Amazon’s new brick and mortar bookstore is wildly banal. The only thing it disrupts is foot traffic heading toward a Restoration Hardware. So why does it exist?
Amazon Books—yes, Amazon named their bookstore Amazon Books—is across the street from a Tommy Bahama, at the entrance to an upscale outdoor shopping mall named University Village. (The mall resembles neither a University nor a village, though it does have very nice landscaping, a place that sells athletic woolens, and a Starbucks at either end.) It opened at 9:30 yesterday morning. When I arrived at eleven there were a dozen people being held outside by a man with a walkie talkie “to prevent overcrowding.” Some in line had heard about the opening on local TV spots. Many took photos in line and again once they were in the store. “Who’s inside?” a woman with three visible bangles asked me. I told her that I did not think any authors were inside, but that the store was opening today. I did not use the phrase Day One, but wondered whether the staff, including presumably Walkie Talkie, had taken a moment before opening that morning to reflect on Amazon’s jargon, including that bit of eschatology. He did seem to have a zeal.
Rumors that Amazon might be moving into the location first surfaced in Shelf Awareness, a bookselling trade newsletter. On Monday Amazon sent out a press release announcing the store would open the following day.
Tuesday morning at 9:30, Amazon Books will open its doors. These aren’t metaphorical doors: these real, wooden doors are the entrance to our new store in Seattle’s University Village. … Amazon Books is a store without walls – there are thousands of books available in store and millions more available at Amazon.com. Walk out of the store with a book; lighten your load and buy it online (Prime customers, of course, won’t pay for shipping); buy an eBook for your Kindle; or add a product to your Amazon Wish List, so someone else can buy it.
The store is physically odd. It betrays inexperience with retail. The stacks are situated too close to one another so that you have to brush past other browsers—Paco Underhill’s famed “butt brush”—and can’t comfortably bend down to see books on lower shelves. The first display tables are too near the doors, which discourages browsing. Above the shelves along the walls are bays of books, spine out, there simply for decoration. They have no bearing on the books below them. Kindles are sold, of course, but also Amazon Fire TV sticks. Quite a bit of real estate is devoted to a line called Amazon Basics which appear to be, for the most part, bluetooth speakers modelled after the ones that Nicki Minaj interacts with in the beginning of her music videos, the kind that look like pink lozenges.
The store assumes familiarity with Amazon.com. This goes beyond understanding whether 4.5 stars is, in fact, a good if oddly precise number of stars. A shelf labelled “Most Wishlisted Cookbooks” faced the line of excited customers outside. Goodreads—a property of Amazon—is mentioned in displays. There is a desk labelled Amazon Answers. Presumably the questions asked of Amazon are answered by a human employee of the store, though it’s unclear if some sort of Delphic process involving candles and chanting occurs.
Crucially, books in the store are priced as they are on Amazon’s site. Discounts are steep, generally in the range of twenty to thirty percent off of list price. Signs to this effect are up throughout the store, alongside price scanners to drive the point home. They are not as cheap, overall, as the remaindered titles—dead stock bought from publishers and resold at a discount by specialty vendors—that populate tables at the entrance to Seattle’s University Book Store just up the hill, but they are new books. Or, they’re what passes for new in the trade. The book I bought—Jane Yolen’s classic Owl Moon—had remnants of an old sticker on the back.
Matching online prices is crucial to the conceit of Amazon Books: the store is not just an overcrowded ex-sushi restaurant with limited selection and a creepily insistent smile in its logo, but a physical extension of the site itself.
Each book in the store is displayed face-out, and no book is displayed more than once. This display method limits the stock that can be carried. Amazon Books stock about five titles per three linear feet of shelving, while most bookstores more than triple that. It may also be meant to mimic the way books are presented on Amazon’s site. This fact, the full visibility of all covers, is noted as a distinction between Amazon Books and traditional stores in the Seattle Times writeup of the location. Of course, all bookstores face out books. Which percentage will be faced out in a store is more a question of philosophy and aesthetics than a sign of a radical new approach. Borders, for instance, was known for having a high percentage of face outs. Also a slow supply chain. RIP, Borders.
Books are not always arranged in a clear manner. On the memoir wall Frederick Douglass abuts Anne Frank, herself next to Ben Carson. Amazon is disrupting the alphabet. RIP, alphabet.
Selection is, of course, limited. Nineteen-Eighty-Four is not present in the store. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquietude is. RIP, irony, long live a more subtle irony.
Below many books is a small placard—booksellers call them shelf-talkers—giving the book’s average star rating and one of the reviews posted for the book on the site. These blurbs are credited to Amazon account screen names. “Imagine seeing yourself in here” one customer said to another with an identical haircut. Of course these lack the human touch of typical shelf-talkers, but sometimes you have to break a few eggs when you’re taking on those legendarily powerful gatekeepers, indie booksellers writing in unsteady blue ballpoint about books they love.
The staff carried small handheld scanners to help them locate books. I felt a strange thrill when I noted this, I think because it’s a recognizable echo of the devices which direct employees in Amazon’s warehouses where to find the next item they’re meant to ship. When the store did not have a book a customer was looking for—part of the excellent Bone series by Jeff Smith in this instance—the bookseller tapped at the device and then advised her to find it online. “I just thought I’d ask in case you had it in the back somewhere” the customer explained. They did not have it in the back somewhere.
The staff are drawn from within Amazon, from local bookstores, from libraries. Robert Sindelar of Third Place has said that some of his staff were contacted by Amazon recruiters through LinkedIn. Pam Cady, manager of the general books department at University Book Store was contacted as well. Cady received LinkedIn messages and an email. It was very personal in tone, but ended with a simple choice: a button to indicate whether or not she was interested in the offer. “I clicked not interested.”
Amazon Books is paying its booksellers well—wages begin at $18 an hour, with benefits. That’s well above starting rates at most indies; it also comes in ahead of Seattle’s impending $15 minimum wage. The effort Amazon had to exert to recruit these talented booksellers—they were noticeably good at their jobs—and the wages they’ve had to offer, stand in an odd juxtaposition to one of the central ideas of the site. Take the shelf-talkers. Amazon has always asserted that there is value—financial and culturally—to letting readers decide which books are good. Now, not only are they bringing in gatekeepers (the press release uses the word “curator”) to tweak and hone those lists of books, and to present the books in an attractive and reasonably intelligent manner, but they’ve had to pay them well in order to bring them into the Amazon fold. This is, first, one of Amazon’s occasional seemingly accidental acts of decency in their continued expansion, but it is also a hell of a big asterisk on what has been their guiding principle: that books are all made equal and people can choose what they want with little oversight or guidance.
University Book Store—begun by students in 1900—is just up the road from University Village, and while they serve superficially different markets, it’s difficult not to see Amazon’s choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores. Amazon, for all their size, has remained attentive, even covetous, of independent booksellers. They famously built an app to allow customers to scan barcodes in a physical bookstore and buy the book online, at a lower price, instead. That practice—scanning with the Amazon app—is standard operating procedure at the new store. They have a poster walking customers through the steps.
Speaking over her reading-stack-as-topography desk Cady outlined a history of other provocations by her city’s tech giant. Amazon staff have wielded clipboards in sign-up efforts directly outside of at least two of her store’s locations. We speculated about what Amazon might be paying for their University Village lease, and whether it, like the recently cancelled Amazon Payments system, would last a year. The mall where Amazon’s book store is housed was home to a flagship Barnes Noble until five years ago. At least a few of University Book Store’s current booksellers were employees there. BN declined to stay when rent was increased on their space, even with a reduced footprint. It will be extremely difficult for Amazon Books, indeed any bookstore, to be profitable in the location.
Cady had already visited Amazon Books opening morning, as had some of her staff. They spoke about it with exaggerated grimaces, more dismissive than unnerved. “The selection is not bad,” Cady emphasized. Indeed, the store carries books by some prominent independent publishers—Coffee House Press, Europa Editions, Melville House—and the selection on their front fiction table would not have been out of place at many indie bookstores. The new Kenzaburo Oe was there, as was the new Mary Gaitskill, the new Joy Williams. It was not wildly adventurous but neither was it uninteresting.
The kernel of difference between Amazon’s new store and existing bookstores, according to Amazon, is that their store is stocked using a broader and—the implication is—a more accurate field of data. Take a moment to genuflect if you like. These selections sourced from bestsellers, pre-orders and Goodreads ratings are tweaked by the store’s booksellers. The process offers up some oddities—some books in the fiction section in particular seemed to be from vanity presses. But all in all it’s a good selection. The thing is, independent bookstores have access to lists of bestsellers as well, both in their own store and across independents through analytics subscription programs like Above the Treeline. They also use that data to tweak what they stock. It’s not only not unusual: it’s central to how they do business. If the difference between Amazon Books and indies is whether they use sales data and online recommendations to decide what to stock, there is no difference at all.
This, then, is the biggest oddity. As I walked the perimeter of the store past the Seusses and the Yolens and the Here’s How to Use an Ax to Kill a Bear or Whatever books, the main thing that struck me is that this store is not a disruption of the idea of the bookstore. Certainly selling USB sticks that allow you to stream episodes of Suits in the middle of a store is some kind of disruption, but Amazon is not somehow doing things better. Nothing in the store is an idea original to Amazon, or even one that hasn’t long been the practice of even the least competent bookstores around the world. There are many bookstores that are worse in every aspect than Amazon’s new venture, to be sure, but not because Amazon has somehow solved the bookstore.
Or, that’s not exactly right. Because Amazon has come up with a solution to the bookstore. The secret is to have such power and buy in such quantity that you can dictate your own discounts to publishers. Buy books by the pallet and then, why not, send six of those to your outlet at the mall under the overpass. That surely helps keep the cost of goods down. Most independent bookstores spend between fifty three and fifty-six percent of their total revenue on inventory. Having already demanded far better margins from publishers, Amazon could spend that money elsewhere in a store’s PL: on an exorbitant rent, for instance, on better wages, on deep store-wide discounts. The other solution: as always, be big enough to lose money. Amazon has proven the value of that approach for most of the lifespan of the company. Now they’re just implementing that dictum in a corner lot near an Eddie Bauer and a Free People.
If the store is a test model for a potential fleet of Kindle showrooms, it is not a great success. The Kindle displays are cramped and lost amidst the books that surround them. Nor is this of the scale to be a Chess move in their ongoing battle with Wal-Mart. A more interesting idea is that Amazon could roll out a few stores as locations to display the books Amazon themselves publish—their difficulty in getting Amazon Publishing books onto physical shelves remains a significant obstacle. But that tactic was not in evidence at Amazon Books on Tuesday. If Amazon Publishing books were there, they were not in such a preponderance that I immediately noticed them. It’s tempting, as ever, to chalk this project up to a whim. The store’s director Jennifer Cast is responsible for another whim from Bezos—a 2012 donation of $2.5 million to a nonprofit fighting for marriage equality. Perhaps Cast just wanted to run a bookstore and is extremely persuasive?
Amazon Books—like the surrounding mall—feels like it’s predicated on anxiety. Its very existence may be meant as an answer to anxieties within the company about a persistent inability to overcome the question of ‘discovery,’ both for Amazon Publishing titles and in general—the company remains dependent on consumers finding products they’re interested elsewhere and then buying them, presumably at a discount, from Amazon.com. But other anxieties dictated what the store was allowed to become. The store is aggressively inoffensive. It is nice only insofar as it is bland and has good lighting and they let a customer take his pretty chill dog in. The store is the physical incarnation of a monolithic business of immense wealth that is changing the face of literature itself, but from within it is all very boring, very safe, in an upscale grey palette kind of way.
What is the opposite of disruption? It is, as it turns out, fitting in perfectly beside a Jonathan Adler.
Dustin Kurtz works in independent publishing and lives in Portland, OR.