Next week Amazon celebrates its 20th anniversary with a bunch of Black Friday-like sales. Remember how innovative and exciting Amazon was going to be, and the announcements that founder Jeff Bezos loved books and wanted to invigorate literary culture? Let’s walk down memory lane briefly and think of a few reasons we wish Amazon an unhappy birthday.
1. The bookstore that used to be in your neighborhood
The most direct and tangible effect of Amazon’s arrival in the bookselling market has been to shutter actual brick-and-mortar bookstores that allow people to browse through books, connect with the literary zealots who work there, and see authors read. If you have a favorite indie – Powell’s or the Tattered Cover or Politics and Prose or Carmichael’s or The Regulator or Skylight – you know how valuable these places are.
And there are about half as many indies as there were when Amazon arrived, from about 4,000 to about 2,000, according to George Packer’s virtuoso New Yorker essay, “Cheap Words.” In this time the U.S. population has added more than 60 million people. And the number of indies has plummeted.
Of course, the chains Borders and Barnes and Noble did not help; the indies fell to them too. But any decent bookstore makes a town or ‘hood a better place. And now Amazon has helped kill off the chains and independents alike.
How did Amazon do this? Tech utopians will tell you it was with “innovation,” Bezos’s brilliance, and the ability to anticipate market trends. But a lot of it comes down to unfair competition. The bookstore in your neighborhood, independent or chain, paid sales tax; until recently (it varies by state), Amazon did not. Bezos actually looked into setting up shop at in Indian reservation as a way to avoid taxes more permanently.
What did we expect would happen when these institutions are competing against each other for customers?
2. The way it treats workers
In the early days, Amazon hired talented writers and editors to help it advise readers on the books that might interest them. But before long, they fired them and replaced them all with an algorithm. “The spread of aggression and automation within Amazon as the company grew larger and larger,” Steve Coll wrote, “echoed classics of the science fiction genre to which Bezos was devoted.”
How has it worked out for the rank and file? Bookstores typically pay low to medium wages, but treat employees humanely, and clerks, buyers and managers get to spend their days evangelizing for books. In the Amazon era, their equivalents become sweatshop workers, almost literally: The Allentown Morning Call reported warehouse temperatures approaching 115 degrees.
Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.
During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.