There’s been some interesting debate in the wake of Amazon.com’s strange decision to urge its customers to scan items in brick and mortar stores and then receive a discount from Amazon if they buy said item through the website, rather than in the store, whether it be a Best Buy or an independent music store. Essentially, perhaps fearful that their murder of all things local was going more slowly than originally planned, they were paying customers not to shop locally and to mock the local stores in the process by pretending they were going to. Richard Russo wrote an impassioned critique of Amazon’s decision. One can read it here.
I’m a writer and believe strongly in a local arts community and believe that a local bookseller is part of the central nervous system of that community, so I wasn’t surprised to feel as if Russo had read my mail before putting finger to keypad. I thumped fist to chest and said, “right the fuck on.”
And then came this odd rebuttal on Slate.com. Read it below, then come back.
Okay, so I’m not certain they make scales big enough to measure the extent to which this guy is jackass. Am I right? Of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, he writes, “you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.” The idea that local bookstores offer nothing to a community that values the arts is asinine, shortsighted, and the kind of bitten-off-more-than-your-argument-can-support thinking that got Amazon in trouble in the first place. I mean, Manjoo begins his article by describing what a “boneheaded thing” Amazon had just done. Talk about short sighted.
And yet, I feel like a hypocrite for raising the battle cry against Manjoo, as I’ve been about to do. Here’s why. I have two children still in diapers and they go through vast quantities of them. Each and every one gets shipped to my house care of Amazon.com. Why? Because they’re so much cheaper than buying them local it’s not even funny. The math is pretty simple. Diapers are expensive. Kids use a lot of them. Young parents are generally strapped for cash and therefore need to save money wherever possible. All this is true. And yet, why do I feel less guilty for buying my diapers through Amazon than I do about buying my books through Amazon? And I don’t mind admitting guilt about the latter isn’t very strong.
The easy answer is because I value books more than diapers. Not on a surface level, of course (you ever tried letting an infant go diaper-less for any length of time?) but metaphysically, I mean. At this point someone might argue that buying diapers locally is potentially less substantial to community than buying local books or music. And they’d be right. But not majorly right. Only kind of right. My local K-Mart sells diapers and though I won’t feel that bad if my local K-Mart closes, they need my business to stay afloat too.
It seems to me that in criticizing Majoo, there’s the danger of using convenient logic to do so. The likes of which might have a person railing against child labor whilst wearing a pair of Nikes and a Gap t-shirt. The likes of which might have a person railing against Wall Street whilst banking with a major bank whose mortgages are owned by large corporations who make up Wall Street. Nothing is ever all one thing. We pounce when we see black and white moments, but the harder we beat them, the more gray they tend to become.
My soul knows what it prefers and so finds this still a very one sided argument and landslide victory in Russo’s favor. I just hope that in criticizing the opposition, I’m able to keep my emotions in check long enough to let my brain do a little work.
I leave you with this anecdote.
The great jazz musician Thelonious Monk was good at looking at things in new ways, kind of like how fish are good at swimming. Legend has it that he nailed a clock to his apartment wall, though tilted it sideways before doing so, to remind himself and his family to look at it differently. And not only because they should. Because they had to. Sage advice.