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Photograph: Courtesy Café con Libros/ American Booksellers Assocation

NYC's indie bookstores are 'boxing out' to protest shopping on Amazon

Local book shops are participating in the #BoxedOut campaign to encourage people to shop local.

By
Shaye Weaver
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New York City bookstores have transformed their storefronts to look like cardboard boxes that you'd get in the mail from Amazon for Prime Day.

Their papered windows serve as the backdrop to bold statements: "Don't let indie bookstores become a work of fiction," "Buy books from people who want to sell books, not colonize the moon," and "Books curated by real people, not a creepy algorithm."

Books have been put on display out front and re-jacketed with titles like "To Kill A Locally Owned Bookstore" and "Little Women Who Own Bookstores Are Are Getting Priced Out By Giant Warehouse Retailers."

It's all part of the #BoxedOut campaign launched by the American Booksellers Association (ABA) to draw attention to the plight of indie bookstores as Amazon and COVID-19 affect their business. Manhattan's McNally Jackson Books and Brooklyn's Café con Libros, Community Bookstore, and Greenlight Bookstore are all participating.

According to DCX, the firm that designed the campaign takeover, "the ubiquitous Amazon cardboard box is seen on stoops, porches, mail rooms and lobbies across America," they said. "We wanted to take the omnipresent symbol of the Amazon cardboard box and make people think about how it hurts ailing independent bookstores across the country. The whole thing looks like a giant pile of protesting boxes luring you in to read their lines oozing with sarcasm."

Café Con Libros owner Kalima DeSuze, who will be keeping her #BoxedOut decor up through the weekend, says competing with Amazon is a constant struggle. Since she opened the feminist bookstore in 2017 using her own income from her 9-to-5 job, people have remarked that her books are "too expensive," even though they were already marked down. 

"Amazon is able to mark off books 30 to 40 percent—it charges customers what we pay to distributors, so, of course, my books seem expensive," she told us. "Amazon has the space and the ability to take 30 to 40 percent off their books. It hit me in a very different way just how damaging Amazon is on small businesses and bookstores. When community members email me and say 'your books are too expensive,' there's no way to argue with them. When women and women of color are making less than white men in America, you can't argue with that. It was disheartening."

According to a Small Business Majority survey in August, without additional funding, 26% of small business owners will have to fold in the next three months, and nearly one in five say they won’t make it longer than four to six more months.

"At the same time, a report forecasts that Amazon will generate $10 billion in revenue on October 13 and 14 during its Prime Day promotion," said Allison K. Hill, the CEO of ABA. "Connecting these dots, it’s clear to see convenience has a cost and a consequence. Closed indie bookstores represent the loss of local jobs and local tax dollars; the loss of community centers; and the loss of opportunities for readers to discover books and connect with other readers in a meaningful face-to-face way."

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Café con Libros is a small, intimate space for the Crown Heights community to shop for books by and for people of color and forward-thinking authors and provides a safe space where there can be thoughtful discussion of politics and other important issues. That's something Amazon just doesn't do.

"What's so beautiful about bookstores is that the aesthetics of these spaces tell a story of the owners and our values," DeSuze said. "What is important to our communities sometimes not the New York Times bestsellers or the just recently released, but about what it means to shop black-owned businesses, for example. Our curations are directed by the people who live in the community and not by a computer. There's something so special about the humanity part of it."

By joining the #BoxedOut campaign, she hopes her neighbors and customers will think more deeply about where they spend their money and their need for the instant gratification that comes with buying on Amazon.

A 2019 study by the American Independent Business Alliance says that about 28 percent of all revenue of indie bookstores immediately recirculates in the local economy, according to the ABA.

"For me, taking part in this campaign is inviting my community members to continue the dialogue of what Amazon means to them and for us to forgo expediency ... because we are in Amazon country," DeSuze said. "This is our bread and butter. Amazon has so many other ways of making money that even if we divest from one aspect, it will be fine and will continue beyond all of us."

Many bookstores, including DeSuze's, offer online/on phone purchasing, just like Amazon. But this isn't an anti-Amazon movement, she said. There's a time and place when ordering on the site is necessary. It came in handy, for example, when she gave birth to her daughter and needed items right away.

"I don't want folks to feel shame about shopping on Amazon," she added. "It's not an 'either-or.' Amazon for all its problems, there is good. It's about thinking about corporate and social responsibility."

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