Salt Lake City bookstore owner wages war with Internet bookstores

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    By MATT LEMMON

    The owner of a Salt Lake City bookstore is waging war against corporate giants Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble.

    Tony Weller, of Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore, has joined the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and independent bookstores across the country in efforts to have taxes collected on untaxed e-commerce.

    “We’re urging the politicians to deal with the Internet tax issue fast,” he said.

    Weller said an unfair marketplace exists for so-called “brick-and-mortar” stores, because Internet companies are not required to pay sales tax on out-of-state transactions. He also said communities are losing tax revenue to e-commerce.

    Oren Teicher of the ABA said stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders have found a loophole in tax laws by creating a separate corporate entity for their Internet sites. This allows them out-of-state privileges, even though they have retail stores virtually everywhere in the U.S., he said. Weller said the state tax commission should conduct investigations to enforce existing laws.

    Janis Gully, of the Utah Tax Commission, said the government is aware of Internet taxation problems, and is making efforts to deal with the issue.

    “We have been addressing it on many fronts,” she said. She said the state tax commission supports Utah Governor Mike Leavitt’s extensive efforts to find a solution to the Internet tax issue.

    “Governor Leavitt is in that debate, firmly on the side that taxes should be collected from Internet sites,” Gully said.

    However, she said that because the issue is so new and complex, it will be several years before a solution is found.

    Weller says the solution must be found quickly. He estimates that his sales have dropped by about a third over the past ten years. He said much of that loss is due to unfair Internet practices.

    Other booksellers are divided on the issue. Owners of several stores specializing in used and specialty books have reported an increase in revenues from book sales, due in part to the additional market brought in by the Internet. For Roger Layton, owner of The Read Leaf, a Springville-based bookstore, 5 to 10 percent of his Internet sales actually come from big e-companies like Amazon.

    When online shoppers request a book Amazon doesn’t have, Amazon will order it from The Read Leaf, and pay full price, he said.

    “I’ve been in the book business for 18 years, and we’ve done better with our Internet business than we have in all those years,” said Buy the Book co-owner Marilyn Jeppson. Linda Brummett, manager of the general book department of the BYU Bookstore, said the issue of Internet sales affects virtually all booksellers.

    “I don’t think that any bookseller hasn’t felt the impact of this,” she said.

    She said the impact from sites such as Amazon on bookstore sales has been noticeable, though not measurable. While the BYU Bookstore does not depend as much on the general public as other retailers, such as Sam Weller’s Bookstore, the impact is still felt, she said.

    Teicher said Internet commerce has been a contributing factor leading to many independent bookstores going out of business.

    ABA has lost almost 40 percent of its members since 1995, Teicher said. He attributes the bulk of the drop in membership to bookstores going out of business. But Brummet said independent bookstore owners will fight to stay in business.

    “Booksellers are tenacious. They just really dig in and find other ways to stay alive,” she said.

    Sam Weller’s Bookstore and the ABA are currently involved in an anti-trust lawsuit against Barnes & Noble and Borders. Teicher said 26 individual booksellers are involved in the action, which alleges the companies “have solicited and received illegal deals that other bookstores haven’t had access to.”

    The court date is set for spring of 2001.

    “Booksellers love what they do, and I think we’ve fought quite valiantly in this competition,” Wellers said.

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