Powell’s Books Takes a Stand

Portland indie giant will no longer sell on Amazon

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It was already shaping up as a bad month for Amazon, with the appearance of a cover story in the September issue of Harper’s cataloging the corporation’s bullying and monopolistic practices and tactics. Now, one of the most respected independent bookstores in the world, Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon, has announced that it will no longer sell on Amazon.

In a public statement last Wednesday, owner Emily Powell wrote, “For too long, we have watched the detrimental impact of Amazon’s business on our communities and the independent bookselling world.”

Powell’s statement reiterates what we have long known about the online retailer’s lethal effects on the viability of independently owned, brick-and-mortar businesses and their indispensable role in local economies. The devastating influence of Amazon, and the loss of tens of thousands of local businesses and hundreds of thousands of jobs, is well documented in white papers prepared by the American Booksellers Association and other industry groups.

Powell’s flagship store in Portland. (Photo by Kevin Sampsell)

At this point, it’s tricky to try to gauge the long-term impact of Emily Powell’s decision. Will more independent booksellers follow suit? Could Amazon someday find itself in the unenviable position of marketing mostly or exclusively new inventory, as small bookstores sell their used, rare, and out-of-print titles in-store, at book fairs, or via Biblio.com? Impossible to say. But other booksellers are supporting the move.

“Independent bookstores have good reason to despise a monolithic corporation that has enough money and power to short sell books and lay waste to its competitors in a manner that is unfair to any store that does not have billions of dollars,” says Steve Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, who adds that it was somewhat surprising that Powell’s would ever have sold on Amazon, given the progressive bent of Powell’s and of Portland generally.

“Personally, I think any corporation that has that much information on so many people, owns the servers that the government uses, and is owned by a guy who makes $2,000+ every second but still underpays much of its workforce is pretty evil and has too much power,” Salardino adds.

Many other booksellers share these sentiments, though for some the question of whether to continue listing on Amazon is moot. “We don’t sell books on Amazon Marketplace,” says Nancy Bass Wyden, owner of The Strand.

Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer at the ABA, affirms the ubiquity of anti-Amazon sentiment throughout the industry. “Amazon poses an immense threat to independent bookstores, and to all independent businesses. As we heard in the recent public hearing of the U.S. House antitrust subcommittee, Amazon’s ongoing business practices have created monopoly-like conditions. Amazon uses its market dominance to dictate terms, curtail competition, and restrict market opportunities,” Cullen says.

Consumers feel this loss most acutely in lost tax revenue, the disappearance of independent businesses and the jobs they offered, and the loss of the idiosyncratic character that flourishing brick-and-mortar businesses bring to a community, Cullen says.

“Any time you have a respected voice, such as Powell’s, articulating a position on an issue affecting other businesses, it will cause some people to consider and make the same decision,” acknowledges Phil Bevis, owner of Arundel Books in Seattle.

But for Seattle-based booksellers, like Bevis, the situation is a bit more complex given Amazon’s entrenched presence in the city. While Bevis says he fully understands the frustrations that many have with Amazon, it’s a stretch of the imagination to suppose that Seattle booksellers can go about life as if Amazon doesn’t exist. They have a layered relationship with the corporate giant.

“We compete with them, sell off their site, serve their employees—who are also our friends and neighbors—and their families, and of course our publishing arm, Chatwin Books, sells books via their site,” Bevis says.

What Should Readers Do?

In these circumstances, it’s all the more urgent for consumers to support indie bookstores, and locally owned ventures more generally, with their purchases.

“This year, given all the pandemic-related strains on both the bookstores’ supply chains and the USPS, customers can help their local bookstores by lobbying to support the USPS and doing their holiday shopping early in October, whether it be online, in-store, curbside, or through home delivery,” Dan Cullen of the ABA says.

It is hard not to admire the courage of Powell’s Books’ bold move, especially at a time when booksellers that were already struggling to make ends meet have been grappling with the myriad difficulties of reopening in the midst of a pandemic. For many businesses catering to bibliophiles, refusing to let customers browse the aisles goes against a huge part of their raison d’être.

The struggles of Powell’s Books during a calamity that made it impossible for people to browse received some publicity in May, when some businesses were taking baby steps toward reopening.

Time will tell whether the Powell’s Books decision proves to be an admirable but largely symbolic gesture, or a rallying cry pointing the way to the salvation of an industry.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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