Independent Bookstores and Amazon: Facing Tough Questions in the Big Easy

I wanted to write this blog about how great it was to experience Independent Bookstore Day at Octavia Books last Saturday, but instead I keep thinking about The Washington Post.

Let me back up a little — I did enjoy myself this weekend. I loved seeing so many people in the bookstore checking out the special merchandise released just for Independent Bookstore Day (including special-edition books, linens printed with book-themed quotes, and posters signed by favorite authors). I loved that Octavia had events planned all day. I especially loved that my event promoting The Localist was one of them.

But I also had some great conversations with the booksellers at Octavia (booksellers are generally great conversationalists, by the way — there’s something about being widely read that makes you knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics and helps develop a strong point of view), and some of those conversations focused on Amazon.

I love talking about Amazon with booksellers because they get it. They get that I’m not being an alarmist when I say Amazon is trying to control the book industry (because anyone even remotely close to the industry sees that they are, and even Amazon doesn’t pretend otherwise). They get that having one entity — whether it’s a government, a person, or a company like Amazon — controlling our books is especially dangerous because that means one entity is in control of our access to information, and that’s like poison to a free society. They get that the fact that Amazon’s founder is now buying up newspapers is especially terrifying because it seems like they’re expanding that reach even further.

What I hadn’t thought about before, though, is which newspaper Amazon bought: The Washington Post. I’d always just assumed it was because that paper was in trouble, but pretty much all newspapers are in trouble. What this bookseller pointed out was that The Washington Post is the nation’s paper. It’s published in the capital. It’s the paper that sets the political tone for the nation, and it’s the paper our lawmakers read.

Amazon is already lobbying for legislation changes that effect not only our books but also our labor laws (they can offer those low prices and that free shipping because they mistreat and underpay their workers, and they’re trying to change our laws to make that treatment even cheaper and worse), and their founder probably bought the Post to be able to skew stories in their favor. (I’m not saying journalism at the Post has already been compromised, just that it’s in a position to be.)

I’m obviously sensitive to this topic because I care about books and journalism, but we should all be sensitive about Amazon. We should all care when our access to information is being threatened, when our ability to hear the truth from our journalists is compromised, and when a corporation attacks our freedom.

I did have a good time at Octavia Books (I always do — their shop is wonderful). I had a great time in New Orleans, enjoying the city and the food and the music and my friends. But my favorite part of Independent Bookstore Day wasn’t the planned events or the special merch. It was a reminder of why I work in books in the first place: Because books matter. Conversations matter. Individual freedoms matter. And even in the Big Easy, it’s important to tackle tough questions and to learn from other people who are doing the same thing.

Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, creator of 30 Days of Local Praise and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.

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