Notebook: Amazon and the booksellers‘ valentine

From Ann Kjellberg, editor

Bookstore kismet: Argentinian novelist César Aira meets his hero, regular customer and jazz great Cecil Taylor (1929–2018), at a reading of Aira’s book, The Musical Brain, in which Taylor appears, at Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, March 2015

It was a Valentine surprise on Thursday when the retail and tech giant Amazon, after a long Atalanta-style courtship with cities around the country vamping to be its “second headquarters” that resulted in a bigamous engagement to Arlington, Virginia, and Long Island City, New York, dumped its New York fiancée at the altar. The bad vibes spread to the temporary liaison between New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who had briefly united in pursuit of the deal: Cuomo blamed critics of the plan for scaring off the suitor; de Blasio blamed the suitor for negligence toward the bride.

This particular knot is too tangled for our humble Notebook, though we have previously considered Amazon and the implications of its business practices for the life of books and ideas. But we do find ourselves reflecting that Amazon began its life as a bookseller—an industry with deep roots in New York City—and even as it has morphed into a “tech company” its claims on how information is stored and gathered and conveyed—no longer always in the glued-and-printed forms of ancient New York practice—remain mighty. I remember when a youthful Amazon sent emissaries to New York to try to figure out what this publishing business was all about. It is book publishers and booksellers who know from Amazon’s way of working—undercutting competitors, overwhelming with the might of its market share, suppressing the value of labor and laborers (including the writing kind). Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, the co-owner of Book Post’s winter partner bookstore, Greenlight in Brooklyn, told ABC news on Thursday: “It might seem as though bookstores in particular have the most to celebrate about Amazon’s retreat from Queens, but the victory is larger than that: it belongs to advocates for workers, immigrants, residents, and small businesses throughout our city … I hope this is a clear message to the leadership of our city and our state about what matters to New Yorkers: sustainable jobs, affordable housing and our city’s unique culture that can never be replaced or replicated online.”

That Amazon was slated to receive benefits not available to its competitors is not a novelty to those in the book world. Jeff Bezos sited his nascent business in Seattle to avoid sales tax, and mounted the search for a new headquarters when Seattle threatened new taxation to compensate for the company’s impacts on the city. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) reported earlier this month that Amazon will pay no federal taxes this year on $11.2 billion in profits. The hunt for an HQ invited municipalities to compete with each other in offering historic levels of luxurience in tax relief and other incentives, with New York coming out on top with an offer that included nearly $3 billion in estimated tax breaks, abatements, and grants. The frailty of Amazon’s embrace of civic responsibility was on full display throughout the exercise.

Meanwhile other tech giants, notably Google, have been moving into the city without, as de Blasio put it, an “operatic process.” A year ago Google purchased Chelsea Market, a block-sized building across the street from its mammoth New York base, and last fall it announced a $1 billion investment in a campus a few blocks further south. Facebook, occupying its own block-sized Manhattan building, has also been expanding, as have Salesforce, Spotify, and Paypal, which doubled its Manhattan office space in 2017. Tech-related employment in the city by 2017 reached 326,000, according to The New York Times, and technology companies accounted for 29.3 million, or 8 percent, of the city’s 398 million square feet of office space, up from 17.6 million, or 5 percent, in 2008.

Notwithstanding some doom-sayers, then, New York does not seem to be struggling to attract technology. The real issue with Amazon seems to have been one of two things. Their statement announcing the pullout, and subsequent reporting by the Times, indicate that leadership recoiled from the political scrutiny invoked by the scale of the incentive package. A more focused concern seems to have been the threat of unionization. Amazon Vice President Brian Huseman told the City Council on January 30 that the company would not remain neutral in the event of union organizing; nevertheless union leaders reported negotiations that they considered constructive up until the day before the deal was abandoned. As Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer read it on WNYC, Amazon “decided they would rather leave New York City altogether than change their corporate culture and allow their workers to organize,” a step that would have reverberated throughout their union-free empire. (Wired has reported that Amazon’s 613,000 employees “are paid far less than other tech workers. In its annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in February, Amazon said its median worker earned $28,446 in 2017 [it says that number jumps to $34,123 for full-time US workers]. Facebook’s median salary in 2017, by contrast, was over $240,000.”)

So New Yorkers might well wonder whether the promised highly paid tech jobs, assuming they are granted to New Yorkers and not to imported executives arriving on the proferred helipad, will materialize (the epic failure of Wisconsin’s FoxConn deal beckoning in the wings), and whether Amazon’s resistance to unionization will rather suppress the wages of its neighbors as well as its employees. Other promised economic benefits of a “tech campus” might bear scrutiny. Wired has reported that “to maximize productivity, insular tech campuses are insular—they intentionally isolate workers, their time, and their money, sequestering employment and economic opportunities away from the communities around the campus. And once you’ve got that bubble in place, it tends to self-perpetuate rather than burst.” Wired quotes civil rights and anti-discrimination lawyer Richard Ford to the effect that tech campus’s self containment can foster resentments with their surrounding neighborhoods, especially when they are low-income, which “could increase bias by ‘confirming’ stereotypes” and discourage local hiring. Even in Chelsea residents have complained that Google’s “free-food-at-work culture has taken money out of the pockets of local eateries.” (In City Council testimony Huseman promised that Amazon would limit its in-house offerings in support of local businesses, though the legendary Amazon work ethic would seem to mitigate against it.)

It’s my sense that most of Amazon’s local opponents did not expect the deal to collapse. They expected a drawn-out process, with which New Yorkers are familiar, resulting in a complex set of benefits for different local constituencies. Your editor, in another life, watched the famous Rudin real-estate family personally shake hands all around Greenwich Village in pursuit of their development at St. Vincent’s Hospital. (Bezos has declined to come to New York in person, sending lawyers and representatives.) That Amazon saw no need for such seductions—my way or the highway—was a characteristic gesture of monopoly: the company did not apparently fear competition from more attractive suitors. (On this theme see the work of legal scholar Lina Kahn). We can only hope that the collapse of the deal presages a vulnerability in this overwhelm-them-with-force business model and invites us to imagine less absolutist forms of corporate-civic partnership.

In the book business, where all this began, we see, on a much smaller scale, enterprises that open their doors to the life of the street and bring people in. Twenty minutes from the proposed Amazon site the publishers Melville House and powerHouse Books have their own bookstores that double as performance spaces. (City Lights in San Francisco was the pioneer of the bookstore-publisher model.) In another variant on bookselling as public square, former Book Post partner The Regulator recently began a program bringing scholars from Duke University into conversation with their neighbors. Firestorm Books recently joked in LitHub that they considered joining forces with a laundromat. Our own partner bookseller Greenlight has public programs nearly every day in its two Brooklyn locations: book groups, storytime for children, readings by authors, a Civic Engagement program for local social justice nonprofits, school partnerships, writing salons, and an arrangement with the neighboring Brooklyn Academy of Music. The ongoing and unexpected vitality of independent bookselling (once seen as lethally imperiled by, precisely, Amazon) is evidence that there is still life in a vision of retail, and perhaps business generally, grounded in human connection. Only last fall the beloved and relatively youthful NYC independent McNally Jackson was threatened with losing its Prince Street space; last week they announced plans to keep it and expand into two new locations. The Boston Globe noted recently that the arrival of Print: A Bookstore “brought a positive jolt of energy” when it opened in Portland’s East End in Maine (“It always bodes well for a neighborhood’s karmic health when an independent bookstore moves in”) and Atlas Obscura last month covered a tiny village, Hobart, New York, that found new life as a “book town.” Amazon, by contrast, according to a new report by Civic Economics and the American Booksellers Association cited by the publishing newsletter Shelf Awareness, was responsible for “540 million square feet of displaced retail space, 900,000 displaced retail jobs and $5.5-$7 billion in uncollected sales tax.” We have all seen the empty storefronts that online retail leaves behind and wondered what the cities and towns of the future will be like. Is a giant, self-contained tech hub that stifles competition, decimates street life, suppresses wages, avoids taxes, refuses to engage in public processes, and thwarts the growth of ideas really the future we’re looking for?

Jeff Bezos chose books as the germ for his “everything store” because they were “pure commodities,” interchangeable units, but this observation overlooks their essential trait: they are products of language, and language springs from people coming together; books are vessels of a shared life of culture, learning, science, pleasure, belief. They grow from society and society follows in their wake. The collapse of the Amazon deal calls on us to remember what Bezos forgot about books and those who care about them: people come together around the things they make and exchange, and these relationships are to be valued and nourished. The Amazon HQ2b collapse proposes an alternate vision of public-private partnership, of the public square, one that fosters economic diversity, welcoming common spaces, fair and competitive labor practices, opportunity for distressed and non-urban communities, affordable housing, sustainable infrastucture (ehem, helipad), as well as a hospitable environment for cultivating new ideas, diversity of views, and a shared civic discourse. These are values that were championed over fifty years ago by another pesky New York City organizer who got in the way of men with big plans, Jane Jacobs. Perhaps innovations in bookselling, as old-fashioned as they may seem, may, if liberated from the predatory threat of monopoly, have something to offer such a vision for today. Perhaps new forms of reading (cough) that speak outside the faceless grip of the tech monopolies have something to offer as well.

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This is the twelfth in an occasional series of editor’s Notebooks on American book life. We will try not to run so long! (Thank you, patient reader.)

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