Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sorry, mom & pop

Last month I wrote this and this about the price war over books that had broken out among several retailers. I addressed a couple issues, basically dissenting from the outrage from publishers and some writers, but I didn't address the point about how the big chains' capability for deep discounts could be another, perhaps even the decisive, blow to independent bookstores, those that are left and struggling to survive. So here's a comment on that, nothing definitive, just a point or two.

One is that yes, unlike most of the other arguments of those who are angry about Walmart selling cheap books, this one is probably valid.

The other, though, is: so what?

I have nothing against small businesses. Mom and pop shops of various types can be charming oases, can foster personal relationships among customers and between the owners and their customers, can offer personalized service, and so on. Also, the small-business class is strategically key to the revolutionary project. We want to win over the petit bourgeoisie to be the allies of the working class, we want the middle class to see that its interests are not served by this system (as indeed their increasing marginalization at the hands of the big monopolies shows), we want them with us and ultimately we need them with us. Small business owners, in particular bookshop owners, can be and often are great folks, caring folks, community-minded folks, and not greedy, not solely concerned with making ever more money--so there are ways that small business at its best and in particular the small or independent bookstores are different than big business with its impersonal corporate profit-driven rampage toward the bottom line.

I can see the sentimental appeal. But the reasons I'm not dewy-eyed about the plight of the small bookstores are:
  1. Petit though they may be, they are still bourgeois enterprises. Although they are doing it on a smaller scale, they exploit their employees. Whatever profit they do make is derived from their workers' labor--from the surplus value stolen from the workers. Mom and pop may be nice as all get-out, but they're robbing their employees. This is the essence of any capitalist business, big or small.
  2. Although some small shops may be relatively pleasant places to work (yet the corollary is rarely acknowledged, that some of them are hell on earth, with mean nasty bosses who are there in close quarters with the workers making their lives a daily misery), wages, benefits and even working conditions are usually considerably worse than at the big chains. Most important of all, though, workers at small stores are isolated, atomized, laboring alone or in the twos and threes and with absolutely no opportunity to organize, demand or get improved wages, benefits and working conditions. By contrast, there's Target, say, or even Walmart the rotten anti-union big daddy of retail. It's no fun working at these stores. But you're not alone--and you have the potential of unionizing and winning a better deal.
I would always rather work at a big company than for an individual small business owner. For workers, the strength is in numbers. The possibility of bettering their lives comes with the bigger picture.

Which is why, comfy-cozy as this or that bookshop may be (although truthfully my own experience hasn't made me fonder of the small ones than the big), I'll do my book buying wherever it costs me the least. Because everything else is not equal, and what I'm interested in is the well-being of the workers, not the owners.