There is little that is culturally distinctive about a warehouse; consequently, James Moore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, was right to permit Amazon.ca, an American-owned online bookseller, to establish a distribution centre in Canada.
The bookstores that contribute most to Canadian literary culture are those that bear the marks of the sensibility of the proprietor in the selection of books on the shelves, and in face-to-face events such as book launches and authors' readings. In contrast, the strength of a large online bookseller such as Amazon is the ability to distribute as many titles as possible; in other words, to be non-selective.
Some small, independent Canadian bookstores have closed in recent years, such as Double Hook in Montreal and Frog Hollow in Halifax. Low pricing by online booksellers is one of the factors that makes these more personal bookshops an endangered species, but so are the hollowing-out of downtowns and the simple convenience to many consumers of big-box suburban stores. Moreover, independent proprietors often want to move on and do something else after a few decades.
Meanwhile, others, such as Audreys in Edmonton, Munro's in Victoria and A Different Drummer in Burlington, Ont., are alive and well.
Large bricks-and-mortar stores can have some personality, too, as in the featuring of Heather's Picks in Chapters Indigo, as the choices of Heather Reisman, the company's CEO.
A purely online bookseller, whether Canadian or American-owned, can do little, as such, to affect Canadian culture, for good or ill.
Amazon.ca already had an arrangement with a subsidiary of Canada Post that provided it with a shipping facility in Canada, so Mr. Moore's decision amounts to the crossing of quite a narrow line.
The stipulations attached to the decision are neither oppressive nor trivial, amounting to an investment of $20-million, for various measures, such as putting more Canadian books on the Kindle e-reader. For that matter, Amazon.ca has since 1999 been the sponsor of a 34-year-old award for the best first novel by a Canadian in English.
Amazon is above all a distributor that sells directly to readers; therefore it makes sense to let the company distribute to Canadians by way of buildings in Canada. Though Amazon is a "cultural business" as defined by the Investment Canada Act, its application was mainly about commercial convenience, and the federal government is right not to treat it as a threat to Canadian culture.