Advocating for Worcester’s Businesses and Communities in the 21st-Century

“A bookstore, huh?”

“Yeah, a bookstore, but something more. Let me try to explain.”

That exchange has summed up a lot of interactions the staff and I have had the past few months. Some of the time, the exchange features intrigue and curiosity dashed with a semblance of appreciation and genuine excitement. Chances are (since you are taking the time to read this) you fall into this camp and we appreciate your support and interest! Some of the time, however, the question is marked by a furrowed brow, as if the person I am conversing with is dumbfounded that we haven’t heard of Amazon, the Internet, blogs or the decline of the dinosaurs. How could we be so naïve, they must wonder? Why open a business now to compete in a world dominated by cheaper and more convenient alternatives? Books are products identical in composition and perfect for mass distribution. Aren’t indie bookstores, at a fundamental level, a contradiction to the trends and tastes of consumers bending towards convenience and lowest cost?

Well, yes, sure, these naysayers have a point. The market share of corporate giants has grown. We are living in an uber-capitalist dream scenario: a bevy of desirable goods available at a low price to consumers. And people are working, baby! Look at unemployment rates! And quality of living! Say you want to purchase a copy of Heavy by Kiese Lemon on Amazon; you can currently buy it here at Amazon for $13.00. That is a good deal for a great book. On the other hand, you could buy a copy at an independent bookstore that sold it for the MSRP of $26.00. To homo economicus, the latter would be absurd.[1] At the online rate, I could have bought another book on Amazon and had two books instead of one!

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An unearthed fossil of a prehistoric shopping cart.

But let’s hold on one minute and analyze the situation. How are corporations able to constantly undersell local sellers? And what are the other economic and societal costs to purchasing through non-local distributors? Initially, effective corporations are simply utilizing effective marketplace tools to grow their market shares. How they accomplished this varied by company. The Walton’s grew Walmart by buying bulk and distributing nationally. Apple realized exponential growth on the back of a revolutionary gadget that had mass appeal. Google had an efficient, time-saving algorithm. Facebook curated a unique social platform that connected people. Amazon began their empire of everything by simply reorganizing the way we buy books. They provided a majestic library for book lovers. These would seem to be a good things for consumers everywhere, right?

Unfortunately, in the cases of the companies above, amiable business ideas have ceded ground to more scrupulous business practices. For example:

  • Walmart turned into the corporate villain of the late 20th and early 21st-centuries, finding themselves on the defensive for everything from how they treated their workers to accusations that they destroyed local communities.
  • Apple has straddled the moral line on everything from corporate espionage to employee working conditions.
  • Google and Facebook’s control of our data is increasingly under scrutiny by it’s users and the government.
  • After their success in book sales, Amazon has expanded their method of bullying and underselling to other businesses and industries. These are on top of labor practices that come straight from some sort of Upton Sinclair expose. In industry after industry, Amazon has played nice with businesses until it had just enough leverage to squash them by restricting their market on their website or charging exorbitant fees to access market.

No demonstration of Amazon’s power was more blatant than their announcement for a new headquarters. City after city offered extravagant terms to the company that have proven in the past to ultimately hurt the citizens of municipalities. As a kicker, most of these corporations don’t even pay taxes, and many even get rebates from the government!

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OctoAmazon: “These are on top of labor practices that come straight from some sort of Upton Sinclair expose.”

My mea culpa: I am a hypocrite. I am guilty of utilizing all of the services above. You are obviously reading this on Facebook (or were linked to the page via Instagram) where we have promoted our business on multiple occasions. We want to be featured prominently on Google so that when people search for ‘coffee shop’ or ‘bookstore’ we show up as an option. I have bought goods from Walmart and off of Amazon and other online retailers. Our POS system depends on the I-Pad to work. When we started to organize Root and Press, we had to battle with the following question: are the companies above essential to a successful entry to my business sector?  Unfortunately, I believe the answer is yes, simply because the most popular of technology companies have emerged as products more resembling public utilities than consumer products or services.[1] As an (intended) consequence, these companies are positioning themselves to be the arbiters of who gets to compete and who doesn’t, hoarding data all while profiting off of their competitors at the embryonic stage. If any of the companies above sense a true threat from a start-up, they either acquire the company or simply steal the best of its ideas.

As we have set up the business, we have sensed exactly how much we have lost the agency to control our own narratives and success, both as an individual business and as a whole community. Doesn’t it seem paradoxical that a book can be delivered to a doorstep at a lower cost than if a customer went and purchased it directly? The magic happens when we realize online companies bundle other unseen costs in that $13.00 copy of Heavy. For instance, did you know that:

  • Amazon’s third-party retailers do not charge a state sales tax?
  • As they were building market share, Amazon were exempt from paying a majority of local state taxes?
  • That billions of dollars that should have been earmarked for communities across the nation have been diverted to the pockets of a small group of individuals and shareholders?

The truth is that those companies are buying something extra with your “discounted” purchase. Whether it was access to your data, the continued leveraging of their market share, or a bid to become indispensable across the societal spectrum, every time we operate through these online corporations instead of through local business channels we perpetuate our reliance on these companies and undermine local business.

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“The truth is that those companies are buying something extra with your “discounted” purchase.”

Therefore, we hope to join and expand upon the already established “Buy Local” campaign to mitigate the sway these conglomerates have on our cities and towns. As we do so, we hope to stymie the practice of compromising our economies by forsaking playgrounds, parks, and pencils for purchases of convenience. Additionally, we want to stress that shopping local is not only about tax revenues. What other effects does online retail have on the economy? Less income spent within municipalities. Gentrification. The loss of local jobs. Losing our damn minds. When communities spend in the local economy, it fosters more spending within the community at triple the rate that online spending achieves. As an example, let’s say a community emphatically supports, ahem, a local bookstore. (Please do!) This allows:

  • The owner to hire new workers and/or pay existing workers better.
  • Workers to support other local businesses, one of which you may work for. Or your brother, mother, or child.
  • Local businesses to thrive, which alleviates crime, encourages local donations, and helps the environment.[1]

This isn’t just an abstract idea created by mom and pop to compete. The local multiplier is an identifiable, tangible variable in the success and failure of communities across the country.

Rather than create a parasitic business, we want to create a business that serves the Tatnuck area and greater Worcester community in multiple ways. The staff at Root and Press will be dedicated to not only selling books and coffee, but providing services uncommon in other sectors and invisible with corporate and online business. Consider this list:

  • Bookstores can coordinate fundraisers and connect local people in a local environment that they cannot necessarily reach from their computers or phones inside their homes.
  • They highlight the best of the community, all the way down to the individual, from other local businesses they promote to institutions they support.
  • They are a forum for ideas, a showcase for better researched and more authentic work than you can find in non-academic articles and blogs online.
  • Indie stores are meccas for the advancement of education for people of all ages.
  • Root and Press will focus on hosting events (think clubs, art nights, craft fairs, and children’s events) outside of business hours, providing the community with a multitude of activities to engage with.

We wish to demonstrate that our business is not merely existing within a geographic space in a city, but that they are actually woven within the fabric of the community. To do so, we have adopted the 1/1/1 company model where we are committed to the following:

  • Donating 1% of our profit to local charities that impact Worcester’s citizens.
  • Redistributing 1% of our purchases of goods to area institutions that can disburse them to Worcester’s need.
  • Volunteer 1% of our employees’ clock-in time to local endeavors that will improve Worcester’s community..

We are in talks with local charities, foundations, and schools that we hope to supply with the money, goods, and manpower to make their missions easier to accomplish. This newsletter predates any final plans, but the blog will post updates as they become available.

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“Your economic habits help mold your community.”

I know these are lofty ideals. In a cutthroat environment, I don’t know if businesses who start out should adopt such principles. What I do know is that as a staff we decided would rather create a business that adopts these goals and fails than adopt the characteristics of the above corporations and succeed. Starting this business was not about becoming rich, or driven by greed, but instead by a passion to improve our own lives by helping improve the lives of others. Even if everyone in Worcester decided to only shop local, Root and Press and other businesses would be letting down the community (and no different from national corporations) if they just pocketed the surplus.[4] Local business owners must recommit to supporting community projects to produce the best of cities and towns in the 21st-century.

Worcester is an amazing city. The pockets of municipal pride are evident in all four seasons, from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to the Taste of Shrewsbury Street, from stART of the Street[1] to holiday shows in the Theater District. With the rejuvenation of the Canal District (with its own bookstore!) to the renovations downtown, to the transforming West Side, we are excited and honored to join the community of locally owned businesses in the area. So please go buy the local paper. Find a local hardware store. Grab a bite at a family-run restaurant.  Keep your Prime membership if it suits you. I know I will have to shop at Walmart again. But as you make purchases, please remember that your economic habits help mold your community.

 

[1] The theory of homo economicus has shaped much of our perspectives in a litany of fields, from psychology to history. In recent years, however, it has come under intense scrutiny, most notably by Nobel-winner Richard Thaler in Misbehaving.
[2] Companies with enlarged roles in the day-to-day life of consumers occurs when the application of technology outpaces weighing the impacts of the technology. As transformations in economies begin, many are blinded by the positive byproducts of the technologies. Meanwhile, those in control of these emerging industries begin to exert control and set the bar of acceptability on everything from labor practices to manufacturing processes. The most notable instances of this throughout American history are the emergence of the railroad, telecommunication, computing, data, and online commerce industries.
[3] See this article by the American Independent Business Alliance for a more detailed explanation of the above. learn more.
[4] Whenever entrepreneurs tie in a greater cause to their business model, I am reminded of Kevin O’Leary on Shark Tank invariably asking “Well, is it a business or a charity?” This question promotes the false idea that there is a fundamental conflict between profit and benevolence.
[5] We have met many artisans here that will be featured in the store year-round!

Author: Root and Press

Owner of Root and Press

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