I just read George Packer’s recent article in the New Yorker about Amazon’s unprecedented nature as a U.S. business and the marginalized story of its origins and impact on books and the publishing industry. Titled, “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” I definitely recommend reading it.
After finishing the article I was left to ruminate. As I chewed on the proverbial cud a question arose—are small farms like my own analogous to the ever-diminishing world of small, independent bookstores? I didn’t have to chew very long to conclude that yes, there are indeed a number of important similarities: concern for quality, an interest in being truly customer friendly through real human to human contact, being transparent and open, accessible, personable, and fairly priced.
More, it’s easy to imagine the consumer advantages of both of these types of businesses. That is, one perhaps enjoys a bookstore because there are fellow readers there, in person, quietly browsing the stacks. And the owner might even be sitting behind the counter, spectacles precariously balanced on the end of her nose, kindly willing to pause and offer a few words of service. Like the bookstore, a small farm (and especially one with a traditional CSA model in which community members buy a “share” of a farm’s product in advance) is a business where customers and proprietors interact regularly, which often results in a wide range of benefits for both parties. The customer can see for themselves the way the farmer does business. As Joel Salatin or Michael Pollan would say, you can look the man in his eyes and ask a question, usually the response makes things clear.
I like to think, perhaps with a bit of romance, that the small, Mom and Pop, American businesses of time past prided themselves in being good people for others. They had a stake in the community through ongoing relationships and it wasn’t hard for consumers and business folks alike to decide who was dependable in service and product, and who was not.
Today, I’m saddened by the loss in this country of a particular set of neighborhood businesses, namely bookstores, butchers, and bakers. And my complaints aren’t the half of it—go talk to a real old timer. But it should be clear that Amazon.com—with its homepage generated by algorithms, its aspiration to anticipate your buying decisions, its corporate secrecy, and its 75 billion dollars in annual revenue—cannot come close to providing the human experiences and services that small, local businesses can. It is a place to buy things cheap, fast, and without the visible presence of people.
As Packer lays out in his article, Amazon’s path to being the global seller of “Everything” has seemingly lead them away from many important values. Quality, foresight in a common good, and openness through honest self-reflection are some of many basic values a business should aim towards. Perhaps sustainable agriculture and independent booksellers are too self-selecting a population. I ought to be careful not to generalize too much while thinking about a certain demographic of business owners. Nonetheless, Packer reiterates the widely understood reality that local booksellers, and perhaps even books themselves, are in decline. Small, sustainable and organic farms, on the other hand, have a full head of steam behind them. As consumers we need to respect and support those out there who continue to set an example of an alternative form of business to that of the giant, faceless, corporation. This has been said before. But I encourage those who take seriously the plight of small bookstores to think about where you shop and what businesses you support. Food for thought.