Indie bookstore owners throw the book at President Obama

July 31, 2013

President Obama likened Amazon to Santa Claus in a speech on Tuesday about creating more middle-class jobs.

“Last year, during the busiest day of the Christmas rush, customers around the world ordered more than 300 items from Amazon every second, and a lot of those traveled through this building,” Obama said at a giant Amazon fulfillment center in Chattanooga, Tenn. “So this is kind of like the North Pole of the south right here. Got a bunch of good-looking elves here.”

But independent booksellers feel like they’ve been given a lump of coal.

Even before the president arrived in Chattanooga, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) publicly criticized his choice of venue. “For you to highlight Amazon as a job creator strikes us as greatly misguided,” the ABA said in an open letter. “While Amazon may make news by touting the creation of some 7,000 new warehouse jobs (many of which are seasonal), what is woefully underreported is the number of jobs its practices have cost the economy.”

The ABA went on to criticize the Seattle-based online retailer for selling books below cost as loss leaders, avoiding sales tax in some states, and causing job losses and budget cuts in towns all across the country.

But Tuesday afternoon, in his speech about creating middle-class jobs, the president held up Amazon as an example of the kind of employer America needs:

“Amazon is a great example of what’s possible,” he told hundreds of enthusiastic employees in the warehouse the size of 28 football fields. “What you’re doing here at Amazon with your Career Choice Program pays 95 percent of the tuition for employees who want to earn skills in fields with high demand — not just, by the way, jobs here at Amazon, but jobs anywhere — computer-aided design or nursing. I talked to [Amazon chairman] Jeff Bezos yesterday, and he was so proud of the fact that he wants to see every employee at Amazon continually upgrade their skills and improve. And if they’ve got a dream they want to pursue, Amazon wants to help them pursue it.”

But Amazon’s dream is a nightmare for many independent booksellers struggling to compete. After his speech, the president received more criticism from Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. “We understand this economy is terribly challenging,” Obry wrote in an open letter, “but to deliver your speech at Amazon amounts to an explicit approval of their degrading business practices.”

She went on to pitch the battle in starkly personal terms: “As we speak, Amazon is brazenly undercutting the book industry by offering 60 percent discounts on new hardcover titles–essentially eliminating the opportunity for an independent bookseller to make that sale. If independent bookstores absorb this hit, who will sell your books, and where will you purchase books for your daughters?”

@RonCharles

 

 

 

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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