Up the Amazon

Writers are supposed to deplore Amazon. To decry the way that this American megalith has invaded the territory of the cosy British bookshop: the alien and predatory grey squirrel driving out its cute red relative. I have never shared this view and, after this week, I share it even less.  

For many decades, I lived in the countryside, miles from any bookshop. I remember the pre-Amazon days when, if I wanted a book, I had to telephone Waterstone’s in Northampton to see if they’d got it (a question they were frequently unable to answer) and then make a one-hour round trip to obtain it. Why wouldn’t I appreciate an online retailer who could get me that book with one click of the mouse, especially when it now usually arrives the next day?

As for getting a second-hand book, forget it, unless one came across one by chance in a charity shop or through Abe Books, which was not always good value. In bookshops, it is full price or nothing. If I am buying a book I especially want, then I do want it new. But if I am buying one purely for research purposes, I don’t need it to be new, and the cheaper the better. Thank you, Amazon, for that facility. Not least because of the difference it made to selecting the books to put on the shelves of the house we’d bought in France.

We rejected the idea of taking half our British library there on the basis that, when we needed a particular book, it would be bound to be in the other house. So my wife and I each chose our 50 favourite books and ordered duplicates, second-hand from Amazon. We couldn’t have done this if we’d had to buy the books new. (As a matter of interest, although there was some author duplication in our two lists, only one title appeared on both: Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography.)

But it’s not just the convenience, or the price: it’s the principle. Life changes. Life moves forward. And it needs to. Resisting the incoming tide is no wiser for us than it was for King Canute’s courtiers. In the 1930s, the French Chamber of Deputies debated the sudden influx of variety stores (imported from America and modelled on Woolworth’s) and decided to ban them because they were too popular. This is the sort of craziness in which a refusal to accept change results. And of course it didn’t work.

I love bookshops, but I love them in the same way that I love French rural life: as a glorious anachronism that I would prefer to survive, but not out of my own pocket. I do not propose to subsidise bookshops by paying more for books than I need to, and I shall be delighted no longer to be subsidising the French countryside through the Common Agricultural Policy. If both are to survive, they will need to find other lifejackets.

That is not impossible, but it will need adaptability. In the case of bookshops, it is pertinent to remember that the first defunct group of independent bookshops were driven out of business by the success of chains such as Waterstone’s and Dillons. One of those has disappeared, while the other is itself now part of the bookshop nostalgia. Mutatis mutandis.

Bookshops that find a function other than plonking books on shelves and hoping that people come into the store to buy them can survive, as long as they have a reasonably propitious location. And many do. I have attended several events in independent bookshops and have been impressed by the way they have reached out into their communities. But those that cry “foul” at internet competition will not be long for this world, and nor do they deserve to be.

There has been another reason to write this piece this week, and it involves another accolade for Amazon, although one that does not concern books. Some days ago, just before we left France to come back to England for the winter, my wife ordered Christmas presents from Amazon, not noticing that the delivery address automatically defaulted to France. The first she knew was an email saying that Amazon had tried and failed to deliver the order to our French address. She emailed Amazon, confessing the mistake and requesting the order to be redelivered to England. She asked how much it would cost.

By any standards, Amazon’s reaction was astonishing. Within an hour, at about 7 pm, they had replied: “I’ve checked and found that we are unable to redirect your shipment to your UK address… In this case, I’ve placed a new order for the same items… There’ll be no additional charge for your replacement order.” By lunchtime the next day, the new order had arrived.

Now, we are good Amazon customers and spend a lot of money with the company each year. Possibly the response would have been different otherwise. But it was still an exceptional piece of customer service for something that was entirely our fault.

So I am not among Amazon’s critics. On the contrary, I applaud the service it offers and the way in which it has taken advantage of technological innovation to improve the lives of myself and others in small but significant ways.

What about Amazon’s failure to pay much tax in the UK, you may ask – a subject on which I have written fiercely in previous blogs? And what about its policy on pay and conditions? (As a footnote, it is worth noting that the Amazon delivery service is considerably slower in France, and one wonders why.) Yes, both these things remain vital. But, as far as I know, Amazon conforms to the laws and tax regulations currently in place. If they are inadequate, complaints should be addressed to the British government. And loudly. But we should still cherish Amazon.