire. If Gibson’s does not have the book I need, they can usually get it for me in a few days. It is one of the most important relationships I have made since moving to New Hampshire in 2005. Gibson’s has recently moved to an expanded location while still remaining a presence in downtown Concord. Shopping there is one of the best book buying experiences one can hope for. It’s also a lovely spot to browse and grab a coffee.

Bookstores like Gibson’s must be a stubborn thorn in Amazon’s side. But it’s independents like Gibson’s that can give the book buyer something Amazon cannot: personalized service. When one is as serious about books as I am, the relationship one cultivates with one’s bookseller becomes second only to one’s spouse. In fact, during those rare moments when I do purchase something from Amazon, I feel like I am committing a perverted literary adultery. I mostly use Amazon now to look up publication dates and availability, then I order the book from Gibson’s.

With Amazon’s new aggressive and disruptive (which really means destructive) policies, every independent is in greater danger of drowning in Amazon’s polluted waters. But this is capitalism, isn’t it? The big fish survives on eating up as many of the smaller fish as it can. When one buys at Amazon one is also unknowingly or not, contributing to the slow, methodical demise of one’s community. Amazon’s new subscription service is also a danger to the neighborhood library. With fewer patrons visiting and utilizing the public library, the communities also die a little. We would do well to remind ourselves that library cards are free, and most public libraries offer e-books that can be downloaded right to your electronic device of choice.

Amazon is indeed an American success story. But the real story behind the success is at what cost? How many thousands of people has Amazon put out of a job? Bigger is not always better, and Amazon is one example (Wal-Mart being the other) of capitalism’s unconquerable appetite. Amazon’s new subscription service is designed for the lazy and unimaginative. God forbid we get dressed and actually leave the house to buy something.

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