Notebook: Boxed Out (Part One)

Ann Kjellberg, editor

On a morning in mid-October, a group of guerilla advertisers landed on a sidewalk in Brooklyn and began covering the windows of the Café con Libros bookstore with cardboard and piling boxes in front of it, a twist on the familiar boarding-up of shop windows New Yorkers are getting used to. The advertisers were part of a team that had been responsible for stunts like the infamous “Palessi prank,” a pop-up that coaxed a flock of shoe-influencers to pay hundreds of dollars for Payless shoes, and a campaign to save a local bodega from eviction they dubbed the “Artisanal Landlord Price Hike Sale,” featuring faux-opportunistic product rebranding like “Grass Fed Himalayan Tuna Salad.” The cardboarded-up bookstore campaign, called #BoxedOut, had been created in three weeks to appear suddenly in six bookshops in three cities on Amazon’s “Prime Day” (Amazon had, in a blockbuster third-quarter report a few weeks before, reported record sales amidst the general retail crisis, with Prime Day projected to bring fourth-quarter sales to $121 billion).

The boxes were tagged with lines like “Our WiFi is free—please don’t use it to make a $1.6 trillion company even richer” and “Books curated by real people, not a creepy algorithm that wants you to buy deodorant” and mock book covers like To Kill a Locally Owned Bookstore and Little Women Who Own Bookstores And Are Getting Priced Out By Giant Warehouse Retailers. Tommy Noonan, creative director of the firm that dreamt this up, DCX, told Adweek that as he was “filling up sand bags to hold down displays in front of Cafe con Libros … we must’ve seen at least twelve or fourteen push carts full of Amazon boxes go past us. It’s part of the landscape, so we’re making note of that.” Doug Cameron, the chief strategy and creative officer at DCX, said, “We’re taking that symbol—the Amazon box—and using it to increase share of mind for indie bookstores. We want the public to think about what they’re doing and understand that buying from Amazon has big repercussions for small businesses.” They described their m. o. as creating campaigns that “side with the underdog and spotlight a societal pain point” and “latch onto these cultural tensions and dramatize them in a humorous way.” Said Allison Hill, the CEO of the American Booksellers’ Association, who commissioned the stunt, and the former CEO of Vroman’s venerable bookstore in LA (she recently wrote in an LA Times editorial that if small businesses close en masse in the coming months, “COVID-19 will be listed as the cause of death, but the preexisting condition for many will be Amazon”): “Closed indie bookstores represent the loss of local jobs and local tax dollars; the loss of community centers; and the loss of opportunities for readers to discover books and connect with other readers in a meaningful face-to-face way.” Hill reminded a fractured and often information-skeptical America that “independent bookstores are really community centers in towns and cities all across the country.”

AP picked up the story, and then the Times saw it as a hook to run a longer piece on the struggles of independent booksellers in the age of covid. The story caught a number of converging themes—the recent House Antitrust Subcommittee report (covered in our Book Notes here) identifying anticompetitive practices by the four big tech firms, including Amazon; the soaring third-quarter earnings reports for all the major tech firms, as other retail reeled from the pandemic; specific threats to bookselling this autumn (covered in our Book Notes here), as the economy shuts down again and distributional bottlenecks loom during the make-or-break holiday season; calls by venerable bookselling institutions like LA’s Vroman’s (Book Notes, here) and New York’s McNally Jackson and The Strand for emergency book-buying; and the exhaustion of life-giving federal small-business support. When midwestern booksellers complained that the #BoxedOut rollout was limited to three coastal cities, Hall said the rationale was to spring it on the world in places where the journalists live, create a story, and hope it would spread from there. The strategy seems to have worked. There were stories all over, hundreds of stores downloaded the #BoxedOut materials and replicated the spectacle, and all around the world stores ginned up homemade variants. Booksellers reported jumps in online sales corresponding with the campaign.

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#BoxedOut was perhaps the most ingenius of a chorus of calls for early (emphasis on early) holiday shopping at independent booksellers as the covid crisis reasserts itself. Larry Wilson in the LA Daily News, after reporting on the teetering of Vroman’s, summoned readers to “join me in a simple commitment this fall: Buy every single one of your Christmas presents at your favorite local bookstore. Some giftee doesn’t care for books? Buy them music or clothes or puzzles there. But join me in this simple and crucial crusade.” Perhaps the simplest solution is to fund booksellers up-front by buying your friends a gift card, like this one from our current indie partner Malaprop’s, or preordering something delicious that’s on the way.

In England, where bookstores were included in a broad covid-driven shutdown announced on October 31, novelist Holly Bourne enlisted her colleagues in a “thunderclap of support” for independent bookstores by organizing authors to send signed, personalized bookplates to indie holiday patrons (#SignForOurBookshops). (An English variant of the indie-supporting Amazon alternative had managed to rush itself into existence in September.) Joining calls to identify bookselling as an “essential business” that can remain open, James Daunt, owner of England’s Waterstones and also Barnes and Noble, characterized this holiday season as “make or break” on England’s Channel 4, and a who’s who of English literature, organized by Everyman’s Library publisher David Campbell, signed a letter dated November 4 to the Prime Minister calling on the government to designate bookselling as essential: Salman Rushdie, Pat Barker, William Boyd, Jung Chang, William Dalrymple, Sebastian Faulks, Barry Humphries, Ben Okri, Philip Pullman, Simon Schama, Tom Stoppard, and so on. The letter observed drily that “other retailers, deemed essential under current regulations, are arguably exploiting the situation, putting specialist retailers at a massive disadvantage. This is potentially ruinous commercially and is also morally problematic.”

France’s parallel lockdown of October 28 was also greeted by protest on behalf of booksellers, among other small businesses deemed non-essential and forbidden to operate, noting the designated “essential businesses,” including Amazon, were being given an unfair competitive advantage in a perilous economic environment. The French government responded by requiring open stores to remove non-essential items from their shelves, but it placed no constraints on Amazon. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said on French radio: “I’m really imploring Parisians: Do not buy on Amazon. Amazon is the death of our bookstores and our neighborhood life.” Amazon France did withdraw its pre-Black Friday ad campaign, after Agnès Pannier-Runacher, the minister for industry, called it “inappropriate at a time when 200,000 merchants are having to close their doors.” (Amazon also distinguished itself this month by refusing to provide paid time off for workers to vote.) “Leave our bookstores open so that social confinement does not also become cultural isolation,” said a joint statement of the French publishers and booksellers associations and an authors’ group. “Our readers, who love independent bookstores, would not understand it and would experience it as an injustice … books satisfy our need for understanding, reflection, escape, distraction, but also sharing and communication … Lire, c’est vivre,” reading is living.

(Read Part Two of this post here! What are publishers doing about this? And a bookstore dream life that reminds us what it’s all about.)

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Image: Café con Libros in Brooklyn, Photo: American Booksellers Association