A few weeks ago, Amazon opened their third bookstore location in Washington Square. I’m not Amazon’s biggest fan (though I am a Prime user, mostly for their TV and music services), but I liked the idea of having another bookstore close to home. Amazon gets a bad rap from some publishing professionals for controlling too much of the book market. And while some days I agree with that sentiment, I was willing to keep an open mind about their bookstore. Maybe it would be awesome.
It wasn’t what I expected.
In fairness, I wasn’t sure what I expected. And going in on opening day negatively affected my perception of the store: it was, in a word, overwhelming. So many people, so many book covers staring at me, so many signs to read… It wasn’t welcoming in the way I thought a bookstore should be. I treat bookstores kind of like libraries. The books should be plentiful, the people few and far between, the noise low. Amazon Books? Totally different.
When I finally found the sci-fi/fantasy aisle, I was confused. Surely there was another section somewhere? Maybe around the corner? But no, there was only the one aisle shown in the picture above. There couldn’t have been more than 200 sci-fi and fantasy titles in the whole store, which is strange to me, considering that I personally own over 50 fantasy and sci-fi books.
Something else that caught me off guard was finding books 2 and 3 of a series, but not book 1. I was assured that customers can order the missing books in a series from the virtual Amazon marketplace, but regardless, the source of this weirdness is an Amazon Bookstore policy: to only stock books with 4-star ratings or higher. (I’m sure they know this, but ratings aren’t everything; Twilight has a 4.2/5 rating on Amazon. Yikes.) Another side effect of only stocking the highest rated books is that I when expected to find an author’s entire collection of works, I only found their few popular ones. There are some readers who would want only the most read books by an author, certainly. But for me, part of the joy of being in a bookstore is stumbling across the unexpected. It’s exploring the shelves and discovering a book that feels unknown to everyone but you.
Amazon Books does not do this. Instead, only the most popular, most loved books are on display, and therein lies a realization: Amazon Books is in it for the money. The store is not comfortable; I found only a few chairs tucked between shelves, in the middle of where people browse. The lighting is new but makes the store feel dark and industrial. Sure, it feels like a new take on a traditional or independent bookstore, but…I don’t think it’s a good take.
From a business standpoint, maybe it is. It promotes visibility of Amazon as a book retailer, and the store does have a technology section which features the Echo, various Kindles, and the Fire TV among other devices. Amazon Books probably generates a lot of money for Amazon. Plus, the Washington Square area hasn’t had a bookstore for a few years; Amazon Books fills that void.
So there are benefits to the store. Perhaps I’m being overly critical. I’ve been in love with Powell’s since I moved to Oregon, and I couldn’t help but compare the two. I love the warmth in Powell’s—I love being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books. At the same time, friends have said Powell’s overwhelms them and makes them claustrophobic. I totally get that. Maybe they would like Amazon Books more?
I was never going to like Amazon Books the same way I like Powell’s. But maybe someone else will.