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Canadian Booksellers Association Goes to Bat for Indie Shops and Canadian Culture

American online giant Amazon has requested government approval to establish operations here in Canada. In consideration of this, the Canadian Booksellers Association has a few things to say and has asked that the government deny Amazon’s request. The press release states:

CBA President Stephen Cribar argues that Amazon’s entry into Canada would detrimentally affect the country’s independent businesses and cultural industries: “Individual Canadian booksellers have traditionally played a key role in ensuring the promotion of Canadian authors and Canadian culture. These are values that no American dot.com retailer could ever purport to understand or promote.”

CBA urges the Canadian government and the Department of Canadian Heritage to continue its support of our unique cultural perspective by placing reasonable limits on American domination of our book market and rejecting Amazon.com’s current application.

With Biblio and other indie shops in mind, I firmly stand behind the CBA. Do you? We’re urged, then, to support them and the preservation of our Canadian culture by writing to our MPs and ministers of culture and industry, and even to the prime minister. I’m conflicted about this, wondering what the point might be, especially since Harper seems too busy for this sort of thing, but one never knows. Better to do something than nothing.

21 Comments to “Canadian Booksellers Association Goes to Bat for Indie Shops and Canadian Culture”

  1. Marie Clausén

    But amazon.ca already exists…? Is that not the Canadian Amazon franchise?
    As to forbidding Amazon to set up shop in Canada (that is, if they aren’t already established), I’m generally not in favour of arranging things the way I want them by denying others the right to do what they want. It has often seemed to me that in Canada everything is either prohibited or proscribed – that vital grey zone in-between where the human free will is free to make its own decisions seems to be ever shrinking.
    It also seems somewhat patronizing to the Canadian reader/book buyer to suggest that they need to be denied another purchasing option as they are assumed to make the “wrong” choice if let loose to make their own decisions. If it is true that a Canadian wing of Amazon will do a bad job of promoting Canadian literature (not that that is by any means the only literature a Canadian reader ought to read) then surely the customer will choose to go elsewhere if their interest lies with Canadian literature. An informed customer – and I assume here that Canadians are informed (or have the opportunity to be informed if they would like to be) – will make their own decisions about what books to buy from whom.
    And ordinary healthy market competition will in such cases ensure the eventual demise of those retailers that are unable to satisfy the discerning readership.

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  2. There is amazon.ca but there are no actual physical operations set up. If they did get something built, it would be yet another large franchise to threaten small, independent shops but also simply Canadian shops in general.

    I have to say I wholeheartedly agreed with the CBA. I’d perhaps agree with you if Amazon were going to offer something we couldn’t get here; then I’d say we shouldn’t be denied the option (though we’re not really; we can always just go online). You’re assuming, I think, that there will be a choice of stores for us to choose from, so why deny readers that choice?

    But if Canadian shops can offer what American ones can, why do we need the American franchises? Why can’t we choose between Chapters and indies? Disallowing Amazon to set up shop locally is simply to protect what we’ve established and retain what semblance of our own culture and identity we have. And in our own Canadian way, which is to say, hosting readings and events and special promotions and such. Amazon will simply offer a wide selection and it’s easy enough to simply discount a line of Canadian authors. It’s not the same.

    Hockey teams, department stores, grocery shops, particularly ones that have been quintessentially Canadian—all these are being bought out by Americans. It’s not a matter of prohibiting product or choice—we’re not some developing country that can’t provide the same things, after all—but rather of supporting our own, of ensuring the survival of what we’ve worked hard to establish.

    “And ordinary healthy market competition will in such cases ensure the eventual demise of those retailers that are unable to satisfy the discerning readership.”

    Precisely. This is one reason they don’t want Amazon. Particularly the indie shops will have a hard time competing, as they already do, since price, not just selection is an issue. Even the larger, franchise stores are closing. If these close because the Americans are cheaper and offer the same books, who will offer the choice of where to go?

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  3. Marie Clausén

    Neither protectionism nor nationalism are my melody.

    Nor is cultural imperialism on the part of the Americans or anyone else, of course, but I don’t think that need take root unless people choose to let it. Where one does one’s shopping is up to oneself after all, and that choice depends on many things, of which competitive pricing makes up just one small portion.

    One reason I have bought books at amazon.ca, amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in the last little while is that they are the only ones who carry certain books (most notably academic books published in Europe). I usually start by looking at Chapters and 9 times out of 10 they don’t carry the books I’m looking for. So, my experience of Amazon from a customer’s point of view is not that they are forcing an American ethos down my throat but rather that their width of merchandise allows me quick and easy access to works from other parts of the globe.

    What is quintessentially Canadian anyway? What is a quintessentially Canadian department store or grocery store? I wouldn’t know what to look for to determine whether the avocados or lobsters are displayed in a particularly Canadian way. :-)

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  4. Perhaps, then, this is a cultural thing, something someone who has lived in Canada all his or her life would feel more strongly about.

    “Nor is cultural imperialism on the part of the Americans or anyone else, of course, but I don’t think that need take root unless people choose to let it.”

    What you say here is significant: letting Amazon in would be letting, or helping along, American “imperialism.” At least contributing to it, which is exactly what the CBA is trying to avoid.

    I agree with you that if there is what you want elsewhere and it is not a Canadian company, then that is where you would prefer to make your purchases.

    In the end, there are no restrictions online, and I think this should be enough. I simply fail to understand why we would need physical Amazon operations in Canada. If not to expand their empire, why else would they do it? Expanding their empire means a significant effect on Canadian retail.

    As for what is quintessentially Canadian but is now American owned, I think of the Hudson Bay Company (of all things!!), Sears, Tim Horton’s, certain hockey teams and companies, things that have defined Canada for ages. Contrary to what so many people insist on saying, Canada indeed has a very concrete and strong identity. If we lack such a grasp on it, it’s not because we have so many immigrants but because we allow ourselves to be bought out.

    I know competition is healthy and even drives down prices, but too much competition is closing stores. If they offer all the books you could offer and you can’t compete on price, what’s left? Already, we’re seeing so many shops close, why invite more of the same?

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  5. Marie Clausén

    What are these physical Amazon operations to consist of? Is it simply warehousing we’re talking about? Because Amazon is from what I understand an online retailer only and doesn’t have any actual physical shops?

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  6. Marie Clausén

    It seems to me (as an acknowledged outsider) that when Canadianness is touted it is always some form of white, middle-class Anglophone mainstream notion of it that is meant. Is it the Inuit or the Miqmaks or the Acadian French or the Vancouver Sikhs that care so strongly about Sears and Tim Horton’s.e.g.? One of the problems with any nationalism is that as much as it pushes that which is outside the borders away it also fails to include everything within its borders, because then things would get complicated and slightly messy and would not appear cohesive enough to fit into one concept. If indie bookshops are threatened it is enough to say that without waving the maple leaf and claiming all of Canadian culture to be at the brink of extinction.

    I must say I don’t think the British feel any less British because the Mini Cooper is currently owned by German BMW. Cultural and ethnic feeling is not ruined because some enterprise is bought or sold on the global market. It is understood that that is how the world of business operates in a global economy and mostly it stays within the pink pages of the FT. Culture sits somewhere else…

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  7. I hear what you’re saying but disagree that this is simply a matter of shops closing. It’s the way the shops promote literature that is also under question, and who has the most control over that promotion.

    I think I’ve been too vague in my report and too personal in my views. Here’s the relevant article from the Globe: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/booksellers-take-on-ottawa-over-amazons-distribution-plans/article1494306/ to explain the protestation.

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  8. In the end, as Colin pointed out to me, this is all about business, competition, profit, etc., which is where I see your global point. I understand that. But it’s also about survival, and I care about who survives.

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  9. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so passionate about this if my dream job wasn’t to open up a small indie bookshop where I already know I can’t compete with price and must sell atmosphere and so on.

    At the same time, I disagree that culture sits somewhere else. I don’t understand how one can separate culture from anything, whether our arts or our business. Culture is something we are immersed in.

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  10. Marie Clausén

    I understand that you are upset because of the potential negative effect this may have on Biblio. I certainly don’t want a world without cozy, independent bookshops in which to unwind, browse and perhaps even buy. I just don’t think stopping someone else from setting up shop is the right way to go about promoting one’s own interests. It is as much as if to acknowledge that one cannot compete fairly – which isn’t even true as I don’t see independent bookshop tearooms as offering the same thing as amazon at all. I buy from both.

    I agree that culture is inseparable from most things and that we are immersed in it. But we have to separate notions of individual culture, family culture or even community culture or ethnic culture from nationally sponsored culture or mythic culture. Have you read Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” – it is all about the myth-making of building a national culture.

    Again it’s not a matter of me being for giant corporations (of any nationality) and against small independent enterprises. Quite the contrary. However, I think it is a mistake to try and drum up sympathy for one’s business by drawing on nationalist sentiments.

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    1. No, no, I know you’re not against indie shops or for corporations. After all, you work for and support a small press and understand the challenges that entails. You support small presses as well by contributing to them.

      I feel as though the discussion has taken a few unexpected turns for me. I admit to not being well enough educated regarding business and free market and all the rest of it to give a proper rebuttal. I simply feel the CBA’s comments resonated with me, and I concede that I am still trying to explore my feelings against yet another corp. (American or not), particularly one that deals in books. Perhaps these feelings are misguided besides uninformed, as well as invalidly paranoid.

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  11. Marie Clausén

    I’ve read the article. I think Heather Reisman makes some valid points, especially the one about this nationalist, protectionist policy on the part of the Canadian government actually having been detrimental to some book retailers (and no doubt publishers, too), who have been forbidden to enter into co-ownership with non-Canadian companies.

    It isn’t Amazon’s job to give Canadian or any other authors publicity and promotion. They are simply talking about a warehouse and order fulfillment centre – those places are not staffed by sales reps and publicity people. And even if they were, and they did a bad job promoting Canadian authors, so much the more reason not to feel threatened by them as that would then mean there is an obvious niche to step into, a need to fill, something that someone else (i.e. Canadian bookshops) can do better.

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    1. I understand that indie shops can instead offer something the large corps can’t, but my point is, and again perhaps it’s an invalid one, that there may not be any indie shops left to offer that experience. The more challenged the climate becomes, the harder it will be for me or others to set up shop and/or survive.

      I worry, too, that niche marketing can actually be detrimental, since people mention liking having so much choice and instead shopping online as well.

      Were a bookshop to be solely “Canadian” (and I mean selling authors who reside in Canada and are writing and publishing as Canadians regardless of their heritage) focused, for example, in the interest of preserving or adding to the culture, how would it fare? Would it be attractive or too limited?

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  12. Alright lets look at this from another angle:

    Carla Jiminez, co-owner of Inkwood Books, Tampa, Fla., has added several new lines when she introduces an event at the store:
    “We want to make sure you are aware that Inkwood does not charge sales tax. (Long pause.) As a service on your behalf, and on behalf of all the residents of our state, we do collect and submit sales tax to the state, so you can have schools and libraries and roads.”

    The statement has been well received. A regular response is “I never thought of it that way.”

    No one Likes taxes. I don’t Like taxes. I do, however, like road maintenance and libraries and city water and sewer and all of the other things that taxes pay for. This is something to consider when we’re choosing where to spend our money. Businesses pay taxes to the country, province or state and city where they are located. The majority of those taxes are paid wherever the company’s “headquarters” are if there is more than one location. The sales taxes collected as well as the businesses’ portion of the tax burden go toward the budgets for roads and schools etc where those businesses are. Allowing for simplification, if there is not enough money coming in from the local business community for a town to balance their budget, tax rates across the board, business and residential are raised to make-up for it.
    So…
    Who’s town have you been helping with their budget?

    Reply
    1. Hi Paul! Thanks for commenting.

      I’m unsure how to respond to your comment as I have no clue about how the tax will work with the distribution centre if it does come to fruition!

      I understand what you’re saying, however, and I suppose the issue for people is price; most will simply find the cheaper item and shop there, rather than buy “locally.”

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      1. Steph

        I am guessing where ever the distribution centre is located that is where the taxes will be collected. When you spend online nothing comes back to your community. When you spend in independently owned stores money comes back into the community through taxes, payroll, and other expenditures.

        Check out http://www.the350project.net

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  13. I have to add here that I’m not against shopping at Amazon. I like the online shop because I can make my wish list there and, as you said, Marie, find more than I can find on Chapters. Given the option, though, I prefer to shop in person rather than online, and do so much more often than not, because I like the bookshopping experience. To take that one step further, I would prefer to shop at an indie store, but must be honest: the Chapters location is more convenient and I shop more often there than at our indie store.

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  14. Paul,

    I agree! I would much prefer to shop in store. Most shops will order in for you if they don’t have what you want.

    PS. I checked out your sites. Cool! I’ve never been up that far, but if ever I do go, I’ll pay you a visit…and shop! :)

    Reply

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