Amazon’s battles, pre-New York

Some people in NYC are still angry about Amazon, a company that has battled before.
Some people in NYC are still angry about Amazon, a company that has battled before. Photo Credit: Timothy Doyon/Courtesy of Friedman Benda

The furor over Amazon moving to Long Island City doesn’t seem to be dissipating, to say the least.

It has been three months since Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio proudly announced the tech giant would build a second (or third) headquarters, bringing at least 25,000 jobs over 10 years. The city and state offered some $3 billion in incentives.

The smiles on de Blasio and Cuomo’s cooperating faces were soon one-clicked away as progressive-signaling politicians and constituents got angry.

Complaints included: Amazon’s status as a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars, not needing tax breaks. The (hypothetical) idea that Amazon may have simply grown its presence here anyway, because this is New York City. Also the company’s unfriendliness to unions, the fear of cost of living increases in Queens, and the seemingly minor promises Amazon has made to the neighborhood in return for all the crowding and construction.

The point of some of the opposition might be to get more concessions from Amazon  certainly doesn’t hurt to try.

Generally, the New York dealmakers seem a little surprised by the reaction given the impressive job numbers, potential tax revenue, and fact that the state has a long history of incentivizing new business. Some of the incentives that are now being challenged are available to companies widely, not just Amazon. And some polling has indicated a solid amount of support for Amazon and its jobs in Queens.

But there also seems to be a strain of uncompromising opposition, with some who don’t seem to be pushing hard to find a way for Amazon to stay. State Sen. Mike Gianaris, who represents parts of Queens including the area where Amazon’s new campus would be located, seems to be channeling some of that strain. He’s poised for a seat on a crucial state board that has sway over at least some of the deal, which he criticized in an interview with my colleague Randi F. Marshall. “The deal needs to be reset back to zero,” Gianaris said.  

What drives the Amazon distrust, Cuomo staffers and others want to know? Some of it feels familiar to me from a previous job in book publishing.

As an ordinary peon in that hierarchical world, I wasn’t exactly privy to grand strategy sessions or tense negotiations. But there seemed to be a sense that while Amazon had become vital to publishing and was an incredible resource for distributing and expanding access to books, it had also almost totally eaten the lunch of a naive and unsuspecting industry.

Amazon was not always a titan  in the early days of the web it was just another little site selling books and things and shipping them. At that point, the bookseller Barnes & Noble was also looking to sell books online. According to reporter Brad Stone’s book “The Everything Store,” the Riggio siblings at the top of B&N met with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos in 1996 over steak in Seattle: “The Riggios wore suits and came on strong. They told Bezos . . . that they were going to launch a website soon and crush Amazon.”

Bezos didn’t cave or sell. And Amazon did OK in the end.

Later, Amazon beat booksellers with the Kindle and began selling publishers’ ebooks at low prices. By then Amazon’s grandiosity was clear. Stone quotes Bezos on "The Charlie Rose Show" during his Kindle media tour: “It is not written anywhere that books shall forever be printed on dead trees.”

While the big New York publishers struggled, stabilized, laid people off, tried new things, generally surfed the waves of modernity, Amazon expanded exponentially in different directions and got more and more powerful.  

It’s hard to imagine publishing, bookselling, or various other forms of retail going back to a pre-Amazon moment. The company reaches into so many areas of daily life in ways people love. But there are certainly aspects of recent business history that retailers might like to run back vis a vis Amazon. Maybe they could have taken the good without giving away as much of the store.

Now the company’s political and physical presence is expanding into the world of cities and construction and legislatures and crowded subway stations. Maybe the notes of caution reflect some concern about what happened to past partners as Amazon rose.