October 23, 2019
Kansas bookseller writes open letter asking Jeff Bezos to level the playing field
by Ryan Harrington
Last spring we passed the mic over to the good people at Lawrence, Kansas’s Raven Bookstore, who, in a Twitter thread of uncommon grace and style, articulated why (if one is able) it is better to pay a higher price for a book at your local bookstore, rather than at a steep discount online.
That thread highlighted some of the great, community-minded things your local bookstore can do with that money. Things like:
- bringing your favorite authors to town so you can meet them and get your books signed
- creating good jobs in your community
- partnering with cultural organizations in your town to enrich the arts
- feeding and taking care of store cats that you can take pictures of and pet
- creating a safe and comfortable space for you to spend an hour or two
- working to support the local authors where you live
- hosting open mics etc. so emerging artists have a platform
- paying taxes
This week, the shop posted an open letter to Jeff Bezos. The letter’s author, store owner Danny Caine, wrote about how Amazon’s practice of using books as a loss leader to hook consumers on Prime subscriptions–which he also points out is a literal cheapening of the value of the research and truth-seeking that goes into making a book, at a moment in which we can’t really afford to devalue those things–has changed more than just consumer’s expectations about book prices.
Instead, Caine argues, Amazon has changed everything about bookselling.
Specifically, Amazon has “disrupted” (to borrow the favorite e-phrase) booksellers’s ability to do the kinds of excellent things outlined above. As Caine concludes his letter:
Small business owners are led to believe that if their idea is good enough, they can grow their business and create more jobs. Yet your company is so big, so disruptive, so dominant, that it’s severely skewed the ability for us to do that. I think a big part of leveling the playing field would mean fair pricing on your part. For our part, we try to level things by being really good at what we do, and being really loud. So we use our platform to try to teach people what’s at stake as your company increases its influence and market share. I think it’s starting to work. I get the feeling that we’re seeing chips in Amazon’s armor. Whenever we share stuff like this, it seems to resonate with our audience. Maybe someday you’ll hear what we have to say. Maybe we can talk about it over pie and coffee at Ladybird Diner across the street, my treat. I’d love to show you around a vibrant community anchored by small businesses, here in Kansas, here on earth. Maybe it’ll help you realize that some things don’t need to be disrupted.
Or, as he puts it in the letter’s most poignant and undeniable phrase: “That stuff might seem small to someone aiming to colonize outer space, but to us and our community it’s huge.”
If you’d like to show some solidarity with Raven, you know what to do.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.