Lost in the Amazon: E-retailer's new store turns magic into mundane

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With Amazon Prime, I ordered a personal Amazon drone to deliver me speedily to the new Amazon Bookstore.

Amazon Books is the only bookstore of its kind in the world—the online retailer’s first foray into dead-wood technology in retail meat space. Arriving by drone was appropriate: The new bookstore is at University Village at the former location of a vast sushi restaurant that delivered its rolls by conveyor belt. Modern delivery is embedded in the site.

It was also appropriate because U-Village has been transformed into an upscale retail agglomeration that is so suburban in its execution that it now resembles the upscale retail interiors of international airports. Not quite as impressive as Heathrow, but coming on par with Sea-Tac’s new terminal. The only thing missing is a Duty Free shop. Those who remember a bowling alley and Lamonts are showing their age.

Amazon Books fits right in with the new U-Village. It’s received mostly negative reviews from book folks, but has also been touted for its innovations: The book selection is largely based on the vast databases that Amazon accumulates and analyzes via its online sales. As you walk in, there are tables of new and highly rated (by Amazon readers) books, ranging in subjects from Beyonce to artisanal tacos. Immediately behind them, there's a large TV screen with video games running and areas where you can try various Amazon technologies, like Kindle and Fire. The store’s a mash-up of old and new book tech.

It has been noted that, unusually, Amazon displays its books face-out, instead of spine-out. But the first impression I had walking in was that it was an airport book shop, where they do that all the time. Books were lined up like magazines for the reader who’s in urgent need of something to kill time between Seattle and Dallas.

Amazon Books has the buzz of a Starbucks on a caffeinated Saturday morning, an ambience that is a cross between an Apple store and Elliott Bay Book Co., what with the tech displays and brick walls. The children’s section has bean bag chairs for sprawling kids and their tired parents and activity tables for toddlers—a kind of mall way station.

Some books are weirdly categorized. I was struck by a wall of books labeled “Vibrant Color 4.5 Stars and Above.” No mediocre vibrant color books here. Essentially, they were large coffee table books featuring vivid works. No surprise that Dale Chihuly reigned supreme. But who buys their books by color scheme, other than interior decorators? Then I realized: It feels like the book shop for the nearby Restoration Hardware. You know, the stuff that’ll go with that overstuffed faux-antique club chair.

The hum of the place indicated that customers were engaging with the tech and chattily exploring shelves which cater to people who buy cookbooks, bestsellers and Oprahsellers. It has the kind of hyper-energy I suspect flows directly from ever-restless Jeff Bezos himself.

I also had the sense that my every move was being watched. One of the advantages of some old-school bookstores—think classics like old Shorey’s or Powell’s—was the feeling that you could get lost in them and sink into the worlds that came into your hands from the shelves. Even giants like Barnes & Noble were vast barns where you could browse at leisure with little risk of being seen, let alone having your book-bliss bothered.

When I use Amazon online, I go there to find the books I know I want that are unlikely to be available in any shop. When I go to Elliott Bay or University Bookstore I tend to look for books I don’t know I want. This Amazon store has little of the convenience of ordering online, and few of the virtues of the type of place conducive to a leisurely exploration of the shelves.

At Amazon Books, everything feels cramped, especially the aisles, yet exposed. I kept having the feeling my visitor experience was going to be extracted, rated, tallied and reviewed by unseen eyes—that I was part of a lab experiment, a provider of metrics for crunching.

Over the check-out counter there’s a quote: “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” So said author Stephen King, and the sign also notes that this particular quote was “liked” by 11,626 Goodreads members, as if that adds to its quotability. Thank goodness it wasn’t pre-approved by merely 11,625 Goodreads members, then I would have ignored it.

Missing is any quotation from the anti-Amazon letter King and 900 other authors signed in 2014 criticizing the company’s treatment of publisher Hachette. Or King’s skepticism about ebooks in general, and the negative impact they’ve had on brick-and-mortar stores for which this is a single, feeble replacement. Books—some books at any rate—might be “portable magic,” but Amazon Books seems more like a vessel for the mundane, with vibrant colors, though.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.