Waldo caught in crossfire of Obama’s nod to Amazon

by Nathan Warner

Contributing writer

Where’s Waldo in Zimmerman wound down with a blast last week after running hard the whole month of July.

For Reading Frenzy Bookstore owner Sheri Olson it was a timely and much-needed reminder of how local businesses should band together and support each other.

“People in the community also need to realize that if they want businesses around in their communities, they have to shop locally,” Olson said, “or watch one empty lot follow another.”  waldo for heidi

The success of this year’s “Where’s Waldo in Zimmerman” event was an antidote to President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday at the Chattanooga warehouse of Internet retailer Amazon.

“The president went out of his way to highlight Amazon as an example of a company that is spurring job growth and helping the American economy,” Olson said.

This show of favoritism toward an Internet retailer that many claim threatens local business drew the ire of booksellers nationwide. Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Independent Bookseller’s Association, posted her letter to the resident on the association’s website.

She wrote: “We can’t help but feel disappointed by this disingenuous action. We understand this economy is terribly challenging, but to deliver your speech at Amazon amounts to an explicit approval of their degrading business practices,” which Obry went on to describe as “monopolistic” and “predatory” towards America’s “Mainstreet” businesses.

On Wednesday, that disappointment spread from booksellers to small businesses alike when Jeff Milchen, co-director of the American Independent Business Association, wrote an article in Business Week saying that there were worse places the president could have delivered his speech, “but not many.”

Milchen went on to write: “It seems that every politician masters the statistics about small business being the engine of job creation but delivers the goods to corporations that wield significant political power.”

Olson entered the debate before the scheduled Tuesday speech. Excerpts of her letter were featured in SelfAwareness.com’s Monday newsletter to book businesses nationwide.

Olson explained in her letter that she was “trying to understand how supporting a monopoly such as Amazon helps small businesses and middle-income Americans.” She went on to say that Amazon’s discounting practice “could be a death blow to the entire book industry – publishers, bookstores, authors. When will the government help us? And at this point … not hurt us by supporting and broadcasting from this monopoly that is attempting to destroy the Main Streets of America. Please take this into consideration and change your location for your speech. … And please help small businesses such as bookstores stay alive.”

In the emerging global market and tough economy, local, independent businesses have struggled to survive, competing against giants that can under price and outsell them. For Olson, “Where’s Waldo in Zimmerman” is a shining example of how local businesses can support each other through coordinated events that draw local customers to shop, explore and understand their community.

“More than 25 local businesses participated here in Zimmerman,” she said. “More than 170 people picked up ‘Where’s Waldo’ passports,” she said.

The passports told what businesses were participating in the event and customers had to visit each one to find the hidden cardboard Waldo if they wanted to walk away with prizes at the final party.

Of those 170 people, 78 visited all 25 participating stores, compared to last year’s 30 people.

“We had over 70 people in Reading Frenzy Tuesday night for the Where’s Waldo party,” Olson said, “and the enthusiasm and excitement was phenomenal!”

Prizes ranged from the “Where’s Waldo” book collection to a Weber grill from Jim’s Market.

Olson said many people don’t know what their town has to offer and events like “Where’s Waldo” encourage people to explore their local communities. The objective for Olson is to promote the town, promote local business, and make the community a good place for kids.

“We had a lot of families doing this event together,” she said, “and it was neat to see lots of multi-generational participation.”

Olson also pointed to Zimmerman events like “Ladies on the Loose,” “Krazy Daze” and “Wild West Days” as examples of local businesses working together to support the local economy with the help of organizations such as the Zimmerman Area Chamber of Commerce and the Zimmerman Civic Club. There are also consortiums such as “Junk This Way on 169” – a group of antique and boutique shops between Elk River and Princeton that help promote each other and draw attention to local business.

“Businesses and shoppers have to take an active approach in their communities for their towns to thrive,” Olson said, “because small business owners are normal people supported only by the local community, and we give back to that community by offering jobs, donations and spending our money in our communities.”