If You Like Bookstores…

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.


14 responses to “If You Like Bookstores…”

  1. Sounds like heaven on earth!

    1. On one hand I like the idea of a ‘pre-filtered’ selection. On the other hand it was always great to wander through an old bookstore and find a book NOT on any list, a hidden gem lost in the shelves…

  2. I have always put my money on Amazon, over Google, for world domination. Posts like this shore me up. But my question to the science fiction author is this: will the resulting world order be the world’s first Utopian society? Or will there be subversion against the algorithms?

  3. Thanks, Hugh! I’ve been curious what the Amazon physical store would be like and haven’t seen it yet myself. Now I get it.

  4. So if I understand you correctly, you can browse print books and, when you’ve found one you like, take a photo and purchase the Kindle version? Is that using the Amazon or Kindle app? That being the case, I’ll have to visit the Amazon location here in Chicago, which I haven’t gotten around to doing yet.

  5. Great post, man! Loved it. I’ve often said to my significant other that I could live in a bookstore — sleep, eat, cook, and read, write, read, and write some more. There is something about bookstores that I can’t get enough of. Where I live, Portland, we have a bookstore called Powell’s. Now, they have a giant Powell’s Books near downtown, but where I often go is Powell’s Books off of Hawthorne. It reminds me of The Store Around the Corner in Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, “You’ve Got Mail.” It’s my heaven.

    On another note, I wanted to thank you. It was you who got me to write books after I read a piece about you in Writer’s Digest years ago. Since then, I struggled mightily as a Science Fiction writer until the struggles, hard work, constant studying and grinding, figuring out the marketing, blurbs, and cover art, finding great editors, that I’ve finally entered the best-seller category, and my current book is making more money this month than all my other books combined — for the last several years.

    Thank you for helping us writers. Your example has been a beacon of hope and light for us all.

  6. Are they coming to the UK?

  7. One more thing required to make it heaven: sofas! Sofas go with books like a large glass of wine… which sadly they can’t bring to bookshops. And probably shouldn’t be brought to sofas either, come to think of it. But, you know, compromises have to be made… ;)

  8. I like the idea of “If You Like…” shelves, however I do dislike how streamlined and stripped back even my favourite shops like Waterstone’s have become. I LOVE getting lost in bookshops and searching for ages for a book I want. Also, isn’t the point of a good bookseller to point the customer in the right direction for books they think the customer might like? Rather than rely on some algorithm?

    I don’t like how Amazon has undercut physical bookstores by slashing prices and I don’t like the fact they don’t pay enough tax. Some nice ideas here, but yeah… not a fan of this ‘steamlined’ thing.

  9. Glad to hear it was a good experience. Now if they would open a store for indie authors, that would be great!

  10. Wow.

    Actual books to feast your fingers on, but the *right* ones, all at proper online paper and ebook prices?

    Welcome to the customer-minded future. For once.

  11. Unfortunately this will be the demise of the independent bookstores who cannot compete with the cut pricing afforded the big player.

  12. Hey Hugh, good to see you doing well. Have tried to email you with no success. Still a big reader. Best friend got me a subscription to The New Yorker. Good stuff. TTFN, David A.

  13. Enjoy your blog and the work you do, but curious to know if you have spent much time looking into Amazon, the employer. Perhaps it is out of the scope of the topics you cover relating to Amazon.

    In one regard, I agree, they are doing some very interesting things with delivery methods and getting readers linked with authors. Wunderbar! It really is impressive.

    However, an elephant in the room (or is it a gnat on the elephant’s ass?) is their treatment of workers. I see a lot of negative press about how this hugely valued company exploits many of their workers. Did you speak with any workers in that store about their working conditions? That is something I am very interested to know.

    In some regards, I think Amazon is great for giving me a lot of choice and ease of use. But on the other hand, that company also seems to be engaged in status quo (or below) activities of having an exploitation driven workforce when their bottom line suggests that they could also be a leader in the social dimension of paying fair wages for labour.

    For this reason, I don’t use Amazon. If they ever change how their employees are treated, I’d happily jump on the bandwagon.

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