As posted on Amazon’s new bookstore isn’t actually a bookstore. Please stop calling it a bookstore.
There is an open secret in the book world: Booksellers give the best book recommendations.
I can trace my favorite New York City bookstores by the book recommendations I’ve been given at various bookstores—Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (one of my favorites that I read in 2016), recommended at Three Lives and Company; Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, recommended at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn; rediscovering Harry Potter and The Lord of The Rings at Books of Wonder.
A good bookstore isn’t just a retail outlet — it’s a community space designed to celebrate literature.
“[Bookstores] provide a sense of community for those who love reading, discussing, and sharing thoughts, experiences, and ideas – both their own and those they’ve read about,” says Peter Glassman, owner of Books of Wonder, an independent bookstore in New York City (that also served as the inspiration for You’ve Got Mail). “They provide a refuge – a place to escape from the unrelenting pace of the world around us and allows a person to pause, reflect, examine, and even just read.”
In other words, a good bookstore isn’t just a retail outlet—it’s a community space designed to celebrate literature.
Amazon seemed to missed the memo.
At the end of May, the online retailer opened its first brick-and-mortar bookstore in New York City, the seventh of many such stores the online retailer plans to open throughout the country.
Heralded for years as the mighty destroyer of bookstores, Amazon’s efforts to double down on physical books was inevitable when viewed in the context of recent consumer reading habits. The rise of the ebook was impressive—Time reported in 2010 that ebook sales rose 1,274 percent between 2008 and 2010—but has just about stalled more recently. Print book sales grew 3.3 percent in 2016, a third-straight year for print growth, according to Publisher’s Weekly, while ebook sales have seen some declines.
The ebook ethos, however, still remains. As a physical extension of Amazon.com, Amazon Books IRL promises to be “a store without walls – there are thousands of books available in store and millions more available at Amazon.com.”
Inside Amazon’s New York City bookstore.
Image: HALEY HAMBLIN/MASHABLE
To do this, Amazon Books comes equipped with a few modern touches that tend to enhance the overall experience. First, shoppers can learn more about each book in the store by scanning books or barcodes with the Amazon app’s camera function. The second feature is the ability to pay for your books with your Amazon account, either through your phone (if you’ve already scanned a book) or the card associated with your Amazon account. And if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can get Prime discounts on titles.
But the last—and most distinguishing—feature is Amazon Books’ showcase design. Rather than stocking its shelves like typical bookstores, stuffed with books to browse, Amazon features a showcase layout. Every book in the store faces outward, displaying its cover.
Don’t be fooled. With its new brick and mortar bookstores, Amazon puts Amazon first.
These features are designed to give Amazon customers the most convenient shopping experience possible.
“Amazon puts customers first,” I overheard one bookseller tell two shoppers. But don’t be fooled. With its new brick and mortar bookstores, Amazon puts Amazon first. If you’re a reader, you’re probably going to hate Amazon’s new bookstore.
First, the obvious: by featuring a showcase layout, Amazon Books carries fewer titles than a typical bookstore would, which, like:
Where the books at, Amazon??
Amazon anticipated this problem. To make up for its lack of shelf space, Amazon Books plans to rotate out its book selection every week.
This is a great idea in theory—swapping books in and out means you keep the selection in your store diverse and fresh… except Amazon Books is curating books based on Amazon data and ratings. “Most have been rated 4 stars or above and many are award winners,” writes Amazon.
What that means in reality is that, in addition to the typical shelves like “New Hardcover Fiction,” Amazon Books is filled with shelves like “Hot On Amazon Books” (cool) and “Books with More Than 10,000 Reviews on Amazon.com” (why is this a useful metric?) that leave you thinking, “Okay, we get it, you’re Amazon.com.”
When you compare Amazon’s efforts to even a large chain bookstore like Barnes and Noble, which has curated book tables like “Curious, Odd, Cool” to gamified book tables like “blind date with a book,” Amazon Books’ data-based recommendations feels sterile. After all, a good bookstore isn’t just a place to run in and pick up a book—it’s a place to discover something new.
“You can’t help but wonder [in a bookstore], ‘What am I going to find this time that I never expected to find?'” explains Glassman. “[Bookstores] provide a safe space where ideas and differing opinions are welcome and frequently embraced.”
That’s not to say that using data to curate books is a bad idea. One of the most interesting and engaging parts of Amazon Books is the, “If you like, you’ll love” shelf.
Image: MJ Franklin/ Mashable
This shelf is Amazon Books at its best, and honestly, the most exciting part of about the idea of Amazon launching an IRL space. The best book recommendations are contextual and with this shelf, Amazon compiles some of the most popular books on Amazon, and uses them as a launching point for recommendations for books you may not have heard of.
Buuuttt… at the end of the day, it’s one shelf out of a whole store. And one shelf does not an innovative bookstore experience make.
Amazon’s choice to use the showcase style of presentation for its books is the most superficial and obvious departure from a traditional bookstore, but also belies perhaps the biggest flaw of my experience in the store.
In an effort to spotlight Amazon’s online features, Amazon has crafted a brick and mortar store that seemingly erases booksellers, who are the beating heart of bookstores.
One of the best parts of Amazon Books is that every single book in the store comes with a plaque that has a brief description or recommendation of the book. But seemingly all of those come from an Amazon.com user or sometimes simply the amorphous “Amazon Books.” If a bookseller does add a recommendation, its an impersonal “Staff Favorite: [blank] loves this book,” card tacked onto one of the plaques.
The question that I have is: why would I ever trust “Amazon17” over one of the staff at a bookstore? What I would much rather learn, and what is a much better recommendation, is what about this book struck Alisha so much that she has pulled it out of the hundreds or thousands of books she works with as staff at a bookstore.
This ethos—Amazon.com recommendations first—isn’t just in the plaques dotting the entire store.
Inspired by the great book recommendations that I’ve gotten from various bookstores, I asked one of the staff at Amazon Books for a recommendation, noting that I especially love short stories … and she referred me to Amazon.com, saying she didn’t want to give me a bad recommendation.
I eventually went to another member of Amazon Books’ staff and asked for another recommendation, this time noting that I had just finished a YA novel The Hate U Give. After thinking about it, she walked me to the YA section and picked up Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun. She told me that she liked the book because of the sibling dynamic in the book and then we talked about our own siblings.
It was a small, brief exchange but the first time that Amazon Books stopped feeling like a showroom for Amazon, and felt more like a bookstore.
At the end of the day, Amazon Books tries to toe a tricky line: being a traditional bookstore for readers while also being an IRL convenience-oriented online shopping experience. But sadly for readers, while trying to juggle these competing demands, Amazon fails at both.