"We are a business, yes, but our larger goal is something more intangible: the age-old promotion of the book as a tool that can open minds and bring communities together." Quoting from the Blog of Village Books.:
Work Hard. Have Fun. Take Advil.
“The price is $27.95 and I can hold it under your name at our front counter,” I say to the customer on the phone.
There’s an awkward pause on the other end of the line. I know she’s looking at the Amazon screen, where the price is $16.05, sometimes even less. She knows that I know. The silence lengthens. She wants to buy local, but how can she justify paying almost twice as much?
In the past I’ve tried to win customers over by playing Amazon’s game. I tell them about our discounts, sales, bargain books, etc. But a series of articles written in the last year have shown me that I’m really missing the point. Amazon and other internet discounters can afford to offer lower prices because they’ve created a new kind of American sweatshop.
The world of internet shipping that Mac McClelland (Mother Jones, March/April 2012), Vanessa Veselka (The Atlantic, December 2012), and Hal Benton and Susan Kelleher (Seattle Times, April 4, 2012) describe in their articles is one of vast, airless warehouses where workers are expected to speed walk 10 to 15 miles a day on concrete floors to meet goals that are set right at the limits of human “productivity.” Temperatures vary wildly in summer and winter. In a now famous incident Amazon actually had ambulances parked outside a Pennsylvania warehouse waiting for workers to drop from heat exhaustion. As one older lady succinctly put it: “You need to take 800 milligrams of Advil a day to work here.”
Most of these companies rely on “temp” workers, who have not rights or benefits and who can be fired on the spot for such offenses as, I kid you not, speaking to a fellow co-worker. Amazon appears “progressive” in this environment because they offer some full-time employment and more than one bathroom break a shift. More importantly, Jeff Bezos long ago mastered the motivational language of business textbooks. “Work Hard, Have Fun, Make History” is painted in giant letters in every warehouse. Workers are “associates,” supervisors are “team leaders,” and distribution warehouses are “fulfillment centers.” In the age of Dilbert it’s hard to believe that anyone would believe this con; but Veselka, who tried to organize a union at Amazon in 2000, says that Bezos figured out that what people really wanted is a sense of belonging, of being part of something new. With their sense of “belonging” the moonlighting artists didn’t seem to notice they were handing over their labor rights.
Meanwhile, in the background, the real driving force in these warehouses was a much more enduring American value: profit. By 2000 Bezos had stated his ambition to become “the Walmart of the Internet.” He fired those in his inner circle arguing for better working conditions and closed the one Seattle call center nearing unionization. It was all about production numbers. Here’s what the “fulfilling” version of the Amazon assembly line looks like in 2012: With computerized devices in their hands each picker’s movements are tracked “to the step,” the number of items picked “per minute” is logged on the supervisor’s computer, and any dip in these numbers causes him or her to magically appear at the picker’s side for some “coaching.” The top “producers” are announced over the loudspeakers at midday like the popular kids in class, mistakes of all kinds are recorded and employees “written up,” and the slower or injured workers are picked off (fired) like the proverbial weaker members of the herd. As one former manager explained, “They would have meetings about how to fire people who were hurt.”
The shrinking of wages and unions over the last 30 years is well documented, and not all of it can be laid at Amazon’s feet (as much as I’d like to). But even within this new downwardly-mobile economy there are two kinds of business models. I, like some of my compatriots at Amazon, have benefits, but my employers will not threaten me if I use them. More importantly, my employers love what they sell and love the community that they sell it in. It’s at least as important to them that I love books and can share that with customers, as it is that I perform “x” amount of keystrokes on the cash register per hour. We are a business, yes, but our larger goal is something more intangible: the age-old promotion of the book as a tool that can open minds and bring communities together.
Amazon provides its employees – at least the half of its workforce that work in warehouses – with none of this, for the simple fact that when you sell a hardcover book for $16.05 and a paperback for $11.15 you can’t afford it. All those indefinable qualities like employee satisfaction go out the window. I always think of that I Love Lucy episode with Lucy being overwhelmed by pieces of chocolate in the candy factory – only minus the comedy. The lower the price the more brutal the assembly line has to be. It’s not rocket science.
So the next time you shop with us think of it as not only supporting local business, but not supporting a system that devalues everything in its path. And this goes for everything on the internet that is sold cheaply. There’s no getting around the simple truth that quality and fairness cost money (although as consumers we keep on trying!). All the way long the wonderful chain of the book business – from authors and editors to your local bookseller – Amazon’s pricing policies are hurting quality and putting artisans out of business. Even in the e-book realm, where the warehouse is not an issue, cheap pricing relies on the sacrifice of traditional arts like editing, not to mention the many environmental and labor issues swirling around the manufacture of e-readers. (But that’s another article.)
A physical book is a work of art that can last literally hundreds of years. $27.95 -- it’s worth every penny.