Battle of the Amazons

Why are Jeff Bezos' lawyers asking sexual-orientation questions about the ladies who run a bookstore in Minneapolis?


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Katharine Mieszkowski
October 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

If any company understands the power of a juicy David vs. Goliath story it's Amazon.com. So when a feminist bookstore in Minneapolis brought a trademark suit last April against the dot-com giant, you might have anticipated that Amazon.com would rush to settle the case, quickly and quietly.

Instead we've been treated to the bizarre spectacle of Amazon.com seeking to turn the dispute from Amazon vs. Amazon into Amazon vs. the lesbians. (Salon.com has a bookselling partnership with Amazon.com rival Barnesandnoble.com.)

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The crux of the suit: For 30 years there's been a feminist bookstore in Minneapolis named Amazon Bookstore. Jeff Bezos was probably just starting to read under the covers with a flashlight when the Minneapolis women began selling books as a nonprofit under the name Amazon in 1970. The bookstore, now a for-profit collective, sued Amazon.com earlier this year for trademark infringement. The bookstore claimed to have lost money and staff time dealing with a growing stream of customers and suppliers who had mistaken it for the Web retailer. And, by the way, the store wanted its name back.

The case is a big company spin-meister's worst nightmare: a classic underdog, the embattled, independent, female-owned bookseller whose long-standing local business is trampled by the heartless dot-com with the multibillion-dollar market capitalization. Amazon Bookstore even put a link on its own Web site asking for contributions to help finance its legal case against the mammoth e-tailer.

But Amazon.com, apparently still unused to its new role as Goliath, played it to the hilt, in a way so embarrassingly sensationalistic that no screenwriter, not even Nora Ephron herself, could have credibly concocted it. In pre-trial depositions, quoted last week in Holt Uncensored, a book-industry column, Amazon.com lawyers interrogated one of the co-owners of the store under oath about her own sexual orientation and that of the staff.

Choice excerpts: "Have you had any interest in promoting lesbian ideals in the community?" and "I'll ask you this, are you gay?" The lawyer himself even seemed embarrassed by his own line of questioning, apologizing while asking: "Are any of the employees of the bookstore gay, and forgive me for asking this question." (Amazon Bookstore's lawyer objected and filed a motion for a protective order against such questions. The judge is scheduled to rule on the motion next week.)

Was Amazon.com's strategy a cynical lesbian smear campaign designed to intimidate the witnesses or play to a future jury's presumed homophobia? Or, was it a clueless inability to understand the distinction between "lesbian" and "feminist"? If the latter is the case, there are a few dozen books for sale on Amazon.com's own Web site that I suggest it take the time to read.

Amazon.com, naturally, denies both interpretations. Bill Curry, an Amazon.com spokesman, says that all its lawyers were trying to do was establish that they're not in the same business as Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis. The two Amazons are like Acme Hardware and Acme Dry Cleaners, Curry says, companies that can amicably share the same name because "they're in different businesses."

According to Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos and company are in the business of catering to a "general interest" audience, while Amazon Bookstore Collective is "lesbian-owned and operated, catering to the lesbian community." Curry says the fact that Amazon Bookstore describes itself as a "full-service feminist bookstore for all girls, women and their friends" and not as an exclusively lesbian bookstore is just a recent tactic: "They're trying to be more like us for the sake of their legal case," he says.

Never mind the fact that both Amazons sell books, or even that almost any book that you can buy at the Minneapolis bookstore is also for sale on the Amazon.com Web site. Amazon.com insists that the business you're in is determined by who you are and who you serve, not what you sell. But by this contorted logic, if a 12-year-old opened a bookstore catering to other kids on the Net, under the name Amazonkids.com, Amazon.com would have no grounds for a lawsuit.

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(Note: no questions about the sexual orientation of anyone at Amazon.com were raised in the reporting of this story.)

The lawsuit has turned out to be a public relations debacle -- Amazon.com's own customers are sending outraged e-mails to the company demanding answers. The idea that Amazon.com would focus on sexual orientation in a trademark lawsuit apparently does not sit well with Amazon.com's own "general interest" audience.

The Amazon.com response to customer complaints has been an e-mail attempting to justify the company's legal strategy and to tout its progressive values. "We are, as a company and as individuals, sensitive to matters of personal privacy, and our commitment to diversity extends to our employment practices which forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation" the e-mail mewls.

Maybe in the future it will pursue a legal strategy as sensitive as it claims to be as a corporation. Because no matter which role you play, David or Goliath, sexual McCarthyism isn't very flattering.


Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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