Independent bookstore owner Nina Barrett has a lot on her plate—or actually, her bookshelves. Seven years ago, Barrett, 60, and her husband, a librarian, opened Bookends & Beginnings by the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, and now, just after a recent expansion of the store, she’s the single named plaintiff of a class action lawsuit against Amazon. The lawsuit, filed last month, said Amazon colluded with “Big Five” publishers in a price-fixing scheme that limited competition. I talked with Barrett about the seemingly David and Goliath fight against Amazon, the struggles of the pandemic, and the importance of independent bookstores. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So many people in Evanston know Bookends and love it. What makes the store special for you?
Nina Barrett: I’m an author myself [I Wish Someone Had Told Me], and I worked in book publishing after I got out of college. I grew up with really good independent bookstores so I’ve spent a lot of my own life in them. When I first came to Evanston to go to Medill, after four years working in publishing in New York, I noticed right away that Evanston didn’t have a good independent bookstore. I don’t think anyone grows up thinking, “I want to be a bookstore owner someday,” but when the chance came for me to do it, I did it. Creating [your own] place does feel pretty magical.
With the Barnes & Noble down the street closing and the pandemic hitting a year ago, a lot has changed. What was last year like for you?
As small business owners, we knew a lot of devastation was coming, so I assumed it was coming for me too. For the first weeks, I was in a constant state of panic. The process of applying for a PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan was nightmarish, and in the first round we didn’t get one. I felt really strongly about hanging on to my staff; that was my major priority because the pandemic wasn’t their fault. We launched a GoFundMe quite early on because I felt we needed that reserve of money to make sure we were going to be able to get through it. We were able to get $50,000 and that went a long way in us being able to reopen in July for walk-ins.
What made you decide to join the lawsuit?
Part of it is trust in these particular attorneys. When people talk about this as a David and Goliath thing, it’s not like it’s “Nina out there swinging the club at Amazon,” it’s these attorneys who will be. They bring the firepower to make this a significant lawsuit. One of the lead attorneys lives in Evanston and shops at our store. He invited me because he thought we are exactly the kind of store this lawsuit is trying to help, and I think that’s true. I don’t speak for every store in the country, but I am someone who is getting damaged and I’m willing to say Amazon is the reason and is the cause. Nobody is in this industry to make $170 billion except for one person, and he’s not really in our industry anyway. All the people who own and work in bookstores are here because we love books and we would love for our industry not to be disabled by a huge company that is devaluing what we’re doing.
What are you hoping will come out of the lawsuit?
The lawsuit seeks damages and I think that’s appropriate because every local bookstore has been damaged by Amazon’s practices. When we sell a book at a certain price, what’s left, after paying the publisher, is what enables a sustainable bookselling industry. Then Amazon says, “Let’s sell this book for $14 instead of $24.99, and then everyone’s going to sign up for Prime.” They can lose money because they financed themselves through venture capital. They’re using this book—they don’t care about who wrote it, they don’t care about who’s buying it. But I have to charge this price because that’s what’s going to keep me in business. The argument we make to our customers is you got the experience of seeing all these other books you may not have seen elsewhere and you got to spend a lovely afternoon with your best friend walking around town. That’s part of what’s included in the price.
I don’t want to make people feel guilty about how cheap and convenient Amazon is, but to a large extent they don’t understand why it is that way and what kind of damage is done. You do have a choice on how to spend your money. Going into a bookstore and paying $24.99 isn’t just an investment in my bookstore. It’s an investment for your local downtown community. It’s a matter of spending your money in a way that buys you the community you want to live in. v