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The Boston Globe

Opinion

  

Scot Lehigh

Mass. should make Amazon pay sales tax

It’s as though a witty and well-informed friend whose conversation you delighted in had suddenly left town.

That’s a strange way to feel about an assemblage of inanimate objects. And yet I’m still bereft over the shuttering of the Borders bookstore in Downtown Crossing. A victim of changing habits — and of online competitors with big price advantages — the store closed after its parent, Borders Group Inc., filed for bankruptcy last summer.

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A great bookstore is a magical place. I’d go by once or twice a week to see which new books were out, which titles had made it to paperback, and what deals the quick-sale racks offered. If the review of a new biography or history or economic overview in the Sunday paper caught your eye, you could count on finding it at Borders.

There used to be at least three new-book stores, plus a couple buck-a-books, within a stone’s throw of the State House. Now there are none. It would make Oliver Wendell Holmes despair.

Brattle Books, a terrific used-book store, is perched on nearby West Street, while Raven Used Books has a store on Newbury Street. Brattle is a time-honored pillar of the Boston book trade, Raven a welcome Newbury newcomer. But neither can take the place of Borders as a store that had both a broad range of new books and a depth of titles in stock.

Overall, the sales tax revenue lost to e-commerce costs Massachusetts about $335 million annually.

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The closest is the Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, and in both space and selection, that smaller store can’t hold a candle to the old Borders. Looking for a couple of books a few weeks back, I tried it and the Suffolk University bookstore, before hoofing it across the river to the Coop at MIT. Sorry, not here, I was told at the latter store, but the books you want are in stock at the Harvard Coop. Before Borders departed, that mission would have taken 10 minutes. All of which is to say, a neighborhood, even an entire city, loses something valuable when a bookstore closes.

And that’s why the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and its allies are right in their campaign to force Amazon and other online leviathans to collect sales taxes on their business here.

Now, Amazon obviously wasn’t the totality of Borders’ problems. Borders was late to e-commerce, and the move to e-books on Kindle and Nook obviously hurt as well.

And yet, all that said, Amazon has a substantial advantage in not charging the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax on its Massachusetts sales. If it did, estimates are that the Internet giant, which sells a vast array of products, would owe the state $25 million to $40 million annually. Overall, the sales tax revenue lost to e-commerce costs Massachusetts in the range of $335 million.

Before states can tax absentee Internet companies that sell products within their borders, Congress would have authorize it. But that’s not so with Amazon, because the firm has now established a physical presence in Kendall Square. Such a “nexus” means state government can require the company to collect the tax on the goods it sells here. That would reduce the unfair edge Amazon has over the bricks-and-mortar retailers who already collect the tax — and who are also the event-sponsoring, community-boosting stalwarts that enrich the civic, as opposed to the cyber, world. Lest that sound like the impulse to slap a tax on everything up to and including a galloping horse, it’s worth noting that Massachusetts would hardly be an outlier. Amazon, which currently collects sales taxes in five states where it has long had facilities, has also agreed to start doing so in another five where it has expanded.

One of those is Indiana, where conservative Republican Governor Mitch Daniels pressed the company hard. Daniels joins Republicans like Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush in thinking the time has come to level the playing field. “The only complete answer to this problem is a federal solution that treats all retailers and all states the same,” the Indiana governor noted this year.

Until that time comes, though, state policy-makers should take action — lest other neighborhood jewels face a Borders problem of their own.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at
lehigh@globe.com.

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