Editor's Note: Up the River | June 2020 | Editor's Note | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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Editor's Note: Up the River | June 2020

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My gateway drug to getting hooked on Amazon was my love of the pulp science fiction novels of Phillip K. Dick. Although many films had been made of his mind-bending narratives—Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall to name a few—no adaptation had ever been made of my favorite work of his, The Man in the High Castle. The 1962 Hugo Award winner is an alternate history that imagines an America that lost World War II. The US is occupied by Nazi Germany in the east and Imperial Japan in the west. (It's a fun little brain-twist of a book, with neat details like Hitler with advanced syphilis, the Mediterranean Sea drained by the Nazis for farmland, and cigarette machines that dispense marijuana cigarettes.)

When I saw the ads promoting a pilot for a new Amazon series based on The Man in the High Castle—they featured photos of Sieg Heiling Statue of Liberty [1]—I knew I had to sign up for Amazon's streaming service. On November 21, 2014 [2], I became an Amazon Prime member, forking over $99 for my first year of membership—without hesitation and without thinking twice. While pessimistic wags were concerned at the time that Amazon was killing off independent booksellers (remember those halcyon days when Amazon was perceived as pushing only one retail sector toward the cliff?), I've always loved roaming among the stacks in bookstores, and would never buy a book online that I could buy in person.

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And that didn't change with my Prime membership. But, the holiday season was in full swing at the time, as was a new Mahoney family tradition. To try and put the kibosh on a gift-giving arms race that had taken hold of my family, we'd introduced a Secret Santa gift-giving format, with a $100 spending cap. [3]

To facilitate the Secret Santa set-up, we used Eflster.com, which allowed all of us to upload our wish lists, and the gift givers to buy the exact gifts (brand, size, color, etc.) online from links in the Elfster platform—a very convenient solution for a thorny family problem. However, almost all of my holiday shopping was now being done through Amazon, not in local retail stores. And, of course, it all came with two-day delivery, and five percent back if I used my Amazon credit card.

As in so many areas of life, the pandemic has given me time to think about where I spend my money. Without getting too deep in the weeds on spending local as a general good (it keeps money circulating in the local economy, rather than being shipped off to corporate headquarters in Seattle or elsewhere), it seems that Amazon may not need my money as much as local retailers. Amazon has emerged as one of the big winners of the pandemic, with revenues of $75.4 billion in Q1—that's $33 million an hour. As tens of millions lost jobs, Amazon hired 175,000 workers in April. As for Amazon's owner, Jeff Bezos, who is already the world's richest man, in April, he saw his fortune swell by $13 billion to $145 billion.

While Bezos was pooping money in pants made of money, Amazon workers were complaining about risky working conditions in its warehouses due to a lack of social-distance protocols. Christian Smalls, who organized a walk-out over the conditions at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse, was fired. Former Amazon VP Tim Bray wrote a tell-all blog post explaining why he quit in dismay over the company's HR policies.

And we kept buying from Amazon and getting it shipped to our houses (two-day delivery!). The smiling boxes shipped and shipped and shipped. And when I write "we," I mean us in the Hudson Valley specifically. We've been good little Amazon consumers—so much so that the company is building a massive distribution center in Montgomery. At just a million square feet, it will be the largest building in Orange County once it's built. The warehouse will create more than 800 jobs within two years of completion and 300 construction jobs. The town granted a $20 million tax break to Amazon.

As I write this at the end of May, the Mid-Hudson Valley waits for Gov. Cuomo to take us off PAUSE and open up "non-essential" businesses. Well, having a thriving retail sector is an essential part of our communities. The pandemic has been an extinction-level event for many industries (cough: media), retail foremost among them. There will be lasting harm to American small businesses from COVID-19. As John Herrman reported in the New York Times: "Analysts at the investment bank UBS said they expected around 100,000 American stores to close permanently in the next five years." The pandemic will favor franchise chains over mom-and-pop shops and banks and 24-hour pharmacies rather than bookstores and nail salons and takeout counters. Local retail will have to fight to survive. And retailers will need our help.

The pandemic has brought with it a pervasive feeling of helplessness. Most of us are not essential workers, told to stay (mostly) at home until further notice. But there is one simple thing we can do to help businesses in our communities.[4] It requires so little of us, other than to decouple from digital convenience. If you have an Amazon Prime account, try this: Go to Amazon.com and click the End Membership button. I did this today. No more streaming. No more two-day shipping. No more Amazon. We have the power to create the economically resilient local communities. Are you part of the solution? Just take a look at your credit card and bank statements. They'll tell you.

But local now. If you don't, you may not be able to in five years. Or one year. Buy local while you still can.

NOTES

[1] Another aspect of Amazon’s promotional campaign for the show involved an immersive use of the New York City subway. One car on the 42nd Street Shuttle was covered—seats, walls, and ceilings—in imagery from the show, which fused design elements from German (Nazi eagle) and Japanese (rising sun) World War II-era flags with the stars and bars of the American flag. Riders on the subway were surrounded by the dystopian counterfactual of the show. Ten days after it launched, the MTA removed the ad placements at the request of Gov. Cuomo. Mayor de Blasio called the ads “irresponsible and offensive to World War II and Holocaust survivors, their families, and countless other New Yorkers.”

[2] I know the exact date because Amazon lists your annual renewal date on your account profile.

[3] As you might imagine, given this was a voluntary program, compliance by those who started the gift-giving arms race was low, thus creating a toxic stew of grievance on one side and hurt and misunderstanding on the other. In recent years, Secret Santa, as well as the entire Mahoney Family holiday program, has been discontinued. We get together now on days less fraught with clashing ideological agendas.

[4] There are, of course, many things we can do help the small business community survive, and thrive, like buying online from local retailers, buying gift certificates from businesses that don’t have online stores, and paying it forward in innovative programs like the Hudson Business Coalition’s Hudson Bonds initiative.

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