Did You See That Litter?

I hope you’re well and enjoying some summery venture, or comforting downtime. I still long for the childhood months of liberation – oh, to be a little sprout, or a Parisian, wiling away the summer months somewhere even better than Paris! Will we adults ever get that same deep rest of a kid (or a French person) on summer break? It seems that we have other duties, now that we are grown.

I do feel fortunate to spend this summer in cool Bellingham, still bewildered by the raging heat waves and firey tempests elsewhere. This climate works for me because I always love an excuse to cuddle in under a cat and a blanket and read in the daytime!  My love for literature bloomed late, perhaps because I was ashamed that I read slowly as a child, and my personality is impatient. It may also be that I wanted real tips on growing up quick, and the Nancy Drew flavor of my teen years only had pertinent advice for my mother! Blessedly, I found my way back to reading and even started a PhD in English a million years ago. My deep love for reading is ardent and continuous. I love to be captivated and transported by a tale.

I love the library and all it represents, but really adore an independent bookstore. When traveling now, I look for a town’s bookstore and slip into the quiet, to get a flavor-feeling for the community. I check out the stacks of staff recommendations, peruse the display themes and feel myself settle into the jackets I see my old friends wearing. I am calmed when I read these familiar titles, remembering that I have, indeed, had a rich life through the grace of these authors and poets who share their stories. My feet have not yet tread on African soil, but I’ve lived through the stories told, the enchantment expressed of deep connection and reverence for the earth there. The single degree of separation between me and Botswana feels reduced to half, or less.

As we are awakening to disparity in every facet of modern life, the same questions still float to the top: whose stories will be told?

Who decides which books show up in this store or that one?

Does a published author earn enough income to support the life of a writer?

Does a book have value because it’s hand sewn or covered with art, or is a digital version just as cherished?

Most owners of small bookstores are quite passionate about their work. Danny Caine, of the Raven Book Store, says, “We believe that the right book can change the world..(it) can forever alter the course of the right reader’s life.” They really care about books, these folks!

What does it mean that Jeff Bezos’ giant baby named Amazon, accounts for half of the book sales in the United states? That he chose to sell books because “they were pure commodities: a copy of a book in one store was identical to the same book carried in another.”. He doesn’t give one hoot about books, yet is making decisions that affect millions of humans.

I found Danny Caine’s book, How to Resist Amazon, and Why, in our local, Village Books, and didn’t really want to hear it. Who wants to learn that The Wizard is not just a man behind a curtain, but that he’s a creepy dealer man who is purposefully appealing to our classic human weaknesses? I didn’t want to know and that was how I knew that I needed to know.

The yoga sutras names our five human pains, and number one is avidya, or ignorance. This can be called innocence, or forgetting, so translate it as you will. Did I forget that it’s rarely possible to pay less for a new item without someone else having to make up for that discount? Did I forget that “free shipping” only means that will not pay that bill? You get the idea. The answer is that I am intoxicated just like the rest of us, and let myself believe that a discount book arriving in 24 hours couldn’t really hurt anyone, just this little one?

When a dear friend came to visit, we went browsing the delightful Edmonds Bookstore, and she mentioned ordering books from her super helpful friend, Amazon. Because of our 40+ years of love and trust, I asked if she knew of the deep creep that dude is, and she was ready to hear some details. I realized that most of us don’t know the murky shadow cast by our love for cute, cheap things. Once you know, then you can make an informed decision.

For me, it’s like when I’m hiking and I see some litter. Once I see it, I can’t pretend I didn’t. I can choose not to pick it up. I can acknowledge that someone else dropped it, it wasn’t my doing. But if I want the trail to be litter-free, the best way to get my need met is to pick it up. If I leave the litter, then that’s my choice, but I don’t get to pretend I didn’t see it. I can gripe and grumble all day about litterbugs or checked out hikers, but I’d rather just tend to the track and show myself that I care.

If you don’t want to see the litter about Amazon, stop reading now. If you’re ready for a small smattering of statistics, knowing that you don’t have to change anything you’re doing, carry on!

Amazon can sell books for a retail price that is less than an independent bookseller buys them wholesale. This means that Village Books has to buy a book for $14 and Amazon can sell it for $10. They can have it delivered to your home in less than one day. Who can compete with a genie like that? How can they sell items of literature so cheaply? Like Walmart and Costco, they buy in huge quantities and get a better deal. Because Amazon is a giant corporation, (valued at over a trillion dollars kind of giant) cities beg to have any scent of Amazon’s perfume on their lapels, enticing them to open local headquarters with “huge tax breaks and corporate welfare.” In 2018 Amazon paid zero income tax on over $11 billion in profits. “Their discount strategies mean authors, publishers and even Amazon themselves can lose money on every book sold.”

So now you know a little bit about one facet of the Goliath whose trucks pretend to smile at you. Someone told me that symbol was obviously a penis and now I can’t deny that I see it differently. Of course you get to decide for yourself, that is your primary power as an American, and now I’ve pointed out the litter. I’m sorry if this is hard to learn.

We aren’t all going to become immaculate consumers, but we could ponder taking one small step. Maybe just a browse through a local shop of any kind could surprise you. Look, you know the person who wrote that book, or who roasted that coffee or who sold that building. You recognize the cashier but don’t yet know their name. You bump into an old classmate or see a kind parent pick up their tired kiddo. It’s all out there, just waiting for you.