The letter request:
Please could you pen a moderately flirtatious email to the head of Amazon.com? I run a small independent bookshop in England on a converted narrowboat called The Book Barge. Amazon.com is putting me out of business. I would like you to suggest we recreate the plot of ‘You’ve Got Mail’, but without my shop having to close. I don’t mind having to kiss him at the end, but I’d like some sort of watertight guarantee that he is going to pump lots of money my way so I can continue selling books. Possibly he could also buy me a yacht so I can transfer from the UK canals to the Med.
Dear Jeff Bezos, founder, president and CEO of Amazon.com,
Are you a fan of Meg Ryan? It’s okay if you’re not. She sells a certain type of cute that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. What about romantic comedies in general? I’m not talking Aniston or Heigl, god help us all, I’m talking the classics, like The Shop Around The Corner. It’s a 1940s film that sees two warring shop assistants ‘unexpectedly’ fall in love with each other as anonymous pen pals. Whacky, huh? Your local video shop will probably have it.
In 1998 a remake of dubious quality was made, called You’ve Got Mail. Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, owner of The Shop Around the Corner, a charming little bookstore crammed with quirks and family values. Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, top shot executive of Fox & Sons, a nasty big chain bookstore, which threatens to obliterate Kathleen’s livelihood. Little do they know, they’re corresponding anonymously via the deliciously modern media of ‘the chat room’ and ‘electronic mail’ and, you guessed it, falling in love.
Things have changed since 1998. Firstly, it’s no longer possible to fall in love anonymously over the internet. If Kathleen Kelly could have Googled NY152, emailer-of-her-dreams, she would have traced him back to Joe Fox, executor of her business nightmares. Their little love affair would have come to a screeching halt.
Secondly, fear of the department-style bookstore now seems amusing and old fashioned. All because you, Jeff Bezos, were ahead of the game. As early as 1994 you were founding Amazon.com, a little idea that would have made both Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox shudder with dread. ‘Selling books in a store?’ you were laughing. ‘Quit flirting in chat rooms, kids, and start using those boxy laptops for your own capitalistic gain!’
Are we both thinking the same thing, Jeff Bezos? Given how things have changed in the book business since You’ve Got Mail, and given your leading role in this change, perhaps it’s time for a remake! In our new version, you will star as you – founder, president and CEO of Amazon.com – and I will star as me. In the interest of modernisation let’s drop the antiquated theme of anonymity. My name is Sarah Henshaw. I live in the UK and run a small independent bookshop on a converted narrowboat called The Book Barge. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook and my blog.
Full confession: my heart didn’t exactly skip a beat when I saw your pic on Wikipedia. That said, when I read you made Forbes’ Billionaires list, I fancy I did feel a little flutter. In the interest of this being a romantic comedy, I’m willing to kiss you at the end.
Full confession, part two: there’s a twist in this new version. I joined the bookselling business already knowing of your reach. I joined because I knew independent booksellers were being put out of business and I wasn’t happy about it.
I’m not hapless like Kathleen Kelly, who closes The Shop Around the Corner and trades in bookselling for a career as a children’s author. I’m going to continue selling books because I believe there’s room for us both. I’m not completely without entrepreneurial understanding; I get where you’re coming from with Amazon.com. Warehouses offer far better book storage than a narrowboat, book storage increases choice and customers love choice. Warehouses also allow for bulk purchasing which leads to cheap books and customers love cheap books.
What I’m scripting for our film is that you start to understand where I’m coming from. You climb on board my narrowboat (not a euphemism; this film is PG) and discover that bookselling can be an art. And because wealthy people love art, you’re insatiably intrigued. You invite me out to dinner, somewhere with tablecloths and candlelight and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing in the background. Over oysters and champagne, you ask me if it’s hard running a business day-in day-out, while knowing the financial return will hardly cover the bare necessities of food and shelter. I say, ‘Sure, it’s hard. But satisfying too.’ My eyes light up as I explain how passionate I am about selling books and bringing a bookshop to the people via the canals, from no fixed address. You say, ‘It’s kind of like selling books on the internet, then?’ I say, ‘Kind of, but not.’
Then I explain how it’s not only a space to buy books but also to attend readings and meet fellow booklovers and writers and like-minded souls. I tell you how thrilled people are when they discover The Book Barge. How it taps into something romantic that’s in all of us.
At the mention of romance, members of the audience who are experienced viewers of romantic comedy will think ‘here we go!’ and lean a little forward in their seats.
But we defy their expectations and our conversation turns instead to the topic of wealthy benefactors. I tell you about how, in the olden days, benefactors were all the rage. How it was an integral form of philanthropy to show support and appreciation to those who were pursuing non-lucrative, yet culturally and creatively valuable careers. I tell you that, without his wealthy benefactor, we wouldn’t be sitting here listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
Spoiler alert: by the end of this film, you and I will have singlehandedly resurrected the patronage system. As promised, there’s a kiss. It’s not a ‘promise of things to come’ kiss. It’s more of a ‘Thank god you’re not putting me out of business or taking over The Book Barge’ kind of kiss. The kind of kiss that says loud and clear, ‘Thank you for appreciating the art in what I’m doing and providing me with no-strings-attached financial backing.’
You know the kind, right? Give me a call to find out more…