If you’ve been to any package center on campus, you’ve seen mountains of cardboard boxes with identical smirking arrows. Under Wien Hall, there is an Everest of disposable smiles, a peak of pointers guiding us towards a utopian Amazonopolis. The grinning boxes say a lot about today’s economy—and tomorrow’s. Their address labels also reveal the impact of our choices as consumers. After all, Amazon’s dominance over the dorm room market didn’t fall from the sky, nor was it dropped on us by one of their literal corporate drones.
Less than three decades after its founding, Amazon has built up a massive amount of wealth and influence. I could use various statistics to prove this point, but my own day-to-day life showcases Amazon’s power. The pillows on my bed? Amazon. The lamp illuminating my room without the brutal glare of Columbia Housing lighting? Amazon. My favorite film of 2017 so far? The Big Sick—an Amazon Studios production. I’d be hypocritical to criticize my peers for relying on Amazon, let alone call for a boycott.
But we should think twice before making Amazon a first resort for everything under the sun. We owe it to ourselves and our community to support small businesses. As urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote in 1961, small businesses create “a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.”
A local Morningside Heights business recently demonstrated the everyday importance of this abstract notion. My friend, a frequent customer at the halal cart on 115th and Broadway, didn’t have enough cash to pay for his chicken over rice. Recognizing a regular, the owner trusted my friend to pay the difference the next time around. This gesture meant a lot to someone who was hungry and exhausted after a stressful day of job hunting.
Little interactions like that add up over time. Given how grueling Columbia and New York can be, tiny acts of decency make us feel at home. We all have local establishments that mean a lot more to us in the long run than the instant gratification of opening a package. No online service can make up for the reassuring presence of figures like the benevolent halal cart owner.
And by going to stores in-person, we expose ourselves to New York City’s strange, intense, and utterly remarkable mass of humanity. Trudging through cramped multilevel shops may sound annoying compared to one-click purchases, but when we engage with workers and share spaces with other customers, we get out of our bubbles. Although these brief person-to-person interactions are not a cure for Columbia’s empathy problem, they are at least a step in the right direction.
Person-to-person interactions, of course, are not the main factor determining our purchases. Cost and convenience are more important considerations for students, and we often lack the time and money it takes to seek out small businesses. However, we should acknowledge that our consumer choices shape places where we will live and work for the rest of our adult lives. We can vote with our wallets against a homogenous, isolated, and unequal city by supporting local entrepreneurs.
In times of grand economic change, certain sectors face more risks than others. Amazon probably threatens BookCulture more than, say, 1020. An entire piece could be written about why BookCulture is worth saving. Many of the small chain’s employees are members of the Columbia community. BookCulture not only helps students find textbooks but also encourages readers to make spontaneous literary discoveries. The stores host events connecting the community to well-known and up-and-coming authors alike.
When Amazon tries to replicate the appeal of place like BookCulture, it’s just not the same. Take Amazon Books, the company’s recreation of the brick-and-mortar bookstores it has all but eviscerated. Amazon Books explains data behind soulless categorization choices with sections like “Selected Using Customer Ratings, Orders, Sales and Popularity on GoodReads.” Charming, right?
With respect to data, the rising value of user information for companies like Amazon explains why students occupy a special place in the struggle for an economic balance between corporate conglomerates and mom-and-pop shops. College students are among the most advertised-to people on the planet. If you don’t believe me, you can ask the brand ambassador who lives on your floor.
Companies don’t give students deals and discounts out of the goodness of their hearts. They do so because today’s new Prime Student user is tomorrow’s longtime Prime member. Corporations bet on us to shell out big bucks in a decade or two, assuming we’re not too busy fighting each other for gasoline à la Mad Max: Fury Road. Lucrative businesses like Amazon depend upon us as much as we depend upon them, so let’s use our economic power for good.
Again, I am not calling for a complete boycott of Amazon. I’ll still watch Transparent, and you might even see me signing for Amazon boxes at the package center. But whenever I can, I’ll buy from local businesses that have contributed to a priceless sense of community throughout my college experience.
Alexa, what time does BookCulture open tomorrow?
Ben LaZebnik is a Columbia College senior majoring in Urban Studies. He can’t wait to see Blade Runner 2049 this weekend. The Unwelcome Guest runs alternate Wednesdays.
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