Small Business Rising is Fighting Monopoly Power — Episode 124 of Building Local Power

Date: 15 Apr 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by Mary Timmel, ILSR’s Small Business Organizer, along with Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Book Store, and Natasha Amott, owner of Whisk, a homewares store. Caine and Amott are among many other business owners and independent business groups that have joined Small Business Rising, a coalition that is calling on federal policymakers to reign in monopoly power.

Their conversation touches on:

  • Trends they’ve seen in their industries, and at what point they realized monopoly power was behind many of the challenges they are facing.
  • Why independent businesses are so important to communities.
  • Why it’s important for small businesses to come together across sectors to challenge monopoly power, and why small businesses and labor shouldn’t be pitted against each other.
  • The interconnected harms Amazon causes communities, including negative impacts on health, jobs, the environment, and more.

 

“To make this whole thing seem like this is just a single bookstore that’s mad about its prices makes it too easy to write it off. It’s much too narrow of a view of the argument. And as soon as you do any reading on the Amazon issue or about big tech monopolies, you realize just how many industries are affected by this, and how big Amazon is. So coalition building and teaming up both at the local and the national level, is vital to actually get something done, and also to convince people of the importance of this.”

 

“I hear David versus Goliath tossed around a lot, because we’re a little bookstore that has a really vocal anti-Amazon stance. But that’s not how I see it because it affects so many people. And if we all get together, we’re not actually that small. And I think Small Business Rising is a really important way to do that.”

 

Jess Del Fiacco: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more than 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands.
Jess Del Fiacco: Today, really excited to talk about a new coalition of which ILSR is a part. It’s called Small Business Rising. And it’s a growing group of independent businesses who are asking policymakers to reign in monopoly power. I’m joined by my colleague Mary Timmel as well as Danny Caine who’s the owner of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, as well as Natasha Amott who’s the owner of Whisk, which is a kitchen store in Brooklyn. Welcome to the show all of you.
Danny Caine: Thank you [crosstalk 00:01:02].
Jess Del Fiacco: And I think we can get started if Danny and Natasha, if you just want to give very brief descriptions of your businesses and your background?
Natasha Amott: Sure. I’ll go first. So my name as you said is Natasha Amott. I’m the owner of Whisk, which is a kitchen where retail store. We’re located in Brooklyn, New York. I opened whisk in 2008. In 2018, I had three locations. Two in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan. Now I have just the one location located in downtown Brooklyn. And we sell everything needed for kitchenware, and we are brick and mortar, and also online.
Danny Caine: Yeah. And I’m Danny. I’m the owner of The Raven. The Raven has been a small new bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas since September, 1987. I’m the third owner. 1,200 square feet, about 13,000 books. We’re working on a move to a new location just around the corner. But just long time leaders and advocates for literacy and small business in a small college town in the Midwest.
Jess Del Fiacco: Could you both talk about how your businesses or how your industries have changed over the last year with the pandemic or any other kind of ongoing trends that you want to point to?
Danny Caine: I can jump in on this one first. The most important trend to look at with independent bookselling is of course the shift to online. We haven’t had customers browsing in our store for a full year. So we shut down browsing as soon as lockdown started when the county health department told us to, which we were in agreement with. But then in order to protect our workers and because of our small space and online business, we’ve remained closed.
Danny Caine: But the trend overall, I mean it was a good year. 2020 was a good year for print books. Sales were up, and a lot of publishers had pretty healthy years. But independent bookstore sales were down, which is a really sobering statistic. And it tells me that people are going to Amazon for their books as opposed to independent bookstores, even though many, many independent bookstores have made the pivot to online sales like us. Still, people continue to go to Amazon instead of bookstores. So it’s a trend that’s alarming to me. And it’s a trend that I’m kind of keeping a close eye on.
Jess Del Fiacco: Did you already have an online presence beforehand? I mean, I assume it had to expand and adapt accordingly. Or was it all brand new?
Danny Caine: No, we did. We have been selling books online since 2011. In every year since then except for last year, 99% of our sales were in store and 1% was online. And that flipped last year. So last year, 1% of sales were over the phone, and 99% of sales were through the website.
Danny Caine: Fortunately, we had a couple kind of big moments where we got a ton of online orders, and that kind of prepped us to have a workflow ready to go. And we just kind of made that emergency website overload workflow has been every day for the past 365 days. But yeah, the American Booksellers Association offers a great kind of online platform called IndieCommerce that comes preloaded with basically every book that’s in print, and you just plug it in. So we don’t have to upload all of our inventory to our website. And it’s pretty easy to start a bookstore’s website online through that system. And we did that. And since have gotten much better and much more adept at using it, but it was ready to go. So we did a quick pivot last March.
Natasha Amott: Yeah. And I’ll say Whisk, very much kind of similar trends that Danny has noticed with bookstore. So I’m selling housewares, right? Under the pandemic, we had a tough spring. We had to make a number of changes with our online selling. We really had to dig in deep with our customer service once we were allowed to be back open. And that did work for us. So the pandemic year given that everybody was at home cooking a lot more actually meant that Whisk was able to be okay.
Natasha Amott: But I think the more important trend here is something that started in the housewares industry, probably I would say 2014, 2015. That’s when I first began to notice that things were changing for my business, for other kitchen stores in New York City, and for the huge category of housewares overall. I noticed a decrease in fourth quarter sales probably in 2015. And it completely threw off the growth trend that we’d been experiencing for seven years prior.
Natasha Amott: So I started to kind of take a look and started to think about what was going on here. And I started to talk with other kitchen stores in the city, and I could see that we were not just the only one going through something like that. And now in 2021, I can tell you that New York City has lost five independent kitchenware stores in the last few years. There’s only four of us that are left. There are some stores that specialize in knives or restaurant supply oriented. But if you look at just those that are selling all things kitchenware we’ve lost some real treasures in the city in the last five years, and we’re not seeing replacements coming on board. Even some of the other larger housewares stores like Sur La Table, they’ve also cut back their footprint. And they actually filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy last year.
Natasha Amott: And I’ll just note that pre-pandemic, we would always have an annual trade show in Chicago. And all the retailers would come together with the suppliers. And for probably since about 2015, the number one conversation when you stepped into a booth was, “Well how are you doing?” Which was always code for, “Well, how are you doing with Amazon?” And I think that’s just exactly what has been going on for the last few years.
Jess Del Fiacco: And that was going to lead to a question that I wanted to address with both of you. When did you make a connection that the issues you were seeing in the changes in your industry, was there a moment when it sort of crystallized that it was Amazon, it was monopoly power that was really the challenge that you were facing. As small business owners, you face challenges all the time. Right? Very different things happen in your communities. But when did it start to crystallize? And I think Natasha, you touched on it a little. How did that look to you in your sales and on the ground?
Natasha Amott: Yeah. Well just to kind of play off what I was saying a moment ago, I remember being in my store, and a couple was looking at a KitchenAid stand mixer, which it’s a high ticket item. Right? And they came up to me and they said, “Wow, would you consider dropping the price?” And I was kind of like well, why would I want to do that? Because it’s an item that I run a very low margin on, below 30%. And it turns out they showed me their phone, and of course this is way back, 2015 or so.
Natasha Amott: But they showed me their phone and they said, “Well, look at the price that it’s selling for on Amazon.” And what I realized is that not only was Amazon selling that stand mixer for below MAP, minimum advertised pricing, it was actually selling it below cost. So that was my trigger when I was like oh my goodness. And that’s when I discovered predatory pricing. And for me, predatory pricing in the housewares industry has just been a critical issue because it’s all about what benefits the consumer. And at the end of the day, antitrust law is all based on well, is the consumer benefiting? If the consumer’s benefiting, then there’s no problem. But the problem with this of course is that we’re just thinking of citizens as consumers. We’re not thinking of the fact that we’re also creators, we’re builders, we’re traders, we’re all of that and more.
Natasha Amott: And I would just add in as well that free freight. I think Amazon has really gone to town in order to build its consumers, its shoppers, its loyal customers. They’ve really gone to great extent to provide free shipping, as we all know. And that’s part of the predatory pricing model. And I think it completely causes individuals to misunderstand the true cost of shipping and the true cost of value of producing goods and selling those goods.
Danny Caine: The free freight thing is such a good point, and it’s really altering people’s expectations of what’s possible, how long shipping should take. And only one company can ship goods that fast and at that low a cost, and they’re doing it on purpose to hook people and drive their competitors out of business. Everything you just said resonates with me so much Natasha.
Danny Caine: In the book industry, it’s funny because Amazon picked books first. So we’ve been kind of watching them since the ’90s. But I started as a bookseller in 2015. So I’m like an Amazon native bookseller. I’ve never seen a book industry that wasn’t totally hijacked by Amazon on their policies and their pricing.
Danny Caine: But I will say generally my bookstore, we had a Borders books and music across the street from 1997 to 2011. And I think that we spent a lot of time worrying about that and figuring out how to deal with that. And I think that’s emblematic of the industry as a whole. In the ’90s, we were really focused on the big bookstore chains, and their pricing, and what they would do to the independent bookstore market. But then once that problem was kind of solved or at least we moved on, Amazon was there waiting. It had been getting more powerful all along.
Danny Caine: They even litigated some of these pricing issues with the big chains. But as soon as we moved on from that, there was Amazon, much bigger and much more frightening. So I think it was in the early odds that it really became a big issue. But we’ve been watching it since the ’90s, since Amazon started selling books online. Because we’re the first industry that they set their sights on. And all of this stuff that they’re doing everywhere else is what’s happening to books first.
Natasha Amott: Yeah. And I’ll just throw out another example that I see in housewares. And it’s not specific to Amazon, but it’s quite interesting. I’ve been looking into it more recently. And that is the role of the suppliers that we work with. And I think there’s been two trends. One is that, this one has been going on for quite some time. A lot of the houseware suppliers really favor the power buyers like the Bed Bath & Beyonds, like the Amazons I’m sure as well, with favorable pricing. If they don’t do it through direct lower pricing raw cost, then they do it through things like better terms. They give them defects allowances, which basically means they can deduct as if there were defects in product shipments to them. They get to charge outrageous amounts of money for advertising a product for a supplier.
Natasha Amott: They also get to even do things like if they get a shipment in from a big supplier that doesn’t have the labels on the way that a Bed Bath & Beyond would like them to be, Bed Bath & Beyond actually gets to charge them for that mistake. So all these little ways in which suppliers basically feed into making it more difficult for the small independent retailers like a Whisk to do really well.
Natasha Amott: And then to link that back to Amazon, what I’ve been noticing in the last couple of years is that I have had to sign so many third-party sales agreements, meaning that I am promising not to sell on an Amazon or any other third party platform. Now I’m not the type of business owner who wants to sell on Amazon. But it’s fascinating because what I’m seeing is that a lot of my big suppliers are saying okay, no other sellers on here except for me and Amazon. So I think a lot of the suppliers for a long time were struggling with how to control pricing on Amazon. But then they’re realizing, “Oh my goodness, what an incredible catchment. Right? And I want in on that.” So now a lot of my suppliers are selling direct to the consumer. And yet here I am as a retailer with brick-and-mortar rents to pay.
Mary Timmel: And I think I’ll chime in a little bit. In looking at Small Business Rising and the multiple, we’ve got over 20 partner organizations signed on. These issues go across industry. And we’ve heard a lot about, and we have a lot of detailed information online, and it’s one of the things that we’re building toward is that there’s supplier issues and grocery, there’s supplier issues in outdoor gear, and in books. So it’s not just the industries that we’re talking about here on this phone call or this podcast.
Mary Timmel: And I think one of the things I wanted to ask you all is when you’re thinking about addressing this problem, when was it that you realized you had kind of hit your maximum capacity to fight back by yourself? And when did you start looking to other businesses to have this conversation, or your trade associations, or your neighborhoods? Was there a sort of a moment when you realized as a business owner with your store that you’d maxed out? Right?
Danny Caine: It’s a good question. I think I’ve always, since making anti-Amazon pro-small business advocacy part of the story we tell with our business, I’ve made a point to make sure that people know it’s about more than books, it’s about more than The Raven. It’s about more than book prices. All of these are important. The Raven has a beloved community that cares about us very much and wants us to stick around. And the issue of books pricing is very important.
Danny Caine: But to make this whole thing seem like this is just a single bookstore that’s mad about its prices makes it too easy to write it off. It’s much too narrow of a view of the argument. And as soon as you do any reading in the Amazon issue or about big tech monopolies, you realize just how many industries are affected by this, and how big Amazon is. So coalition building and teaming up both at the local and the national level, is vital to actually get something done, and also to convince people of the importance of this. Because I don’t want to be one business complaining about one competitor. And to kind of prevent myself from being written off like that, from the get-go, we’ve teamed up with businesses here in Lawrence and businesses and people across the country to make sure to convey the scale of what’s going on.
Natasha Amott: I could not agree more, Danny. I think you hit it right on the nail of the head when you talked about it as neighborhood. I think that is what we are trying to preserve. We’re trying to preserve not just our independent one-off location stores. We’re trying to keep neighborhoods dynamic and places that we want to be in. Places that we want to invest in, whether as renters or as home buyers.
Natasha Amott: And I saw that so clearly when I had to close my Williamsburg Brooklyn location that was my original store. I’d been there for 10 years. And I couldn’t renew the lease because the landlord wanted a remarkable hike in rent. When I say remarkable, it was truly remarkable. And I was already paying a high level. And I was able to do that. I was actually paying a high rent for a long time, and I was comfortable with that because we had such a great following.
Natasha Amott: But when we announced to the public that we were closing, the anger, the sadness, the frustration was so palpable in the community. And it was for Whisk, but it was for what all that Whisk closing, represented. Just what Danny was saying. It’s about the fact that if it’s not Whisk, it’s the other coffee shop. It’s that little boutique clothing store. And just this sense of sadness that people were losing something that they really loved. And the number of people who remarked to me, “That’s it. I’m done with this neighborhood. I’m leaving.” Was really astonishing. And I think that’s so much about what we’re talking about.
Jess Del Fiacco: I think it’s time to take a short break. We’ll be right back. Thanks for listening to Building Local Power. If you’re enjoying our conversation, I hope you’ll consider heading over to ilsr.org/donate to help support our work. I also want to take this moment to encourage you to check out smallbusinessrising.net. And that’s where you can learn even more about independent businesses’ efforts to fight back against monopoly power and everything we’re discussing today. With that, let’s head back to my conversation with Danny, Natasha, and Mary.
Jess Del Fiacco: I was just going to ask if we could dig into that a little bit more. I’m really curious about how you guys see examples of the importance of independent businesses to communities. I mean not just importance, but how integral you are to the web of a happy, healthy community. If you have any specific examples to share.
Danny Caine: I totally do. I talk about this all the time, because I love this story so much. I think it’s a perfect example of how to respond to difficult times with grace and how the small business can build community. And it involves at least three small businesses in Lawrence, Kansas.
Danny Caine: So Ladybird Diner is kind of a small neo diner right across the street from us. They never did carry out. They were not ready to go remote. So when the pandemic hit and the restaurant shut down, they had a pantry full of food and, they just made everything into bag lunches that they gave away. And they were so stunned by the response and the need in the community that they pivoted to a food pantry model and started to raise money. And every weekday for the past year, they’ve given away 200 free sack lunches to people in the community who need it. And completely rewriting their business model. It’s not even a business anymore. They’re just raising funds to distribute food. And one of the ways they raised money is the owner who’s a great writer, self-published an essay collection about the pandemic, about restaurant life. She got it printed with the help of University Press of Kansas, a small business in Lawrence. And she sold it through the Ladybird Diner site and here at the Raven. And we’ve sold more than 1,000 copies of this book.
Danny Caine: So it’s three businesses kind of teaming up not even with the idea of making money. Because beyond what we take to pay for the person putting the book into the envelope and delivering it, we don’t take any money on the book.
Danny Caine: Each book sale provides for sack lunches for customers. So I just think that’s a great way. That’s a perfect example of how a small business can pivot, can take care of its community, and can adapt and team up to create positive change.
Mary Timmel: Natasha, I didn’t mean to cut you off, but I know when we’d spoken before when you talked about your community and your neighborhood, you talked a little bit about the impact of the delivery van pollution and in that area as well. So if you had a different story to share here, but I also know that it was something you really cared about, about how that fulfillment center and how those warehouse deliveries, all of that extra traffic are really impacting your community too. And I didn’t know if you wanted an opportunity to talk about that on this platform too. Because I think it’s really important when I think about how you all exist in your community, it is those overlapping issues. It’s very much not just how Amazon’s impacting you, but how their impact is affecting your neighbors and the quality of the air that the people that you live … all of those issues as well.
Danny Caine: Well yeah. So the downtown Lawrence, there’s a trade organization for the downtown businesses. And they’ve done a really good job pushing the city to let us adapt. So each business can claim up to two parking spots for curbside pickup to encourage safe operation. We’ve done that. Many, many other places have done that as well. And the Amazon drivers with just their insane quotas and their need to deliver so many packages per day often are in a hurry to find a parking spot. So they’ll kind of park in idle in our curbside parking spots. And we make a point not to confront them about it because their job is hard enough as it is. But just the needs and the conditions that they’re put under to take these curbside pickup spots from small businesses.
Danny Caine: And then you have all of these people, 200 people coming downtown for lunch and eating in the open air. And the air is smogged up by the fleet of Amazon vans that descend onto downtown Lawrence every day. Whereas one business is trying to create a place where people can be nourished for free if they need it, another business is literally pumping smug and emissions into the air through their vans. So it’s just two wildly contrasting takes on the downtown spaces comments.
Natasha Amott: I’ll just piggyback on that and say Amazon’s gone on a total warehouse leasing spree in New York City over the pandemic. So they just leased a very large space in Queens. And then two fulfillment centers or future fulfillment centers, pretty close to where Whisk is in Brooklyn right down by the waterfront in Red Hook. And I think overall, it’s about 1.6 million square feet of space now just added to their collection. And that’s all about trying to get product to customer in hours. So that congestion that Danny just spoke of, it is enormously a problem here in New York City. It is unbelievable. And the city is now actually taking away parking spots, which on the face of it, I don’t have a problem with taking away parking spots. But they’re specifically doing it to make them into loading zones for the Amazon and the UPS trucks.
Mary Timmel: And can I ask if you, when you have deliveries come in, how hard would it be for your business to get a designated loading zone in front of?
Natasha Amott: There’s no way I could. I don’t have those powers.
Danny Caine: I’m sorry to laugh, but yeah, same boat here.
Jess Del Fiacco: That’s when we miss the visual medium with podcasts. Because everyone’s face at that question answered the question.
Natasha Amott: And I wanted to say back to your question about why are independent businesses so important, we also have so many examples. We could point to New York City of businesses helping out. But it’s also, I always think about it as imagine your community if you didn’t have that bookstore, that local pharmacy, that kitchen housewares kind of store. What would your community look like? You wouldn’t have as many options, right, for things you want to buy? You may not have the affordability you need. I think small businesses are really good at identifying local need and pricing availability, because they know they’re not going to last. And it’s really important. They can’t afford to say, “Well, we’ll try it out for two years and see how it goes.” No, we go into it to say we really need this to work out for ourselves. So we’re going to do it well from the beginning. And I think that there’s a lot of spillover effects. I think commercial displacement is very tied into residential displacement. And I think we really need to understand that connection.
Danny Caine: If retail goes, then so do restaurants and bars. And then you’ve got empty streets. That affects culture, that affects morale. You need density and you need a variety of commerce to maintain communities. And if Amazon puts all the small retail out of business, every other type of small business is going to suffer. And then you lose what makes your community’s unique and appealing for people to live there.
Jess Del Fiacco: I think that’s really well put. Thank you. I had a question for Mary. Mary, could you just give us an overview of what Small Business Rising is and what the goals of this campaign are?
Mary Timmel: Yeah, absolutely. And then I’m going to pivot to Natasha and Danny to talk about why this is something that’s important to them. Because they have been engaged on this since I met them.
Mary Timmel: So what we’re doing with Small Business Rising is it’s a coalition of trade associations and business organizations, and also independent and small business owners from across the country. And what we’re coming together to do is to address these issues to stop tech monopolies, to block dominant corporations from engaging in these abusive and anti-competitive tactics that we’ve seen. And we can do that by making existing antitrust laws stronger and easier to enforce.
Mary Timmel: So when we talk about legislation, it’s not necessarily in all cases new legislation. There’s rules that exist around this. And we want to talk about mega mergers and how we all hear all these different companies that merge together and create a super company that has the kind of power that Natasha and Danny were addressing and talking about with getting special loading areas, and being able to set pricing below cost in order to make profits to drive out their competition.
Mary Timmel: And it’s also come up here too that small business owners and independent business owners are innovators. They’re makers, they’re creators. They’re folks that want a level playing field to do the work that they want to do. And it’s not about getting special treatment as small and independent business owners, it’s about getting fair treatment. And what we’ve seen over the course of time in what’s being expressed here very clearly is that it’s an unfair situation. And this pandemic has only made Amazon stronger. And we want to talk about what’s the vision of your community that you want to see when this pandemic ends, and we’ll all be able to kind of go back into our communities in the way that we were before. What community do you want there waiting for you, and how do we make that happen?
Mary Timmel: Because we’re facing a problem that has been there for a long time. And when we come back and we’re visiting our small businesses again, Amazon is still going to be there. And these large monopolies are still going to be there. And they’re still going to be this competition. So we want to have small business owners an opportunity through Small Business Rising to talk to their legislators, to share these stories of what they’ve experienced, and to talk about why they need these issues addressed. And it’s for all of the reasons we’ve stated here. And it’s also because these corporations are becoming, when they’re able to manipulate systems to get loading docks or to get treatment that other businesses aren’t getting, that’s becoming decision-makers in communities. They’re deciding things on how beyond wages and environmental impact, they’re deciding pushing for tax breaks for themselves or all the other ways that they dominate these conversations.
Mary Timmel: And there’s enough small businesses, and there’s enough small and independent businesses that care about this. That Small Business Rising has come together with a really impactful launch last week. And we’re going to continue growing and pushing to say that this is enough, right? We’ve had enough, and we’d like to talk about how to make changes so that we can compete, and exist, and have these thriving local communities. And I’d love for Natasha and Danny to talk a little bit about what it is that has you here on a Tuesday afternoon, taking time to talk about this, and talk about what you want to see, and how you want to see Small Business Rising working to make these changes.
Natasha Amott: Sure. So I have learned in the advocacy work I’ve been doing, which has really been probably since about 2016 or so, we need a new way of organizing. That seems very clear to me from my experience in New York City. It’s hard. So why is it hard? We have, again, this is New York City experience. Multiple languages. We have neighborhoods where you see clusters of immigrant owned businesses that may not want to work necessarily with businesses in another borough.
Natasha Amott: You see a lot of sectoral alliances. You might see restaurants working together, perhaps bookstores working together. Certainly in housewares, we don’t have enough of us to kind of form any alliances. And I think we need something that kind of cuts across sectors. We need something that invites everybody into it. And we need the help because small business owners, we’re busy. We are super running our businesses, and we do need a group like a Small Business Rising who’s going to help organize us, help hear our voices, and help corral those voices in the most effective ways.
Natasha Amott: I think the other thing that has struck me very, very much is how popular Amazon has been, right? I think there was some survey in 2018 where Amazon ranked as the most popular company or something. And here in New York, we were of course considered to be the location for HQ two, which of course did not happen. But I think in that debate, what we saw a lot of is this conversation around well, do we want to give subsidies to such a large corporation? Which is a very worthwhile conversation to have.
Natasha Amott: I was struck however by how few people really said, “Well no we don’t want Amazon, because look what it’s doing to small businesses.” That connection actually was not part of the common day conversation amongst elected officials in this city. So I think there’s a lot still to do, to really explain why it’s so important to talk about monopoly and what it’s doing to small businesses. So we need a wider platform like Small Business Rising to help do that.
Danny Caine: Yeah. I agree with all of that. I think it’s a really smart idea. And Natasha covered a lot of my feelings about it. I think when I entered the book industry, we were very good at having this discussion among ourselves. And I had a lot of really great conference discussions or at the bar after the conference discussions among booksellers about antitrust policy, and Amazon, and competitiveness, and predatory pricing. But it struck me a couple of years ago, we weren’t having this conversation with our customers at all. And for it to get anywhere, it couldn’t be a closed loop among booksellers.
Danny Caine: So we’ve been working really hard on doing that to some success I think. But now I think the next step is to make it beyond our industry. And to team up with a really broad coalition. I hear David versus Goliath tossed around a lot, because we’re a little bookstore that has a really vocal anti-Amazon stance. But that’s not how I see it because it affects so many people. And if we all get together, we’re not actually that small. And I think Small Business Rising is a really important way to do that. And I also, I appreciate the lobbying and legislative help that a group like ILSR and Small Business Rising, the expertise they bring to this. Because it’s not something I have a ton of experience with. And like Natasha said, I still think there’s more to be done to explain these issues from a small business perspective to the government. And that’s ultimately where a lot of the solutions lie, like Mary talked about with stronger enforcement of existing antitrust laws and in convincing legislators that small businesses are a part of this story, and that Amazon can’t be allowed to grow unchecked to their heart’s content. I appreciate both the size of coalition building and building bridges across the industries. Because we’re all affected the same way. And kind of making a strong legislative focus a part of this is why I’m really excited about Small Business Rising.
Natasha Amott: And if I could just add on a couple more points to that, Danny’s point about lobbying, heft and weight is so critical. I mean, I think we can all agree that Jeff Bezos bought his mansion in DC for that very purpose. And I sure can’t do that. So I definitely think that lobbying power is so critical.
Natasha Amott: But I think it’s also two other things. One I think that, and we’ll see how Small Business Rising kind of develops and grows. But one of the issues that I felt here in New York City is that labor and small business are sometimes pitted against each other. There is a debate around paid leave, which I think is one of the most important conversations that New York City at least and I think all of America has to come back to the table around, especially under this pandemic and all we’ve seen.
Natasha Amott: But in that conversation pre-pandemic about how to make effective paid leave happen, we saw city council effectively pitting the small business owner against their staff. And it was a very awkward conversation. I think Small Business Rising will hopefully be effective in bringing labor and small business together on the same side.
Natasha Amott: And then just a final point, we have the chambers, right? We have a lot of chambers here in New York, one in each borough. They are tremendous resources at times. They can provide a lot of technical assistance. But they’re not thinking about policy. So a lot of the existing resources are really just about minor technical assistance. They’re not going to the level of the policy change that we need to see.
Mary Timmel: I think I’ll just add real quick that we’ve already begun taking action. At the end of February, early March, we convened a town hall with Representative Cicilline and a panel of experts, a number of our partners and small business owners like Natasha and Danny, that got a chance to ask their questions directly to decision makers about how they’re going to address antitrust reform. We had a very robust chat full of attendees, over 400 attendees, attending a webinar entitled Reining in Monopoly Power. So the interest is there. There is a lot of will. And I think it’s absolutely about how we come together and we wield that power that we have. Because we’re not alone. We just need to find each other to make this happen.
Jess Del Fiacco: I think on that note and also seeing that we are just about out of time here, I’d like to end for listeners or even for your customers who are listening to this and say, “I care. I want to take action.” Can they get involved with Small Business Rising? Are there local actions you would encourage them to take? I guess any recommendations on that from any of you.
Danny Caine: Well, I think one of the most important things you can do is just to make sure to support the small businesses you want to see there after this is all over, and to kind of build your community in that way. Because those small businesses want to care for you, and they really do appreciate your support.
Danny Caine: But also just read up, and there’s nothing stopping people, our customers from getting in touch with their legislators and sharing their concerns. I don’t want to pin all of this on consumer choice. I think that’s kind of a false thing, and perhaps even what Amazon would want us to do. So to make sure if people have concerns about Amazon or the difficulty of running a small business in their communities, to let the people making policy and in power know that they have those concerns is really important.
Natasha Amott: Yep. 100%. Everything that Danny said is so critical. We just have to encourage our community to support that community if we want it to be there. And I think also sometimes what I increasingly find myself doing when I get into these conversations is I make the connection to the jobs that we provide. And I think that for the most part when you have a brick-and-mortar business with a sales job, a customer service associate job, these are jobs that do offer some opportunities for upward mobility. They are jobs where you can discover the skills and strengths that your staff have. Whether that be art skills, which has happened in my business. Tremendous art ability, which has then allowed them to do our windows, do our sandwich boards, do our signage, and get recognized by other people for other opportunities.
Natasha Amott: So it’s that kind of conversation. If we want those jobs to be there for your friends, your neighbors, the next generation, then supporting local and supporting local brick-and-mortar is really important.
Mary Timmel: Yeah. And I think I’ll just add to build on that it’s. And I could talk for a long time about the way that folks who work at a small business are really impacted for the rest of their life, and the skills that they learn and the way that they see, a number of small business owners I’ve spoken with started out working at a small business, and then opened up their own store and were able to learn and grow, and become fuller, talented, dynamic engagement. As opposed to working in a warehouse where maybe there isn’t a lot of upward mobility because you’re seen as just kind of a cog in a machine. So I think that growth is really important.
Mary Timmel: But as far as getting involved in what folks can do and listeners can do, absolutely supporting your local small business. And Danny touched on it though, is that it’s more than consumer choice. Amazon has a dominant place in this country and worldwide. And because of their monopoly power, they’re able to muscle out choice. So consumers in a lot of areas don’t have a lot of other options than dealing with Amazon. And that’s why getting legislative and policy change is so important, because they have been allowed to grow unchecked for so long, that they are now dominating a lot of industry. So being able to say that it’s about how you choose to spend your time and your money, but it’s about more than that. It’s about the way that policy is made. So at Small Business Rising, we welcome individuals to sign up to stay informed and look for ways to engage. There’s a lot of folks doing this work. The Athena coalition has come together with organizations that are addressing a number of different ways that Amazon is harmful to our communities.
Mary Timmel: So I’d encourage folks to take a look there. We’ve highlighted a few, which is environmental impact, the impact for workers. And it’s a way to stay engaged in that. But it’s about choice and it’s about taking action. So we have a petition you can sign to encourage Congress to break up Amazon, right? And to set forward. And when you see news stories that are talking about these issues and saying things, news stories about a new warehouse opening or a fulfillment center, really thinking about what is that impact in your community going to look like. But I think it’s just making sure that being thoughtful about the ways that you spend your money, but also being conscious of your power as an individual and as a community member to lift up what you want to see changed.
Jess Del Fiacco: With that, thank you guys so much for joining us today. And just so listeners know, we will have links to all the things that we talked about. The petition to the different resources to your business websites on the post for this episode, which you can find at our website ilsr.org. All right. Thank you so much.
Danny Caine: Thank you for having me. This is wonderful.
Natasha Amott: Yeah absolutely, pleasure to be here.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to ilsr.org and click on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website.
Jess Del Fiacco: Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced and edited by me, Jess Del Fiacco. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco. I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Danny Caine 

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Jess Del Fiacco

Jess Del Fiacco is ILSR’s Communications Manager. In this role, she works closely with program staff to develop and implement communications strategy that supports ILSR’s mission. She promotes ILSR’s work through the organization’s newsletters, website, social media, events, and more. Jess also hosts the Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jess for media inquiries.