The most obvious question an urban planner can ask about Amazon is whether it has undermined local businesses and beamed the former vibrancy of Main Street to the intangible anonymity of “the cloud.” Then again, big box stores already beat them to it, as described passionately in Stacy Mitchell’s Big Box Swindle (2008) and observed by pretty much every American who doesn’t knit their own clothes and build their own furniture.
Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, by Baltimore-based journalist Alec MacGillis, offers a few (not encouraging) answers to that question and many more. He’s not as passionate an activist as Mitchell is, but he’s made a major contribution to the literature of retail urbanism.
As much as we all might want drone’s eye views into Amazon’s boardroom and Jeff Bezos’ head, Fulfillment does not deliver that. It’s not necessarily a business book. If anything, it’s a social history of what has, with astonishing stealth, become arguably the country’s most influential company on land and in cyberspace. MacGillis recounts what it’s like to be an Amazon employee, an urban activist, a Marketplace vendor, a lobbyist, a forklift driver, and many others of the hundreds of thousands of people who make up Amazon’s ecosystem. Indeed, that ecosystem is vast. Especially with the popularity of Prime’s two-day shipping and the necessary logistics infrastructure, the entire country has basically become an Amazon Overlay Zone.
Fulfillment makes the requisite allusion to Amazon’s origins: Bezos didn’t want to sell books. He wanted to build the biggest company imaginable. To his credit, books were his entrée. He also didn’t want to base his company in Seattle as such, gravitating toward it because a Silicon Valley headquarters would have forced the company to charge sales tax for buyers in the largest state in the country. He chose Seattle for Washington’s relatively small population and the abundance of spinoff talent from Microsoft.
Impressively, MacGillis’s account is gripping, striking a nearly perfect balance between investigation, narrative, analysis, and human interest. With the daunting challenge of describing an enormous, faceless company, he goes for intimacy, providing microbiographies of people caught in Amazon’s web. Fittingly, the author organizes his book geographically. Every chapter is attached to a place, with the implication that Amazon has invaded, influenced, and upended each representative place in a different way.
In Washington, D.C., Bezos buys the city’s most expensive house and most expensive newspaper, and he hires an army of lobbyists; how else to land huge government contracts and end up paying $0 in federal taxes? In El Paso, Texas, Amazon squeezes out a family-owned office supply store, demanding 15% of revenues for the privilege of selling for bare-bones prices on Marketplace. In Ohio, Amazon builds secretive facilities to support Amazon Web Services, the low-profile, cloud-hosting business that, though it has nothing to do with books, baby clothes, and other baubles, has become just as important as Amazon’s retail and logistics business.
MacGillis writes with a terrific sense of place. In his most arresting chapter he takes us into the former behemoth Bethlehem Steel factory, Sparrows Point, which spewed fire along the Baltimore waterfront (his hometown) for most of the 20th century. The chapter takes a long detour from Amazon to describe industrial America before eventually revealing that, lo and behold, Sparrows Point has been demolished and turned into an Amazon logistics megacenter. One of the biggest companies of the analog industrial era thus gives way to one of the biggest companies of the internet era. In the process, Amazon has presided over the impoverishment of Baltimore and the weakening of unions.
Perhaps the chapter that will give planners the most heartache is that of the data centers. We’ve heard plenty about Amazon’s campaign for HQ2 that caused cities to embarrass themselves with promotional displays and sweetheart financial deals. Of course, the HQ2 campaign was all a “giant ruse,” as MacGillis confirms, with Northern Virginia the foregone conclusion. But HQ2 was a distraction from the everyday gamesmanship that Amazon engages in with local governments (usually counties) where it wants to build data centers—sprawling, ugly warehouses that contribute essentially nothing to local economies and cultures. Nonetheless, Amazon manages to get tax abatements and other subsidies, all with the most minimal compliance with open-government and daylighting rules. Amazon’s negotiations include nondisclosure agreements, and often governments approve data centers before stakeholders even know what’s been proposed or by whom. (Fun fact: Every $1 billion the company spends developing data centers translates to $7 billion worth of electricity consumption over 20 years.)
On that account, Amazon makes its terrestrial competitors, which are famous for getting tax breaks and nearly free land, look like farm stands. Say what you will about the big boxes, at least when a Walmart goes on the highway strip, you know it’s a Walmart. The potential malfeasance that takes place behind the blank walls of Amazon’s warehouses and data centers—from injuries to anti-unionization to anticompetitive data-gathering—is anyone’s guess. By placing facilities everywhere while also serving everywhere, Amazon can both play places against each other (like the HQ2 debacle) and be a terrible corporate citizen, even in its home base.
MacGillis chronicles the company’s petty reluctance to do anything for Seattle, including, but not limited to, efforts to support the city’s homelessness population. MacGillis profiles some of the city’s housing advocates who campaigned for an employer tax that the city council adopted in 2018 and would have raised funds for homeless services and other needs. Amazon’s share would have been $12 million annually. Despite being one of the indirect causes of homelessness in the rapidly gentrifying city, Amazon then supported a referendum that would have repealed the tax. The city council repealed the tax before the ballot went to voters. Bezos clearly still considers Seattle a strategic dot on the map and not a living, breathing place that has contributed mightily to his personal fortune. (The city council subsequently adopted a new version of the tax, and a group called Tax Amazon is pushing for more.)
MacGillis loses track of a few of his threads throughout his sprawling account in favor of a rushed, but timely, hot take on the pandemic. He notes the 2020 demise of major retailers—including J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, and J. Crew—and of the jobs that they represented. Small department store chains like Pennsylvania-based Bon Ton, MacGillis reverently describes, faltered long before them. Of course, many of those retailers put true independent stores out of business long ago, but, at this point, who’s counting? Amazon claims that it supports small business through its Marketplace program. But MacGillis reports that the company has “eliminated about twice as many jobs at independent retailers as it had created.”
Meanwhile, perhaps no company in the world has benefited more from the pandemic than Amazon; its sales in the second quarter of 2020 were up 40% compared with the previous year. Its campaign of consolidation has been aided by a virus every bit as microscopic as the silicon circuits that make Amazon one of the biggest human threats to the health of retail America—and, by extension, urban America.
Featured image via KPEL.