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The Best Case Against Amazon You'll Ever Read

No surprise, it's by Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic:

Last week a record store in Dupont Circle announced that it was closing. The immediate cause of its demiseit had outlasted national and regional chainswas Price Check, Amazons new idea for exterminating competition. It is an app that allows shoppers to scan the bar code on any item in any store and transmit it to Amazon for purposes of comparison, and if it compares favorably to Amazons price, Amazons special promotion promises a discount on the same item. In this way shoppers become spies, and stores, merely by letting customers through their doors, become complicit in their own undoing. It will not do to shrug that this is capitalism, because it is a particular kind of capitalism: the kind that entertains fantasies of monopoly. For all its technological newness, Amazons vision is disgustingly familiar. (Amazon is coming to eat me, a small publisher of fine religious books stoically told me a few weeks ago.) Nor will it do to explain that Amazons app is convenient, unless one is prepared to acquiesce in a view of American existence according to which its supreme consideration must be convenience. How easy must every little thing be? A record store in your neighborhood is also convenient, and so is a bookstore. There is also a sinister side to the convenience of online shopping: hours once spent in the sensory world, in the diversified satisfaction of material needs and desires, can now be surrendered to work. It appears to be a law of American life that there shall be no respite from screens. And so Amazons practices raise the old question of the cultural consequences of market piggishness. For there are businesses that are not only businesses, that also have non-monetary reasons for being, that are public goods. Their devastation in the name of profit may be economically legitimate, but it is culturally calamitous. In a word, wrong.

Read the whole thing here.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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Amazon is not to blame, consumers are to blame. If people valued the products and services that local stores provided - or at least used to provide - such as better customer service, knowledgable staff, unique items, local connections, etc., then they would factor that into the difference in price. American consumers don't care about these things anymore, especially young people who have less connection to place than older generations because many of them have moved out of small towns to go to colleges far from home and later get jobs even further away. The online experience now offers more than the local stores used to offer - better prices, better selection, instant access to reviews from likeminded customers and online "friends", unlimited access regardless of location or time, convenient payment methods (how many local stores still don't take debit cards). Loss of the old ways is the price of progress, isn't it?

I think Wieseltier is quite wrong.

I love Amazon. 1) The books are fresh and clean. 2) The selection is not limited by the space and preferences of the local bookstore. (Or by the publishers who pay for the choice display spots.) Scholarly books? Yes. Obscure books? Yes. Etc., etc.3) You can find whatever you want. Why should I drive all over the place looking for non-lousy maraschino cherries? 4) The suggestions they email, based on previous purchases, are excellent. 5) Returns are easy. 6) Kindle is great.7) They make self-publishing easy.8) Customer reviews are GREAT.9) Look Inside feature is GREAT.10) Etc.

You know what I hate about brick-and-mortar bookstores? They never let you look inside the books.

The problem is, they let EVERYONE look inside, so by the time I look inside, the book has a used feel to it. No longer pristine. And what if someone has looked inside it while drinking coffee and eating whatever those lumpish pastries are? Why should I pay full price for a used book, when I can get a new book for less money from Amazon? I think Wieseltier's remarks are arrogant and sinister.

You know what I hate about other people? Their grimy little paws.

Is it not rather hypocritical for Wieseltier and his defenders to do the exact same thing that Amazon does by disseminating their complaints about Amazon through the electronic media, since e-media is far more cheaper and efficient than printing hard-copy magazines, distributing them, and then having to comment by a letter mailed through the postal service?Besides, the business model that Amazon uses is more than 150 years old. Sears, et al. did essentially the same thing with their catalogs back in the 1800s.

Besides, through its marketplace partnership services, any merchant, like a brick-and-mortar vinyl-LP record store, can sell to customers all over the world, not merely the handfuls of people who might be walking by in Dupont Circle.That's what crashed-and-burned Borders -- they ended their on-line sales arrangement with Amazon rather than continuing their partnership and remaining in business.

Hey, where did Matthew's comment go? (I don't agree that not wanting muffin crumbs in a book is "neurotic".)

I stopped buying from Amazon a while back. I didn't think it's charitable giving was very strong (I try to patronize companies that "give back"). And I was just appalled by its sales tax avoidance tactics, which really does give it an unfair competitive edge over real stores. But it broke my heart when it bought Zappos; I loved Zappos and miss shopping there.

But we do have a Kindle. (I need to switch to a Nook).

What, no comments about the Model T putting buggy whip makers out of business?I use to source books, CDs & DVDs online (I never buy new) and that directs me to a list of sellers who have what I want for sale. I NEVER buy from Amazon - the WalMart of online selling, even though in most cases they are marginally cheaper. For a marginal difference I'll go to the next higher seller.

To purchase or Look Inside Leon Wieseltier's books on Amazon, click here:

I use the local bookstore for children's books, best-sellers, and swag. But I could never find there the more specialized books that I now buy on Amazon. Before, I would have had to take half a day or a day to take a trip to a specialty bookstore in a big city, or, more likely, I would simply have gone without. Is Amazon really so evil?

For all its technological newness, Amazons vision is disgustingly familiar.

Yep. Competitiveness. Nasty stuff.

If people valued the products and services that local stores provided or at least used to provide such as better customer service, knowledgable staff, unique items, local connections, etc., then they would factor that into the difference in price.

Yes, as I recall, Borders and Barnes & Noble didn't do anything particularly innovative or interesting to try to compete with online booksellers. Showed a singular lack of imagination and competitive know-how.

You know what's great about the Look Inside feature? You can get a really good idea of the contents of a book instead of buying it.

Those workers who have been displaced from their positions in bookstores might find employment at Amazon, the greatest thing to hit Coffeyville, Kansas, since the Dalton Brothers. jobs in other locations:

You know what I hate about the Look Inside feature? It provides just a tiny fraction of a book's contents -- often in nonconsecutive pages -- leaving my assessment of it predictably vulnerable to criticism by people who have actually read the whole thing.

The "Case Against Amazon" gets even weaker. The book samples provided by the Look Inside feature are hardly "tiny". E.g., hurry and look at Wieseltier's Kaddish before he takes it down from piggish sinister Amazon. You can read nearly all of the first 138 pages of the 588 page book. And if you enter a search term, like "Meir", you'll find a great deal of information about the great Rabbi.

It depends on the book, Gerelyn. Look, we just have different criteria for judging a pleasant shopping experience. I have moral reservations about patronizing predatory companies. You can't bear to bring home a book that's been touched by another human being. But level with me: How many local bookstores have you been banned from for requesting a discount equivalent in percentage to the number of pages on which you've found fingerprints?

Hi, Grant, Agree that we have different critieria. Still, your "moral reservations about patronizing predatory companies" allow you to sell magazine subscriptions and your articles on Amazon. you and Matthew sell your articles on Amazon."You cant bear to bring home a book thats been touched by another human being." I didn't say that. I've spent a lot of time in libraries. (See my web site for a picture of the one I loved most.)I think it's funny that you and Matthew find it so odd that I like clean books. Is a comic book collector or a coin collector "neurotic" for wanting mint condition?

Would you look at that? Amazon is selling my work, probably has been for years, and I've never seen one red cent. (Granted, perhaps no one has seen fit to pay Amazon for my writing.) The company never asked permission. Strange behavior for our benevolent publishing overlords, don't you think?I'd love to take up your other salient points, but you'll have to excuse me; my weekly shipment of Purell just arrived.

Eeuuww, Purell is sticky.

I really enjoy going to local used bookstores. I find that it's the best way to guide a walk through a new city (or an old one), hopping from store to store, and finding interesting and rare books that I would never think to search for on Amazon. The search feature is limited by what one already knows, and thus is not the most conducive to making new discoveries. Beyond just being able to browse the shelves, independent bookstore and record store owners are usually great at making recommendations based on authors or artists you already love and those they currently have in stock. This is something an Amazon search engine can't do, although they are getting pretty good with the "others with a similar search history look for" recommendations, but that too has its limits. I think it's a shame that Amazon might be putting some locals out of business.On the other hand, I'm not sure you can totally despair over the evils of Amazon. Most of the books that I buy on Amazon, and that are the cheapest, are sold on Amazon's "marketplace" by local dealers. So, Amazon actually allows locals to reach a wider audience than they otherwise might. This also makes Amazon much better than the book megastores like Barnes and Noble and, formerly, Borders, which are a dying breed and were once thought to be the scourge of the "shop around the corner" (as that 90's rom-com set against a corporate apocalypse, "You've Got Mail," had it). By giving cyber-space to local sellers, Amazon has made it possible for locals to sell low priced used and rare books outside the shadow of the big-box, mega-chain. These are really the one's suffering as Amazon's low overhead allows them to sell new books at much lower prices than a cemented corporate storefront. (That's my rationalization, anyway.)So, for those of us who still care about physical books, I don't think Amazon will necessarily cannibalize the local used and rare bookshop. Now, the Kindle... and the iphone app... Well, that's just evil.

Doesn't Wieseltier have a wife, daughter, or some woman somewhere in his life? In other words, has he never been exposed to the film "You've Got Mail"? Pricing a competitor out of business preceded the Internet and Amazon. They've just developed a high-tech way to do it.I like the old-fashioned way of shopping, too. Carl Fischer used to have a retail outlet on Wabash in Chicago. Four stories' worth of sheet music, for virtually every instrument. It was heaven! Now it's long gone, and some music publishers would prefer to just send you a pdf and let you print your own copies.Perhaps Wieseltier had an emotional connection to that record store in Dupont Circle and that prompted his little meditation. Retailers work hard to forge those emotional connections, as it's good for their business.

When I was in high school and early college, I used to love to go down to lower Manhattan where just below Union Square on 4th Avenue and on Broadway there were a block or two of used book stores. That's where my book-collecting habits began (there and at several remainder stores around Times Square). Now I think the Strand Book Store is the only one left down there, and I think the ones that remain elsewhere in the City struggle to stay in existence because of high rents.Websites like, however, which offers online the catalogues of thousands of used book stores, have been a boon, I was told by one proprietor, to the used book trade because a lot of people who would never come into the stores learn about the goodies they have to offer. A friend to whom I sent a used book last year told me she loves the smell of old or used books. De gustibus...

Agree about Love it. I like to click Advanced Search, then first edition, signed, dust jacket, then sort for most expensive. Interesting to see how much or how little favorite authors are selling for.You can find old faves, Bobbsey Twins, Fr. Finn, prayerbooks, hymnals, obscure Catholic authors, etc., etc.And agree about the great old music stores. Jenkins in downtown Kansas City. Little booths for playing records, music galore, instruments, etc. They were gone long before Amazon reared its piggish snout.

Not sure whether this is the area to criticize Amazon so much as its copying thousands of companies who are hiring people overseas to do jobs which US employees become unemployed as a result. No question there are product and profit advantages in the outsourcing. But it comes at a cost of human values which give way to material desires and greed. While a return of investment makes sense one has to question whether a small minority have to profit while the rest of the country is really in a depression. The common good is hardly a priority in board rooms and interest in that may even imperil the jobs of some executives. About forty years ago IBM was the number 1 company in America. If not in money cerrtainly in care of its employees. Ethicists and moralists cited IBM as an example. Not to mention management books and leaders applauded IBM as the ideal manager. The shareholder as the end all is undoubtedly the cause of this depression. Ironically, the minority rich got richer while the investments of the middle class did not do as well. This is why Obama's speech resoundly with so many. He finally got it and right now he is unbeatable. He could be better, of course.

Jim, you don't need a woman in your life to enjoy a good rom-com.

Nobody has mentioned It sells new, used, rare -- and it searches abebooks, Amazon, and thousands of other booksellers. You can go directly to the little guy, so Amazon doesn't get its cut. I don't think it includes B&N, though. What it doesn't have is the one-click convenience of Amazon.

I enjoy shopping at Amazon, but I won't use the Price Check feature by going into my local store and using them as a showroom for Amazon. It just doesn't seem nice to me. I guess I would consider it in the same vein as asking the price for something I don't intend to buy, which gets the shopkeeper's hopes up unnecessarily.

I was going to read this, but decided to go talk to a real person instead.

You have our blessing, Jim McK. I'm sure you'd have Wieseltier's too.

Incidentally, there's a current Business Week story about Amazon's next nefarious plan -- to go after the big book publishers themselves, not just the bookstores. Frankly, I'm kind of enjoying seeing that bunch as outraged as the story claims they are.

Very interesting article. Not surprising. Good news for authors.

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