From STACY MITCHELL
New Rules Project
Portland, Maine — It’s always a relief this time of year to find that my local bookstore has emerged from the crucial holiday retail season still standing. Longfellow Books, named after Portland’s famous 19th century poet, is the only bookstore selling new, general-interest titles left in this small city. I can hardly imagine getting through Maine’s long winter months deprived of its weekly author events or the pleasure of an hour spent browsing the latest staff picks. Longfellow Books nourishes Portland’s cultural life and also its economy. The store anchors a key downtown block, has helped many a budding local author, and provides a livelihood for six of my fellow Portlanders.
All of this makes it hard to understand Congress’s long-standing policy of steering customers away from Longfellow Books by providing a substantial financial incentive to shop at Amazon instead.
Like all bricks-and-mortar stores, Longfellow Books is required to collect Maine’s 5 percent sales tax. Amazon.com is not. Five percent is a titanic advantage in the thin-margined world of retailing. It’s worse in other states like California, where Amazon’s government-bestowed competitive edge rises to nearly 10 percent.
Over the years, there have been four primary arguments made in favor of this grossly inequitable policy.
The first one dates to 1992, when the U.S. Supreme Court, mindful that 45 states and thousands of local jurisdictions levy sales taxes, ruled that requiring a catalog company to collect taxes in states where it has no physical presence would impose too much of a burden on interstate commerce. The Court, however, explicitly opened the door for Congress to conclude otherwise, noting that “the ultimate power” to decide the issue rested with lawmakers.
Nearly 20 years later, technology has both radically expanded long-distance retailing and eliminated the concerns that underpinned the court’s decision.