Seattle is home to the largest book retailer in the world. Amazon.com may have spread its catalog to engulf lawn mowers, potato chips, diapers, and—literally—kitchen sinks, but, as its recent push for the Kindle e-book reader has proven, the company still wants to retain a major presence in book sales. And Amazon is staying in Seattle for the foreseeable future: In December it signed a deal to move from its Beacon Hill headquarters to a brand-new six-block, 11-building campus in South Lake Union in 2010.
It'll be sad when Amazon isn't based out of the looming Pacific Medical Center building anymore. Its weird, sulky omnipresence mirrors the company's relations to Seattle. It's obviously there and recognizable, but it seems aloof, apart, like a kid who has taken his ball away from the other children on the schoolyard but still lingers on the edge, unable to fully extricate itself.
Most Seattle companies contribute a lot of money—a lot of money—to the Seattle arts scene. It's considered being a good neighbor. It's not mandatory, but it is, at the very least, polite, and it's a necessary kindness, because taxpayer funds to the arts are slim and most arts organizations wouldn't be able to operate without these giant windfalls from corporate philanthropy.
Attend virtually any play and before the curtain rises, you'll hear a long list of major contributors that include companies like Microsoft, which has given to the Seattle arts scene for decades now. Boeing, though its corporate headquarters have moved to Chicago, is still one of the biggest contributors to Seattle arts events, and it also has an employee matching donation program, much of which goes to the arts.
Starbucks doesn't do quite as much as Boeing or Microsoft, but the corporation still contributes thousands on thousands of dollars to Seattle Theatre Group and Seattle Parks and Recreation and other nonprofits. The Starbucks Foundation, too, has contributed $22 million in grants to promote literacy and small entrepreneurs worldwide. Alaska Airlines contributes thousands of dollars to organizations in Seattle and Alaska.
Amazon, which posted a $476 million profit last year, has refused to return repeated e-mails and calls from The Stranger about the company's seemingly nonexistent contributions to the Seattle arts scene. Internet searches for any sign of philanthropy on behalf of the company prove fruitless. Lists of donors for organizations like the Paramount Theatre, the Seattle Art Museum, the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Experience Music Project read like a who's who of local corporations: Every major bank is represented and even national chains with a significant local presence like Macy's are major contributors.
Amazon.com isn't on any of these lists.
No head of any arts organization is willing to talk on the record about Amazon.com's miserly tendencies. One president of a charity that funds the arts prefers to remain anonymous because "hope springs eternal," and he continually approaches Amazon.com for funds. For years now, he has been refused every time.
Nobody with connections to the company, it seems, is willing to speak on the record: Rick Simonson, the readings coordinator for Elliott Bay Book Company, wrote about Amazon.com's uncharitable track record on Mist Place, his Publishers Weekly blog, in August of 2007. Simonson claimed that at least two people on Amazon.com's board of directors want the company to do more charity work, but that they "have gotten nowhere in inquiries" into their own company's stinginess.
So what is Amazon.com's problem? The company does have a program in which organizations can put a link to Amazon.com on their website. A portion of sales purchased through that link will then go back to the referring nonprofit, but this seems less of a benevolent corporate contribution and more of an advertising deal.
The dot-com boom that birthed Amazon.com wasn't known for its philanthropy, but as the company has moved forward into secure profitability, it seems to have adopted all the trappings of a 21st-century business: layoffs at the first sign of economic trouble, a tendency to hire temps so that the retailer won't have to pay benefits, and a fear of controversy that's preprogrammed to keep middle America happy. Philanthropy would seem to be the logical next step, if just for public-relations and tax-sheltering purposes.
Perhaps Amazon.com is afraid that it won't get enough publicity for its charitable contributions to the arts. If that's the case, here's a modest proposal: Seattle hasn't had a general-interest book festival since Northwest Bookfest collapsed in 2004. A yearly Amazon Book Festival, bringing hundreds of authors from around the world to Seattle for a week, would fill a gaping hole in the city's cultural scene, reassert Seattle's pride of place in America's literary community, and provide truckloads of positive press for a retailer that moves further and further away from the heart of Seattle even as it physically shifts even closer to its downtown core.