I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in bookstores. When I was a kid, I made loitering in bookstores an artform. There were holes in the carpets of my local Waldenbooks in the shape of my butt. Later in life, I practically lived in the Barnes & Noble my mom managed. That lasted until I started working in my own B&N throughout my college years. After a career in yachting, I worked in an indie bookshop while working on my novels.
I spent much of these working hours dreaming of opening my own bookstore one day. I had a vision of what a bookstore could be. When I worked in my last bookshop, Amazon was already the 900 lb. gorilla in the bookselling biz, but I knew there was a way to coexist. People still wanted to wander in and discover something new to read. Curation and physical browsing were the advantages of small shops. My beloved Waldenbooks went out of business because of the failure of their parent company. I blogged years ago that this was a premature death. I also blogged about my ideal bookstore. I thought I’d have to build it one day.
Thank goodness, someone beat me to it.
On 34th street in Manhattan, between 5th and 6th, there’s a bookstore like no other. If you think Amazon’s foray into bookstores is a bad idea, or a loss leader, or just a place to showcase their electronics, or a fad that will crash and burn, you are wrong, wrong, wrong.
I didn’t quite know what Amazon’s play here was. I didn’t know what to expect when I dropped into the store. What I found was a revelation. And if you’re traveling to New York, you should add this shop to your to-do list. If you love bookstores, you’re going to love what Amazon has built.
Every book in the store is face-out. Every book in the store has a 4+ star review average. The shelf talkers (those little cards beneath the books) have a blurb from an online customer review. There are no prices on the books; you pay the current price on Amazon, which is almost always lower than the list price. Both times I visited this store (and I went to the one at Columbus Circle as well), the place was packed. These shops are going to make Amazon money; they are going to sell tons of books; they are going to become the recognizable bookstore chain across the country and probably around the world.
You know it the moment you step inside.
The hallmark of a successful bookstore is simple: It pairs readers with books they’re excited to read. What Amazon has done here is nothing short of brilliant: They’ve reduced the number of books available to the shopper. Where B&N and Borders would assault you with choices (and yet rarely have the particular book you were looking for), Amazon is going against the grain of their online bookstore, all while leveraging the big data mined from its online shoppers. The paradox of choice is that it disinclines us to choosing at all. Research shows that too many options causes shoppers to walk away empty-handed. At this shop, it feels like you can’t lose. Every book is selected to please. And Amazon knows better than any other bookseller which books are pleasing readers the most.
One of my favorite sections in the store reminds me of the “also-boughts” on Amazon.com. You know, the books suggested beneath whatever book you are currently browsing. The way they laid this out is brilliant: you’ve got a column of widely popular books on the left side of a bank of shelves, and on the rest of each shelf you’ll find several books you may not have heard of that are similar, or that share a theme. If you’ve read any of the books on that shelf, the other books will probably appeal to you.
This was my job as a bookseller for years. A customer would come in and say they loved THE HUNGER GAMES, and I would walk them to a book that I liked that I felt was similar. My skill at matching book and reader depended on my breadth and depth of reading. In the Amazon bookstore, you’ve got millions of people walking you through your shopping decisions. Every customer review, and every purchasing decision have gone into the curation of this store. On top of this, there’s an editorial staff making decisions with fewer of the biases of a New York Times bestseller list, and less of the corporate ills of merchandising dollars. Just. Great. Books.
Oh, and some questionable ones:
There’s a great children’s section that takes up an eighth or so of the store, with comfortable carpet for young butts to wear holes through. There are chairs to sit in to read with a loved one on your lap. There are unique sections with clever themes, and a New York section in this store, so some of the local curation that B&N never got right. The devices, of course, are here, but what amazed me is that they’re less intrusive than most of the Nook spaces I’ve seen in B&Ns. And far fewer games and toys. This is a bookstore built by people who love books. Cynics often accuse Amazon of not caring about books, and I challenge them to visit this store and cling to that myopic view.
I used to give a talk about the history of bookselling, and I closed the talk with my rock, paper, scissors theory of bookstore disruption. In this theory, small bookshops were disrupted by big box discounters, whose selection and pricing advantages were too much to compete with. Curation was not enough to retain customers who wanted better selection and lower prices. Then Amazon came along with far greater selection and even lower costs, and the big box discounters were hammered. This has led to the resurgence of small bookshops with their expert curation and physical locations.
The Amazon bookstore changes everything. Now you’ve got even better curation, but with the same online prices. You’ve got a shop where no customer loyalty card is needed, because the register knows you’re a Prime member the second you swipe any card you’ve used on Amazon. You’ve got a bookstore that will improve your online recommendations even as you shop offline. Perhaps the best part for me, as someone who is looking to discover new books that I’ll read on my Kindle later, you’ve finally got a bookstore that encourages you to whip out your phone to take pictures of the covers of books. I was 1-clicking new reads to my Kindle right there in the store!
I came away from my first Amazon bookstore with a book in a bag and five other books downloaded to my Kindle. I also walked out onto 34th street with a smile on my face. This bookstore was nothing short of a revelation. I understand where Amazon is going with this, and it isn’t just a shipping hub, or an advertising play, or an electronics showcase. Those are ancillary benefits. What this is is simply a company that sells more books than anyone else who saw — even better than I did — how to sell more of them. How to please even more readers.
Now, when I pull into New York harbor on Wayfinder in a couple of years, I won’t need to open my own bookstore. I’ll just come fill out an application at this one. Or maybe at the shop in downtown Brooklyn that I hope they’ve opened by then.