On Tuesday, November 2, online retailer Amazon.com opened its first brick-and-mortar retail storefront since it began selling books on the Internet 20 years ago. Invoking the company’s own origins, Amazon has created a bookstore, modest in size and appearance and with an actual brick-and-mortar facade, that inhabits the space recently occupied by the conveyer belt-driven Blue C Sushi at University Village.
At first glance, the store suggests the kind of friendly, mom-and-pop establishment that Amazon has long been accused of putting out of business. In spite of its sterile, Starbucks-like appearance, the place aspires to an intimacy more reminiscent of Kay’s Bookmark—the shopping center’s original bookstore that closed 20 years ago—than the complex’s giant and more recently shuttered tenant Barnes & Noble.
We have grown so accustomed to shopping online, we tend to forget how radically Amazon has transformed retail commerce. But here, in the company’s first storefront retail establishment, the innovations evident are not groundbreaking but mere extensions of an existing Internet infrastructure.
Discreetly embossed signs inform us that the store’s selections, groupings and arrangements have been determined (or perhaps curated) by the company’s deep metrics. The books, all of which are presented with their covers facing outward as we would find them online, are advertised as recipients of cumulative customer ratings of 4.5 stars or more and each is presented with a succinct and enthusiastic customer review culled from the website. Prices are not listed anywhere but can be obtained by scanning the barcodes at the price check kiosk or on your smartphone’s Amazon app. Serious shoppers looking for broad selection or hoping to discover new titles on the shelves are better off visiting the company’s website from home or work.
But Amazon Books has likely been imagined as a retail outlet for those who require an up close introduction to the company’s limited but growing line of consumer electronic devices, not the first place one goes to buy a cookbook or fiction best seller. With the capacious and oppressively lit Apple and Microsoft stores nearby, Amazon has designed a far more agreeable atmosphere to hawk its wares. For those who wish to test drive the latest iteration of the Kindle Fire, the surrounding book covers create warmth, color, visual interest and muffled sound. The oak stain of the laminated shelves, the earthy palette of the walls and carpet, the comfortably low light and the unobtrusive but helpful sales staff all demonstrate that Amazon knows what constitutes a pleasant retail environment.
Unlike the departed Barnes & Noble, however, there are no espresso machines or comfortable leather reading chairs.
As a personal aside, I should note that I worked at Amazon.com for three years in the late '90s, when Time Magazine chose founder and CEO Jeff Bezos as its Person of the Year. I distinctly remember a meeting during which Bezos was asked if he thought brick-and-mortar businesses would disappear completely as more and more shoppers turned to online retailers. “Absolutely not,” he said. He described visiting Harrod’s and posited that successful stores would reinvent themselves by creating a special experience for consumers that would resemble something more akin to entertainment.
I thought of this last year when I was doing some last-minute Christmas shopping at Powell’s Books in Portland. The sprawling, multi-leveled store was as busy as I had ever seen it in my three decades of shopping there. When I finally made it to the register, I made a joke to the young cashier about the rumors of the death of the bookstore being greatly exaggerated. She laughed and likened her place of employment to a theme park that drew people from around the world eager to experience the thrill of shopping at an authentic bookstore.
While no one would mistake the sober and quaintly generic Amazon Books for Harrod’s or even Powell’s, the company has taken the enhanced consumer experience idea seriously here. But the experience manifests itself as a superficial backdrop for selling products that download digital content.
The store was busy on the Friday night I stopped by but there were few customers lining up at the cash register. Perhaps visitors wanted to investigate the local retail giant’s latest move or were simply looking for a refuge from less enjoyable and more stress-inducing shopping venues.
The liveliest section of Amazon Books was the large children’s area, where books were separated by age and reading level along the shelves. For those of us who have struggled to buy books for children, the arrangement was anxiety free and easy to navigate. But did it matter? At a kid’s reading table in the center of the room, two tiny girls had tuned out these surroundings (as well their parents, who were eager to return home) in favor of the store’s Fire Kids’ Edition Kindles available for them to use there.
While a book lover and bookstore enthusiast might grow dismayed at such a sight, there were other, more encouraging scenes playing out in the store. Around the corner from the Fire-absorbed girls, I saw a young couple, possibly UW undergraduates, sitting together on the floor. The woman, wearing a blue knit hat over her long black curls, leaned up against the handsome, peacoat-wearing guy and read a children’s book to him out loud. It reminded me that bookstores will remain enchanting places, regardless of what Amazon cares to do about it.