A public break with Amazon
By Liz Garrigan, CHAPTER 16
Amazon, we really need to talk. My relationship with you feels like an illicit love affair because, I suppose, it sort of is. I want you, but I hate myself for it. I hide our relationship from many of my friends. There I am late at night, online, practically giggling with delight at what you can do for me. You understand my needs—and happily meet them—and you anticipate my desires, teasing me with what else you can offer that you already know I’ll like. You’ve tricked me into believing you’re a generous partner. It’s a modern courtship—yes, we rely on technology—but there’s an old-fashioned aspect to it, too. As a British friend of mine puts it, “For God’s sake, the goods arrive in the post. How quaint!”
Though I share your attentions with millions of others, our relationship feels deeply personal, even intimate. I get hand-written notes from your vendors saying they hope I enjoy the title I’ve ordered from you. Or maybe there’s an interesting bookmark left by a previous owner, or a charming, if illegible, signature in pencil on an inside jacket. In other words, I can’t visit you in person, but being satisfied this way doesn’t necessarily mean forfeiting all of the endearing features of a more traditional relationship.
In many ways, you have it all. You just sent me a used copy of Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, a book I was having trouble finding elsewhere—and for just over four dollars, including postage. After spending twenty-plus years in Tennessee, I now live in Paris, where English-language books are harder to come by. And there you are, Amazon.fr, ready to meet me whenever I want, right here on my turf. So it’s hardly a mystery why I can’t quite, to use the parlance of a certain gay cowboy character, “quit you.”
But it’s time to confront the inconvenient truth: I’m cheating with a cheater. And this relationship is destructive, hurting people I care about. It’s taken me a while to figure this out, but behind your slick, faux-friendly ways, you’re a selfish, no-good, morally compromised bully.
Other bookstores—hell, other stores period, for you sell far more than books, competing for customers with local hardware stores and beauty-supply stores and video-game stores and clothing stores and pretty much every other retailer in the world—are obligated to collect sales tax from their customers. But you don’t, hiding behind a Supreme Court ruling that exempts online-only retailers from collecting sales tax in individual states.
In Tennessee, where combined state and local sales taxes are pushing ten percent, that amounts to a powerful incentive for customers to let their fingers do the clicking. It puts other booksellers and retailers at a competitive disadvantage. In Memphis, Burke’s Book Store and the Booksellers at Laurelwood don’t get that deal. In Nashville, Parnassus Books and Mysteries & More and Fairytales Books don’t get that deal. In Knoxville, Union Ave. Books doesn’t get that deal. They all dutifully collect sales tax and turn it over to the government to fund education, workforce development, services for the poor and disabled, and all the other functions that governments are required to provide for their citizens. Those are the rules of a civilized society. But you want—no, demand!—to be exempted.
You say the Supreme Court ruling means you have no obligation to collect taxes from your customers, and that’s true enough. But the Supreme Court ruling applies only to online retailers which don’t have a physical presence in the state. And here’s the thing, Amazon: thanks to those giant distribution centers you’re already building in Chattanooga and in Lebanon—and the one in Knoxville, though so far it’s only being whispered about in secret—that dog won’t fight any more. Like it or not, honey, you’re a Tennessean now.
Tennessee risks losing $3 billion in tax revenue to you, not to mention 10,000 jobs, over the next five years. And that’s not counting the money the state has spent out of its own tattered pockets to entice you here: Chattanooga alone gave you $30 million in incentives and free land—which the state spent $4 million to prepare for construction—in exchange for 1,200 full-time and 2,000 seasonal jobs.
Not that this abusive relationship is unique to Tennessee: you’ve sent South Carolina, Texas, and California into similar states of impotent rage because you have no trouble exploiting the realities of the nation’s dismal economy, reducing governors and mayors to desperate employment pimps. You’ve had them, after all, where you’ve wanted them. And you threaten to take your ball and go home should they fail to play by your rules.
You claim to favor a federal resolution to this mess, suggesting quite reasonably that it makes more sense to create a single national standard than to have a hodge-podge of state rules across the country. Not that you have much to worry about: given the national-budget challenges facing Congress, the need to level the playing field between you and all the rest of the retailers in the country isn’t much of a priority. As Tennessee Senator Bob Corker told The Chattanooga Times-Free Press, Internet sales-tax collections are “not even on the radar screen” this year.
But guess what? I can wait. I’ve got a stack of books here that will keep me busy for a while, even if they did come from you in the post. But when I’m done with those, I’ll do what I did back in the nineties: I’ll go to the library. Or where all the other American expats go in Paris: the Village Voice Bookshop.
We’re over. And don’t email me either.