Exploring the Amazon Bookstore

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.

Well…

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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.

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It’s a Week into Grad School

…And it’s been one heck of an experience. From navigating multiple five-story buildings with mezzanines and skybridges, to learning how to cross the city streets (it’s different in Oregon! Jay-walking is legal!), to working with professors who stumbled into academia rather than pursued it and have industry jobs…. It’s been a little crazy.

Some things haven’t changed, though. Students still rush to their classes; there’s just more of them. The food in the student market is overpriced, but at least there are more choices. And the professors? As expected, they’re really cool.

It’s more than an understatement to say I’m having some culture shock. I’m not used to the huge buildings and giant lecture halls—or elevators, for that matter. The largest class building of my undergrad had a basement and three floors, one of which was barely accessible to students. The largest class I ever had personally was just over 60 students. We barely had any classrooms that could hold that many people. That’s not the case at PSU. They seem to have an excess of large rooms. My current largest class, with an occupancy of about 40 students, occurs in an auditorium with 200+ seats. It’s kind of nuts.

But more than that, the campus itself is simply huge. It spans 50 acres and more than 30 city blocks. The Portland streetcar runs through the campus—literally traveling between the bookstore, the student rec center, and a cluster of restaurants. There are at least three Starbucks on campus. I’ve barely begun to explore my school and already the scale overwhelms me. Part of it is that I’ve never spent much time in cities; I’ve lived in the suburbs all my life. But now I take the Max light rail into Portland four days a week and spend anywhere from four to eight hours each day away from home. And I’m sure that once my classes pick up, my time on campus will increase dramatically.

I still feel good about my decision to pursue a graduate degree at PSU. I might say that I’m more excited about the program now that I’ve started it than I was a week ago. But there’s a huge part of me that hasn’t adjusted to it yet—which, I know, is totally normal. Undergrad was such an easy transition for me. I was ready to leave home, and the classes were pretty much what I expected after taking as many AP courses as I did in high school. I could walk from my dorm to my class in five minutes. Now my commute is sometimes more than an hour each way (granted, it’s on the Max, so I can read or surf the internet while I travel). Most of my new friends in the program live across the city from me. On a campus of almost 30,000 students, a lot of times, I feel solitary in a way I never did in undergrad.

I know, I know. I’ll get used to it eventually. I may even come to love the sprawling campus after my two years are up. But, for the time being, it’s an unexpectedly difficult—yet also exciting—transition. And I look forward to seeing how it all turns out.