The other day I passed the beginnings of a new Amazon Books in Bethesda Row, a place where Barnes & Noble recently shut down. I still remember the days when Barnes & Noble and Borders (remember Borders?) were blamed for shoving out the independent booksellers. Now Amazon has come for them.
As retail stores dry up around me, Amazon is putting up brick-and-mortar bookstores around the country. That’s right. Amazon. The physical bookstore, the thing ostensibly dying a slow death—in no small part due to Amazon itself—is returning. Or is it?
Actually Amazon is everywhere (but you knew that, right?). The Bethesda store is scheduled to open this summer. In fact, the DC area’s first Amazon bookstore, and the chain’s 15th opened in March 2018, next to a Nike store in Georgetown. It was the 15th Amazon Books since the first one opened in Seattle in November 2015. More are on the horizon.
Of course, Amazon Books are not typical bookstores. For one thing, books are displayed face-out. This allows Amazon to replace price tags with labels (e.g., “One of Amazon’s 100 books to Read in a Lifetime”) and/or reviews from users of Amazon.com.
If you want a price, you can get it using the Amazon app on your phone, or by holding products up to a bar code reader. You can also use the app to scan book covers to get more information, read reviews, or write a review of your own. You can use the app to find out how many books are left on the shelves and where to find them. And if you so choose, you can proceed to pay for your purchase with the app.
Amazon Books, like many remaining books-and-mortar bookstores, is as much a tech paradise as a bookstore. But it is centered on Amazon products, especially top-selling ones.
The place, ostensibly an extension of Amazon.com, looks pretty much like an Apple store, actually. (Or, as Jake Swearingen observed in New York Magazine, like a tiny Apple store surrounded by books.) Lots of screens, lots of tables, lots of expensive gadgets locked up behind glass.
Here you can test drive Amazon products like Kindles and Echos, purchase Amazon’s top-selling products like iPhone cases, or use tablets prominently displayed in the check-out area.
Best of Both Worlds?
As an online retailer, Amazon has been heavily criticzed by proprietors and patrons of both independent and chain bookstores. Critics blame the company for driving neighborhood retailers out of business with their steep discounts and inexpensive delivery fees. Whether their brick-and-mortar bookstores help or hurt this reputation remains to be seen.
The idea, or so I’ve read, is to integrate the benefits of online and offline. In some ways it does: you get the same crowd-sourced reviews and the benefits of new technology as online. And as fast as Amazon delivery is these days, grabbing a book and going is even faster.
You get Kindle and old-school bound books. You get a café and children’s area like any good modern brick-and-mortar bookstore, a community center of sorts. And if you don’t like using apps for everything, you get employees on-site to help you.
Impact on Independent Bookstores
Amazon Books will almost certainly augment online sales. Despite claims to offer “the best of both worlds,” online shopping still holds considerable advantages, not least of which is 24-7 service. The ability to see what you’re buying before you buy it (a model that Best Buy is offering as well) makes considerable sense.
Less clear is how remaining brick-and-mortar bookstores compete with their new Amazonian neighbor. Already it seems that Amazon Books may muscle out other chain booksellers still standing after Amazon.com killed most of them. The independent bookstore may be another matter.
Oddly enough, DC is a place where some independent bookstore still thrive. That is also true in Austin, TX, home of another new Amazon Books. DC’s beloved Politics and Prose is only a few miles from the Georgetown store, and so are East City Bookshop and Bridge Street Books.
Amazon Books may be less of a threat to these stores, which seem to fill entirely different functions, including, one might argue, selling books.
Winner Take All
Some critics have noted that Amazon Books are not for people who actually read. As Jia Tolentino commented in The New Yorker, “They exist far less to serve the desires of the reader than to serve the needs of Amazon, a company whose twenty-year campaign to “disrupt” bookstores has now killed off much of the competition, usurped nearly half of the U.S. book market, and brought it back, full circle, to books on shelves.”
To be fair, Amazon Books does sell books and perhaps even makes books seem almost as hot as Fire TVs. However, compared to the original chain bookstore offerings, stock is weighted toward devices, toys, and games, plus books hat are highly rated on Amazon and that are also bestsellers or new releases. Unlike the hand-curated books sold by some independent booksellers, this approach severely cuts the number of books that can be stocked. It also restricts titles to things everyone knows and wants.
Admittedly, DC’s store, one of the chain’s largest, includes 5,600 book titles. A stand near the café also, laudably, features books by local authors. Still, by restricting themselves to top-selling and top-ranked books, these stores aren’t doing a great service for new and undiscovered writers. Rather, as Tolentino and others have observed, they popularize further products that are already popular on the Amazon website.