Let’s talk about Bezos and the booksellers

Columnist August 8, 2013

I know, here’s another Postie weighing in on this week’s sale of the paper to Amazon owner Jeff Bezos. The Louisiana Purchase has received less ink — in 210 years.

But, please, if you can, be patient with me, and let’s use the newspaper’s sale this week to revisit an industry that has changed in nearly every single American town primarily because of Bezos: the independent bookstore.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

There aren’t many left in the District. We have Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks & Afterwords and a few used-book stores.

We’ve watched so many die in the past few years. Each closed for different reasons, but all said at least part of the problem had to do with the one-click ease (and super-low prices) of Amazon.

One of the survivors, Politics and Prose, was bought two years ago by Bradley Graham (no relation to Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Don Graham) and Lissa Muscatine, journalists who met at The Post.

Graham and Muscatine had faith in the idea that an independent bookstore had a higher purpose, that it was a place of civic discourse, idea sharing and discovery. Graham’s family has a business background, and after years of high-profile Washington reporting, and lots of time as a major political speechwriter for Muscatine, they were ready for a change.

And a challenge, apparently.

Constantly hounded by the competition, their bookstore in Northwest Washington is nevertheless thriving. But now, this. Their old paper — and the source of many of their author talks — has been swallowed by the Bezos vision.

“It’s so complicated for us,” Muscatine said when I caught her in the fiction section and asked for her reaction to this week’s announcement.

Bradley Graham is also conflicted. “We trust Don’s judgment,” he told me. “But . . .

Two years into the world of independent booksellers, the former Posties have a new perspective.

“We fervently want to believe that the Graham family’s decision to sell the paper to Bezos is a smart business move that will, as supporters of the deal contend, breathe new life into the Post and enable it to prosper during the digital age,” Graham and Muscatine wrote on their Politics and Prose blog.

Yeah, that’s pretty much how we all feel. It is clear that the dead-tree-and-ink delivery system of news is dying. What we need is a new model.

Most everyone involved is all for innovation. And book people get it. Who wouldn’t want to order something at night and have it show up the next day, said Oren Teicher, head of the American Booksellers Association.

“We’re not against competition. It’s what American business is all about,” he said.

Politics and Prose has online ordering, complete with the Pavlovian and familiar “ADD TO CART” button.

And behold, in the middle of the store’s fiction section is Opus, which looks kind of like a Jetsons Gutenberg press, a machine that instantly prints and binds any online work, particularly the works of new and unpublished authors.

If the American book culture is changed by innovation, if the crack of a spine and the smell of new — or old — pages don’t hang on when everyone has digital tablets, that’s fine. Game over, the book people say.

“But in the past two years, as stewards of another local cultural institution — Politics and Prose — we’ve routinely encountered a different version of Bezos,” Graham and Muscatine went on to write.

“Indeed, among many independent booksellers he is perceived as a ruthless competitor bent on disrupting traditional retailers, including bookstores, without regard for the civic and commercial value that local bricks-and-mortar establishments still bring to neighborhoods around the country,” they said.

And it doesn’t make it any easier that part of the Politics and Prose trademark — their author readings — is often done by Washington Post authors.

“No, we won’t stop hosting Post authors,” Graham said.

It goes both ways. Graham’s two books are sold on Amazon and are available on Kindle.

The thing that has booksellers most agitated about Amazon’s model is the unfair price advantage the company has because it avoids sales tax in some states and gets selective tax breaks at warehouses across the country.

Indie booksellers went ballistic over President Obama’s recent visit to an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“For you to highlight Amazon as a job creator strikes us as greatly misguided,” wrote Teicher and the book association board in an open letter to the president. “As you’ve noted so often, small businesses are the engines of the economy. When a small business fails and closes its doors, this has a ripple effect at both a local and a national level.”

Teicher said Amazon just uses cheaper books as loss leaders to lure customers into making bigger purchases on the site, marginalizing books and killing book culture.

He said he has never, ever, bought anything from Amazon. I have. Lots. Just yesterday, I ordered a scooter part, bath gel and a Greek mythology book.

Graham and Muscatine see a silver lining.

Perhaps Bezos will accept their invitation to go to Politics and Prose, to hear one of his new employees do a reading in a brick-and-mortar building. With no bath gel involved.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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