Bookselling in the 21st Century: The Perils of Shopping Local
Elayna Trucker Examines the Very Real Limits to Voting with Your Wallet
Buy local! Shop local! Support small business!
These are clarion calls for booksellers to rally around and encourage the consumer to make the conscious decision to buy books from bricks-and-mortar bookstores rather than Amazon. A couple years ago, the American Booksellers Association hired a non-partisan firm to research the economic impact of Amazon. The results were astounding, and got even more so when the study was updated to include 2015: Amazon’s stranglehold on our economy has caused a net loss of over 200,000 jobs, a sales tax loss of over $700 million, a property tax loss of more than $500 million, and a net national revenue loss of $1.2 billion. Yes, BILLION. Each day, Amazon gets closer to becoming a monopoly and a monopsony, vertically integrating in a way that dominates all levels of our retail economy in nearly every consumer market.
It’s easy to forget that all this started with books, when you can buy everything from cloud computing solutions to diapers on Amazon. Its leaders have readily admitted that their interest in bookselling has more to do with data mining and an experiment on restructuring the foundations of the retail environment than with books; but when they went after bookstores, they went up against a highly intelligent and vocal group of people. Booksellers believe literature is an art, and that we are curators of that art; art is essential, thus we are essential. Yet when held up against the realities of bookstore finances, the Shop Local movement spawns an uncomfortable hypocrisy.
Shop Local supporters seek a return to community-centered economies, where our purchases at local businesses help support that business’s employees, and the tax on those purchases goes to fix the roads we drive and pay for teachers at the schools our children attend. Shopping local means keeping our money local, rather than lining the already-full pockets of a CEO five states (or even countries) away.
But shopping local comes with a real price. Amazon and big box retailers buy in bulk, allowing them to get better discounts, and can diversify in a way that lets their book departments lose money or break even while other divisions rake in the dough. So when a consumer chooses to Shop Local, she is knowingly spending more because she wants to support that business and keep it and its employees in her community, while helping to better that community through taxes.
This is all well and good, except that we booksellers are also in the Shop Local demographic. We can hardly be expected to deliver mind-boggling statistics and heartfelt pleas without patronizing local businesses ourselves. But that means knowingly spending more and, as we all know, booksellers don’t make very much due to high overheads and miniscule profit margins.
The cost of living keeps rising, as does inflation and the minimum wage, but our cost of goods remains relatively constant. Publishers have raised their prices slightly (about $1-2 since I started working in bookstores over a decade ago), and our discounts and billing periods remain basically the same. Bookstores have to be increasingly creative to make money: co-op that amounts to renting out shelf space to publishers, stocking remainders and used books, drastically increasing gift options, sharing space with other businesses, becoming co-ops or non-profits, and even buying thinner gift wrap ribbon.
We’re booksellers because we love books, and nobody gets into the book business looking to make buckets of cash. We love language and stories, and enjoy an exciting, uplifting, and reaffirming companionship with our colleagues. Many of us, if faced with the prospect of meaningless office jobs, would probably rather gouge out our eyes with rusty spoons.
But no one should have to sacrifice a living wage for their dream job. We find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being believers in social and economic justice while struggling to pay our employees a salary they can survive on. We urge our customers to Shop Local but make hardly enough money to do so ourselves. It is an unintentional hypocrisy, one that has gone largely ignored and unaddressed.
So where does that leave us? Rather awkwardly clutching our money, it seems. I’d hazard that we all truly believe the Shop Local message, but it’s difficult to follow when our rent or mortgage takes half or more of our monthly paycheck, and there’s still electricity and water bills, food, car payments and insurance. If you’re lucky, your health and maybe dental insurance are taken out of your already meagre pre-tax wages. If not, let’s hope you make little enough to qualify for assistance under the Affordable Care Act. There’s not much wiggle room in there for voting with your wallet the way we ask our customers to. I’d love to purchase my furniture from a local carpenter, my meat and vegetables from a local farm, my clothing from a locally owned boutique. I simply don’t make enough money to do so. How can I expect my customers to Shop Local when I cannot do so myself?
All this brings up the most awkward question of all: does a business that can’t afford to pay its employees a living wage deserve to be in business? Does our curation and promotion of art justify a workforce that is in debt or constantly struggling to make ends meet? A society cannot produce an artistic output without its basic needs satisfied. Presumably, this extends to those who sell the art, too. How can we best support literature when our basic subsistence needs are not fulfilled? Can an industry rightly be labeled as “thriving” when most of its employees make minimum wage, which places them terrifyingly near the poverty line?
I have no answers to these uncomfortable questions, because we haven’t started talking about them yet. We need to get creative, dig into the discomfort of our situation in an effort to adopt the wage fairness I believe we all desire. It’s time for a massive restructuring of how bookstores operate, because the way it’s happening now is doing more harm than good. It’s time to open the dialogue about the future of the bookstore.