The website and blog of writer Austin Wilson. Comics and prose. Stories from wherever they can be found.

What Amazon Books Is and Isn't

Amazon Books is weird. It looks like a bookstore. There are in fact books there, so for a second the brain says "Yes, this is a bookstore." See, there are those little themed displays of books, Summer Blockbusters or Edutainment, whatever the marketing minds have thought up. And behind those the stacks rise up. Something isn't right though. After a walk through Chicago's Amazon Books (with pictures), a browse, and yes even some purchases, I started to figure out what felt different about the place. Simply put, it is not a bookstore.

 Amazon Books in Chicago, IL

Amazon Books in Chicago, IL

There are books for sale, but Target sells books. Wal-Mart does too. Gas stations sell books. A structure containing books does not a bookstore make, or so the saying goes. Maybe it's semantics, or a little snobbish and pedantic, but I think the distinction is pretty clear when you walk into Amazon Books, as opposed to say, well, Barnes & Noble even. You don't need to seek out the most indie of indie-bookstores for a clear demonstration of what Amazon Books isn't.

Everything there is crisp, modern, well-designed and lit masterfully. Coffee flavors the air, because it has to at this point in bookstore history. An Amazon representative greets you when you walk in, and in our case asked about donating books to a local charity collecting them for kids. The greeting was one of many things that made the space feel more like an Apple store than a bookstore. Or worse, and this sticks in the mind more, it made the place feel like a Corporation.

The presence of a Kindle section also helped it feel like something other than a bookstore, and I own a Kindle, so it's not as simple as me hating digital books. That space, over near the coffee bar, had the layout of an Apple store, or the phone section in a Best Buy - itself trying to mimic Apple - and it seemed bigger than the rest of the sections. Maybe it wasn't, maybe it was that most of that section was taken up by emptiness. Kindles aren't much bigger than a small digest-sized book now, and they were on display like relics, on lit platforms, sitting up almost waiting for Indiana Jones to remove them. More than anything, the emptiness is one of the store's weirdest qualities.

 4321 by Paul Auster, and a nice view of the shelf space on display.

4321 by Paul Auster, and a nice view of the shelf space on display.

They murder shelf space by front-facing their books so customers can see the covers. It's supposed to give a similar experience to browsing the website, but this place is not a website. The little card under Paul Auster's book shows a star rating, based on 38 reviews, as of March 10, 2017. There's even a little review from someone named "michaelmaine" to give you more incentive to pick up the book. The other reason you'll need to pick up the book is to find out how much it costs. The only prices you'll find on books in the store are printed on them, but ahh yes, the discounts. To find how much you'll actually pay, you need to scan the book, and can do so thanks to the small amount of scanners Amazon has given customers. I saw two, but my guess is there was at least one more somewhere.

I'm not averse to stores selling me things as efficiently as they know how (obviously), and I'm not even worried about someone in the company using research and/or an algorithm to determine how best to do so. But picking up a book, finding a scanner, scanning it, these are steps I shouldn't have to take in order to find out what I'd be paying. Some stores have those scanners, but they're fallback plans for when you can't figure out the price through all the other means the business uses. In Amazon Books it feels much more like they just want you to pick up the book and carry it across the store, where you'll see you'd be saving 20 or 40%, only $17.00 for this hardback?! Well shit, it's already in my hand. Again, I like buying things when my intent is to buy things, but this store made me feel like I was the product, more so than the books were. And that isn't fun.

A friend and I agreed, were we in Chicago again and we really wanted to buy a book, or even just find a bookstore to hang out in, we wouldn't choose Amazon Books. It seems too worried about speed, about getting you in and out. Speedy checkouts are one thing - and they have some of the fastest I've experienced - but an overall visit shouldn't feel like you're being directed or controlled. Yes, scanning a custom QR code your Amazon app creates for checkout so the card you have on file is charged, is neat. But, um, why not just order them online? If you have Amazon Prime you'll have the books in two days.

Bookstores like Literati and Politics & Prose feel like places that want to sell you books because they love books, and know you do too. Amazon has almost always struck me as a place that loves money. Not because they ask for a lot when selling things, but because they've so expertly mapped out how to sell a lot of thingsAnd that's not necessarily bad. Successful businesses aren't evil, not inherently, anyway. Amazon Books is, from the time you enter until you leave, a place that is interested in one thing above all: Amazon. They want you to sign up for a Prime account. They want you to use Amazon more and more, and if it's for books, sure whatever.

If bookstores are in trouble it won't be because physical Amazon Books locations exist. No, the website will remain the true reason, because it does make it easy, so freaking quick and easy, to get books delivered straight to your door, at huge discounts. If you're looking to save a few dollars then why drive to a bookstore, even an Amazon bookstore? If paying full price at an independently owned shop is how you choose to get books, go forth and do that thing. If not, okay too. Amazon wants you to buy everything through them though. I can't get away from the idea that their physical stores are merely ways at attempting to pull in those customers who go to bookstores because they love going to bookstores. It wouldn't shock me if that was the logic behind the stores existing. Or it would, but only because they so obviously produced an Amazon version of a bookstore, and not a bookstore that feels like it cares about books.

I'll most likely never visit another Amazon Books. Not out of boycott, or protest, or principle even. I know the place won't give me what I need, and it turns out that's more than just books. The space itself has to feel a certain way, which is something I've always known, really, but visiting Amazon Books reminded me. It made me want to visit my favorite stores again. To buy books there, and to experience places dedicated to books in a way that feels deeper, and not opportunistic or like I'm nothing more than a possible transaction. And I'll take any chance I get to think about or actually visit my favorite bookstores.



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