I used to do a lot of public speaking, and in some pretty big venues, too. I also seemed to be on a lot of media people’s rolodexes (yes, that is what they had back then). When they needed a quote about the virtue of local business or “bricks and mortar” stores, they could always get a good sound bite out of me. By the way, I hated that term: “bricks and mortar”. I could spend a lot of time boring you by deconstructing the sub-texts associated with that expression. Not to put too fine a point on it, the term was condescending and cast us as historical curiosities. I preferred to call these stores “community-based businesses.” But “brick and mortar” seemed to catch on even with those of us who were the object of this patronizing metaphor.
I spoke about how local bookstores, all local businesses in fact, made for interesting public spaces. I was influenced then (and now) by Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It is a remarkable book, published in 1961, and even more prophetic now than then. Jacobs was reacting against the then fashionable theories of public planning that emphasized urban renewal and public open spaces. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Jacobs didn’t like “green spaces”. She argued that the neighborhoods that work best were neighborhoods with interesting and diverse uses, neighborhoods with vibrant street life, neighborhoods designed for pedestrians. This meant then, and still means today, main streets and business districts dominated by independent businesses. There were no big box stores back then. Shopping malls were a novelty. Imagine what she would have said about the big box centers of today with the mega-stores that are designed to overwhelm and exhaust the human spirit and that are oriented around vast parking lots. Imagine what she would say about internet retailers, that are oriented around the cubicle.
Maybe I became seduced by my own bombast, but I used to say that the marketplace had been the center of communal life since the time of the Greek Agora. And it was under threat by the internet. This was always a good point to make in debates with internet gurus who thought of history as something that reached its apotheosis with them. Cultural literacy was not their long suit. Most of them thought that the “Greek Agora” was the place down the street for Spanakopita and ouzo.
I got a call in 1999 from a Japanese journalist. He wanted to feature me in a book with writers and social commentators from all over the world addressing the meaning of internet commerce. My article was the only thing I ever wrote that appeared first in Japanese. But it was published in a number of languages and was read by quite a few people worldwide. I was just looking over this article. It was called: “Warning: E-commerce May be Dangerous to the Health of Your Community.” Some of it sounds hysterical and hasn’t survived the test of time. But I think it is still worth reading. You can probably find it on-line somewhere. Here is how I summed it all up:
The Internet industry likes to talk about “revolution” and uses the traditional language of the political left to describe the changes it is making to the way America does business. The images which it employs are invariably hip and filled with iconoclastic visual references to the youth culture.
In fact the reality of electronic commerce is quite different. Its growth is driven by values which are more associated with the political right, or perhaps the corporate ethos of Wal-Mart: the fetish of commodities, the primacy of Wall Street, the desire for monopoly power and the indifference to diversity and community values.
There, internet churl. I throw down my gauntlet!.
In 2000, one of the big news stories was whether internet commerce should be taxed or, to be more precise, required to collect sales taxes payable by consumers. If you delved into the issue too deeply, it could get pretty arcane. It tended to turn on some badly written US Supreme Court decisions and terms of art like “nexus”. But the real issue was pretty simple. Local businesses were forced to collect sales tax. Out of state internet businesses weren’t. This gave a significant competitive advantage to these internet companies. It all came down to this: Shouldn’t tax policy be based on a level playing field? Should the government be picking winners and losers through discriminatory tax policies? Shouldn’t internet customers do their part in paying taxes to support the local services that they benefit from? By the way, the issue is still very much alive. Amazon.com is the largest sales tax evader in the United States.
A lot of people who didn’t like each other very much got together to try to see that internet commerce wasn’t given favored tax treatment. The group included big box stores, commercial real estate interests, and little booksellers like me. I developed a pretty high profile as a spokesperson. I suppose I had better symbolic value as a talking head than the Vice President for Tax Administration of Wal-Mart. I got flown around the country a lot. And my reimbursement checks seemed to be coming from Bentonville, Arkansas. Well, I guess tax policy makes strange bedfellows.
I had a really good time going around giving speeches. I debated Grover Norquist, the satanic anti-tax nut and Washington kingmaker, twice. Once was at the ultra-right wing Federal society. I think I got the better of him. I also made it onto Crossfire and had to stand up to a withering attack by Mary Matalin.
Internet companies strenuously opposed collecting these taxes for their own reasons that had more to do with competitive advantage than tax fairness. The most errant nonsense was coming from Amazon.com. They seemed to be making two points: 1)Internet commerce is in its infancy and is a frail bird that needs to be protected from burdensome taxes. 2) Internet commerce is the juggernaut that is driving the new economy, and it shouldn’t be throttled by unpleasant things like taxes. I liked to point out at every opportunity how puzzled I was that the internet could be both a frail bird and an economic juggernaut at the same time.
Well, of course we were right. But we still lost the war. Since the 1980’s, independent bookstores have faced a perfect storm of problems. Competition from chain stores and big box stores, competition from internet booksellers, competition from free information available on line, and now competition from e-books. I suppose we could talk about the decline of cultural literacy as well. We’ll rail about that on another blog post.
All this brings us back to the point where we started. That is the sad thought that bookstores are not going to be around much longer. The market share of independent stores has really tanked since the 80’s. Indies now account for about 5% of all book sales. This is a sad statistic. Pretty much everyone in publishing who remembers will tell you that independents represented the heart and soul of bookselling. They still do, but there aren’t that many left.
Someday soon there will be a sort of “tipping point”. The world will turn to e-books with breathtaking speed. Community bookstores, even chain bookstores, have always excelled in offering customer service or just a place with a warm feeling to hang out. When books become simply downloadable “digital content,” then the bookstore will go the way of the blacksmith’s shop. The game will be over.
Sure, e-books and e-book readers will offer remarkable advances in convenience of delivery and options for display. But the romance of the bookstore will be a thing of the past. It is a little like the convenience of getting to Europe in a few hours by getting sardined into the main cabin—instead of getting there on Queen Mary. Yep. It’s convenient. But, God, what has been lost? It’s a pity.