The “Advocacy Today” keynote presentation at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) Fall Conference, held in Baltimore, Maryland, earlier this month, featured a panel discussion on how booksellers can become more effective advocates on public policy, and it included a discussion about how they could use the recently updated Civic Economics New Localism study to make the case with elected officials for fair business practices and policies.
The panel included Dan Cullen, ABA senior strategy officer; Rebecca Fitting, co-owner with Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York; and Kristen Lavelett, executive director of Local First Utah, a nonprofit that educates businesses, elected officials, and the public about localism issues in the state of Utah.
Fitting is one of a number of NAIBA booksellers who have been proactive about reaching out to elected officials and other key businesspeople and community stakeholders to spread the New Localism message and advocate for policies that would help small businesses. The recently updated Civic Economics study “Amazon and Empty Storefronts: The Fiscal and Land Use Impacts of Online Retail,” commissioned by ABA and first released at Winter Institute 11 in Denver, Colorado, was a catalyst for her actions, said Fitting. She noted that the study helped her realize that she could, and should, be more involved in making a difference outside of the doors of her business.
“I began thinking more and more about what it means to be an employer, what it means to create jobs that are quality-of-life jobs, that are living wage jobs, that provide the benefits and services and amenities that we can. I was paying more attention to the cost of living in New York and the minimum wage laws and health benefits and all of the rules that are being put in place — how other people are deciding how we are spending our small business’ money,” said Fitting, who will open a second Greenlight location with Stockton Bagnulo this fall. “So much has been taken away from small businesses, from our bottom line, without anything being put back in. The tipping point has passed and [elected officials] need to hear that from us.”
There are two currents in this fight for small independent businesses, Cullen said. The first is making sure the concepts of the New Localism study are effectively communicated so people are educated about the actual effects of Amazon’s business practices on the economic vitality of communities. The second is advocating for public policy that contributes to an equitable treatment of small businesses. The Civic Economics study, updated last month with data from 2015, the most recent available, gives booksellers a useful tool for effective, substantive discussions with elected officials on this point.
When it comes to presenting this data to officials, said Lavelett, it is important, first and foremost, to “remember that you are the authority on your bookstore and your experience and your employees. There is nobody else who can tell your story better than you can and you already know that.”
To advance the message of Local First Utah in meetings with local officials, Lavelett has prepared pitches of one, three, and five minutes each, as well as a full-fledged presentation, so she can get her point across in any situation. Although it might seem intimidating to try to make inroads with elected officials, Lavelett said, booksellers already know how to do it. It’s all about building relationships, she said, something booksellers do with their customers every day. To begin, booksellers should make an effort to attend council meetings and try to get on the agenda, meet individually with local elected officials, and cultivate relationships with support staff — receptionists, interns, deputy directors — who often act as the gatekeepers for these officials.
“Sometimes [creating those relationships] can feel a little bit out of reach or distant, but it’s been my experience that elected officials and appointed officials, people who are in the bureaucracy, are desperate to actually know what their constituents are seeing and feeling and experiencing because they are there for you,” said Lavelett. “They are your elected representatives and they need to work on your behalf. They just don’t necessarily know what that might look like.”
Fitting noted that it took her only 20 minutes to e-mail her chamber of commerce, and, she said, the response she received was instantaneous and enthusiastic. Since then, she has gone with chamber members on lobbying trips to Albany and is currently arranging to meet with city council members. She was also put in touch with the New York City deputy mayor’s office, which began soliciting her feedback and advice. It turns out, she said, that politicians are really interested to hear what small business owners like her have to say. Fitting said she is also working on plans to host a panel at her store with elected officials and chamber members talking about issues related to small businesses. All this was a huge return-on-investment from sending that one e-mail, she said.
“It’s really cool that we are in a growth industry that politicians love, so we have an opportunity right now,” said Fitting. “We have a bigger voice than we realize, and now is the moment for us to be the most proactive.”
Fitting’s efforts have included educating elected officials on how New York State’s new $15 minimum wage law will impact the bottom line of bookstores such as hers, where book prices are set by publishers and payroll costs are rapidly rising. Right now, Fitting said, there is a golden opportunity for booksellers and other small-business people in general to present local policymakers with such information.
The results borne out in the updated New Localism study are staggering, said Cullen. The Civic Economics study, released last month, found that Amazon’s sales of $55.6 billion in the U.S. in 2015 translates to a loss of 133 million square feet of retail space, 39,000 storefronts that either closed or didn’t open, and 220,000 lost jobs, even taking into account states where there has been some job growth due to the opening of Amazon distribution centers.
“The net is a catastrophic loss. At the end of the day the cumulative sales tax loss and property tax loss is $1.2 billion in one year,” said Cullen, who noted that solving this issue is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will take time to create change on the policy level. “In many ways one of the starkest and most persuasive visual images to propel the localism movement are these enormous defunct corpses of superstores — the empty Walmarts. These big box stores came in, they strip-mined the local economy, and they left. We don’t yet have that on Main Street, but the data is clear: If the outflux of consumer spending continues to go online in the way it is going now, that’s the big data, as they say.”
The public is generally aware of how big box stores have damaged their communities, and they have changed some of their buying habits accordingly, said Lavelett. However, many of these same people are still buying online because it’s quick and easy, so there is definitely some cognitive dissonance, she said. The numbers in the New Localism study begin to resolve this, combining numbers and narrative to show people the concrete economic damage Amazon’s presence has wrought in their own communities.
Booksellers with questions about the New Localism are encouraged to contact Cullen or ABA Senior Public Policy Analyst David Grogan. Resources are also available on BookWeb.org, under the Designs & Downloads Advocacy tab, including links to ABA’s New Localism Toolkit, the updated version of the Civic Economics Study, links to ABA’s Antitrust Action Kit, which contains template letters to elected officials and helpful infographics.