As the owner of an independent bookstore just a few blocks from Virginia’s Capitol, Kelly Justice is used to seeing elected officials come into her shop.
On a quiet Black Friday as many shoppers gazed into their phones instead of venturing out to brick-and-mortar stores, she couldn’t help but stew about state government.
State officials weren’t just applauding the expansion of Amazon, the online retail juggernaut that began as “the Earth’s biggest bookstore.” The state had agreed to give the company up to $550 million in cash incentives to bring half of its coveted HQ2 project to Crystal City in Northern Virginia.
“I actually voted for people who are using my tax dollars to put me out of business. In no world is that fair or right,” said Justice, the owner of Fountain Bookstore in Shockoe Slip.
Virginia’s successful effort to land one of the biggest economic development prizes in history has stirred debate over how far government should go to help big businesses bring jobs to the state. And there’s little question which side Richmond’s independent booksellers come down on.
In recent interviews, three local bookstore owners spoke of their frustration with the Amazon-fueled practice of “showrooming,” where customers come in to browse their physical shelves only to turn around and buy books online at a deep discount.
“They definitely do pose a threat to small independent bookstores,” said Ward Tefft, the owner of Chop Suey Books in Carytown. “That’s not just in their mere existence but how they operate.”
Regardless of his status as an independent bookseller, Tefft said he has more fundamental objections to the notion of public assistance for a company whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, is one of the wealthiest people in the world with an estimated net worth of more than $150 billion.
“My big beef is just as a member of society who is contributing and seeing somebody who has more money than I can even fathom coming in and getting tax breaks,” Tefft said. “It’s like we’re bowing down and kissing the hand of the king just to get some scraps.”
David Shuman, the owner of Book People in Richmond’s West End, noted that Amazon will now receive public incentives after years of resisting paying state sales taxes. Amazon began in 1994 but didn’t submit sales taxes to Virginia until 2013, after the company established a physical presence in Virginia with distribution warehouses in Chesterfield and Dinwiddie counties.
“They clearly don’t need the help,” Shuman said. “There have been plenty of other tech giants that moved locations and didn’t ask for any incentives.”
Amazon did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
On its website, the company says its growth has also benefited small-business owners and entrepreneurs by streamlining online sales and shipping. Half the items sold on Amazon, the company says, are offered by small- and medium-sized businesses, including 28,000 in Virginia.
“Our guiding star has always been our obsession with customers — whether that’s consumers or the millions of businesses that sell on Amazon — and we’re inventing for both shoppers and entrepreneurs every day,” wrote Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke in the company’s “small business impact report.”
Virginia’s incentives for Amazon are subject to approval by the General Assembly, and policymakers may soon be hearing more from small bookstores.
The American Booksellers Association, which is trying to persuade regulators to take antitrust action against Amazon, has been circulating a letter among Virginia’s independent bookstore owners that it plans to send to Gov. Ralph Northam. The nonprofit industry group already posted an open letter to Northam on its website, saying the Amazon deal is “contrary to the long-term interests of all Virginians.”
Northam has pointed out that Virginia’s direct incentives to Amazon wouldn’t come due until after the company creates jobs and begins generating revenue for the state. Most of the state’s incentive package for Amazon, he said, consists of major new spending on higher education and transportation that will help Virginia residents regardless of what happens with Amazon.
“The majority of this package, really over 70 percent of the package that we committed to Amazon, is investing in Virginia,” Northam said Wednesday during a radio appearance on WTOP.
But that hasn’t comforted bookstore owners, who said they worry about the human connections that could be lost if local stores succumb to shopping via computer code and clicks.
Recently, a longtime customer came into Fountain Bookstore with a special request, Justice said. She wanted book recommendations that were totally different from what she usually reads. But only stories where “things turn out OK.”
“She paused, and then she said: ‘My husband has cancer,’” Justice said. “Where’s the algorithm for that?”