Thoughts on the Amazon Bookstore

amazon store

Amazon opening a physical, real world bookstore feels kind of weird, right? Almost like history is happening in reverse.

For the moment, Amazon Books is probably just a highly interesting experiment — similar to other recent attempts to cross the divide from online to brick and mortar — but if the experiment catches on, it could represent a new stage in the evolution of bookstores.

There’s something about the movement of online to offline* that feels different with Amazon, though. The Atlantic (“Did Amazon Just Replace the Public Library?”) talks about how some of that online curating shapes up in the physical bookstore, but it’s not clear to me how online browsing habits translate to how we browse in actual stores: “The selection of books on display, too, is determined by the community. (‘The books in our store are selected based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments,”’Amazon notes.) Instead of the Employee Picks shelves that are mainstays at local bookshops, Amazon’s store gives prominent placement to books that are “Highly Rated (4.8 Stars & Above).

amazon physical store

There’s even speculation of coordinating author book signings in specific regions with Amazon bookstores, which if done right is actually kind of brilliant, considering the kind of data Amazon has at its disposal with GoodReads and years of user behavior data. Which authors would most likely generate the biggest crowds? When are the optimal times to schedule an author talk during the week? How much is an author talk worth in terms of book sales? The possibilities are tantalizing! And hey, I’d shop at an Amazon bookstore — combining crowd-sourced reviews with prices sounds rather appealing at first glance.

Ars Technica (“Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store: One big ad for the Amazon app”) wrote up their account on their visit to the Amazon bookstore, deciding that it felt too much like a gadget store than a bookstore. But then again, isn’t this already a reality of many present-day bookstores? Larger bookstore retailers sell books, but they also sell book-related content, and that often includes the devices that we read our e-books on. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Marketwatch (“Amazon’s new Seattle store can help sell books and promote products”) has a similar response: “it’s more of a Kindle store disguised as a bookstore.”

The Atlantic in that previously mentioned article, has some useful thoughts on community towards the end (you can probably skip the weird beginning paragraph about Apple religious revivalism):

“Which is also to say that Amazon Books is trying to be a place of community — a place where people will meet and hang out. A place that celebrates both introspection and extroversion. A place much like Apple’s buzzing, light-flooded, free-wifi-enabled temples — only with the tech gadgets on display being, for the most part, books.”

Here’s the most interesting part — what if the Amazon bookstore, with its unusual blending of physical space and curated online community reviews, starts to nudge how libraries function?

“But it also means that Amazon Books could become something else in the process, emulating institutions that have been their own kinds of cathedrals: libraries. Which have traditionally been just what Amazon is aiming to create: spaces that are premised on books, but realized by community. The books here may be bought rather than borrowed, certainly, but in terms of the space created, the goal is the same. Amazon Books is a store doing the work of a cultural institution. It’s about commerce, yes, but it’s also about collectivity. It is, in form if not in name, a library. And its librarians are the same people who serve as curators for fellow customers.”


* Speaking of which, all of this reminded me of another phenomena: “We Need a Word for That Thing Where a Digital Thing Appears in the Physical World” (also via The Atlantic)


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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