My Trip To An Amazon Bookstore: A Review

Last month, I went to Austin to give a workshop to the local RWA, and while there, I had the chance to pop into a brand spankin’ new Amazon Bookstore.

Now, stepping foot into a physical Amazon bookstore is immediately surreal, in part because Amazon has for so long been a purely digital entity — so, when you enter this space, you become momentarily concerned that you have just shoved your Meatspace Body into a Cyberspace Realm, like you’ve broken some critical rule of reality. “WAIT IS THIS THE MATRIX. IS THIS THE OASIS. IS THIS REAL. ARE MY FINGER-TOUCHES ANALOGOUS TO MOUSE-CLICKS. IF I TOUCH A BOOK DO I BUY IT. AM I JUST TALKING IN BINARY CODE NOW.” (“Sir, you’re being weird,” one of the booksellers helpfully whispers into my ear.)

The other aspect of surreality comes from the fact that all the books are face out.

This is amazing.

This is terrifying.

This is weird.

Bookshelves as a rule are a great way to store books, but not a great way to display books to make them enticing. Authors and publishers gnash their teeth over book cover design, and all for books that are then turned sideways and slotted intimately next to other books, rendering the attractiveness of their covers utterly moot. A shelf is a great way to demonstrate books-as-information-clumps and a poor way to put them forward as tantalizing culture products.

Amazon has solved this by making every book a superstar.

Face. Out.

Glamour Shot.

RAZZLE FUCKING DAZZLE.

Again, this is:

Amazing, because it gives the book covers their due, and makes the books seem as much like art and culture product as they are wads of content.

Terrifying, because I’m pretty sure it feels like all the books are watching you.

Weird, because this is… not how we use bookshelves, generally. It’s so out-of-sync with how we experience bookshelves and bookstores, you get the feeling that the person who set them up doesn’t know what bookshelves do. It’s like seeing someone wear a boot on their hand or use food as a hat — it looks interesting, but it also looks like something a moon alien would do when trying to masquerade as a human meatbag. So, it’s jarring enough to feel like you’re in a bookstore that doesn’t know it’s a bookstore, even though it’s ostensibly a much sassier, sexier way of displaying the books for sale.

“Look at me,” the bookstore says, “I’m a real bookstore.”

“But this isn’t how real bookstores look,” you say.

And then the bookstore morphs into a fist that punches you and a mouth that eats you as you realize far too late that it’s actually just a Mimic from the old-school D&D Monster Manual.  [Edit: or home to the Lurker or Trapper from the same book!]

The other side effect of this display is, of course, that the bookstore features… well, very few books. It’s like an art gallery — you can only hang so many paintings on the wall. A single shelf on a bookshelf with the books spine-out can fit, let’s say, 20-30 books. But you can only display one face-out book per, I dunno, five or six spine-out books, so you’ve seriously limited how many books can be on display.

And what I found there was a mix of three kinds of books:

New, popular books — bestsellers or bestseller-adjacent.

Classic books, like, in SFF, analogous to Dune or ASOIAF or Wrinkle in Time.

Buzzy books, books you have heard about — at least, books you would’ve heard about if you pay attention to books and book-related things.

Folded into those three categories are a reasonable mix of Amazon-specific books, meaning, books published by the various wiggly arms of Amazon Publishing. (I’ll quietly make a sad face here and note that none of my A-Pub books were in the store, but that’s just me being mopey. Still: mope, mope, mope, you can’t stop me from moping, just you try.) My thing when I go into any bookstore now is to go to the SFF shelves and, honestly, look for the work of my friends — like, lately, B&N has been falling down on that front, especially when it comes to new releases. The Amazon store had a mix of SFF cohorts (Myke Cole, Delilah Dawson, Erin Morgenstern, NK Jemisin, and A-Pub author Marko Kloos), but the overall representation was fairly slim. But a great deal of SFF isn’t represented there at all. Again, in part because (I assume) you just don’t have much room on shelves.

(The perhaps ironic component of this is that the online Amazon store is theoretically limitless, while the physical location is eerily finite.)

I can contrast this with two other bookstore experiences —

First, that same day, I visited BookPeople in Austin (and signed some stock there), and that is a well-managed, beautiful store — a lot of stock, huge SFF and horror section with a deep bench for readers and authors. And then their whole children’s section was — *whistles* — imaginative and alive. I wanted to stay, play, frolic amongst the book garden.

Second, with B&N, which I just visited yesterday — our local B&N is starting to worry me. There were a few end-caps and central display shelves that had no books on them at all, giving them a ghost-town feel (and this was on a weekend, when foot traffic was high). And the SFF shelves had very few new releases by authors — no Cat Valente’s Space Opera, nor Fire Dance by Ilana Myer. (Their website says the former is in stock, but the person there didn’t know where, which tells me maybe it was in a box in the back.) This hurts first-week sales and so when B&N does their metric on subsequent books by those authors they’ll cite those first week sales as a reason to not carry the books, which of course wasn’t the author’s fault and — well, you see how it goes.

(Also, B&N feels less and less like a bookstore. My son breaks my heart whenever we go there because he always acts like he forgets they sell books. Which isn’t surprising, given how books are pushed to the margins while the ‘stuff’ like toys and such are brought into the center of the store. I can’t blame him for failing to realize B&N is a bookstore. He has no such confusion at our local indie, Let’s Play Books. Or same with Doylestown Bookshop.)

The Amazon Bookstore is a curious interstitial, then — it’s somewhat sterile, having none of that warm, lived-in reading-nook feel you get from a lot of indie stores. But it’s also surprisingly book-facing. Yes, there’s your standard part of the store dedicated to selling you the Kindle, but the rest is pretty much all books. Very few toys or other dongle-widgets to compete with the books. And this is Amazon we’re talking about. They could use those stores to sell books plus leaf-blowers plus pet food plus stuffed animals plus literally anything else Amazon sells. So, it’s nice to see… a bookstore that displays and sells primarily books in an attractive, book-forward way. But then they kinda fuck that up by putting front-and-center reader reviews and star ratings, which introduces something… off-kilter to the whole proceedings. When I’m in a bookstore I care very much about what the booksellers are reading, not what Guy In Aisle Five likes. And knowing how easily the ratings at Amazon can be manipulated… and having heard that the stores don’t tend to carry books with ratings below four….

…nnnyeah that’s a bit anxiety-inducing as an author.

And all told, there’s something icy and inert about the store. It didn’t really make me want to buy any books? It had that Silicon Valley vibe to it, a too-clean, tech-industry standoffishness. The staff stayed off in corners, talking to one another. The selection was sadly slim and if they had a big space (similar to the old Atlantic Book Warehouses) it might feel like more of a fun shopping experience instead of a sterile book boutique. I didn’t hate it, but didn’t love it. It felt more like an augmented reality experience of a bookstore than an actual bookstore. I don’t mind if more show up elsewhere, but also hope like hell they don’t replace any actual bookstores, because… well, it just isn’t a 1:1 replacement. It can’t be, the way it’s designed. There’s simply more pleasure walking around and exploring a nice indie store or a B&N (especially a well-curated B&N, like the Rittenhouse Square store in Philly) than this place.

(Here is where I make my plaintive cry to support indie bookstores whenever possible. And here you may say, ah, but I have no such store in my area, to which I give the retort: ahhh, oh-ho-ho my good book-buying friend, many such bookstores now ship to you wherever you are. You can find some such bookstores via Indiebound. And if you want signed books by me, you can buy them direct from Let’s Play Books in Emmaus, PA — I’ll sign, they’ll ship. And note if you can’t do a bookstore, always check out the library. You can even ask your local library to order books by your favorite authorpeople.)

25 comments

  • My local Barnes and Noble of late is more stuff than books and the adult science fiction and fantasy sections are pretty dismal. My husband and I used to make an afternoon of it there…..nowadays it’s less than an hour and we generally walk out feeling……sad. Very, very sad.

  • I fucking hate B&N. Of all the brick-and-mortar bookstores that would survive, that it’s them is a fucking baseball bat in the face of authors and book lovers.

    They finance themselves off authors: order a lot of books on first release, then send in returns for credit (which comes off YOUR ROYALTIES dear fellow author). Not having your book in a B&N is a Good Thing.

    And don’t even get me going on having a book they decide to “push” after your previous book sold well. They tell your publisher they will do lots of publicity (signings). And then they DO NOTHING. I have two books they “partnered” on. Went to the local store (not so “local” when you have to drive 30 minutes on the freeway to get there), saw a few of my books there (not with their covers out). Talked to the clerk, identified myself as the author they were supposed to be wanting to promote. Got told “you should talk to our publicist” (who for some reason is never there). Left name and phone number and e-mail, and…
    NADA !!!

    God damn B&N all to hell and may they go out of business soon and motherfuck those motherfuckers.

    That they killed Borders, an actual Good Bookstore, makes me mad as hell every time I think of it.

    The worst bookstore that ever existed, dedicated to killing books, is the only chain left.

    God hates us.

    • While definitely not on the same “level” Books A Million is still alive and well on the East coast.

    • B&N didn’t kill Borders…Borders did a darned fine job of killing themselves: over-expanding, getting into CDs and DVDs when consumers were getting out of them, outsourcing their web site to Amazon (of all places) and failing to grok that ebooks were going to be a thing were all components of their downfall. But I’m not mad at B&N for killing Borders…based on continual and repeated bad experiences back when they were around, I was glad when they died. I preferred some of the chains that Borders bought out (like Waldenbooks, back when they were really their own company (and not a ‘Borders Express’), or at least some of them that seemed well run. Mind you, I’ll favor local book stores every time (which are usually better run, have better/deeper stock and have an actual character).

  • April 17, 2018 at 5:06 AM // Reply

    I am deeply sad that our local village bookstore has just closed due to the tragic, and sudden, death of Richard Nicholls, the owner and only member of staff. This was truly an independent bookstore. There aren’t many British villages that could support a bookstore, but Denby Dale is one of them. Though Richard never had a huge selection of SF/genre books, he had a wide knowledge of the book business and could order-in. Sadly, since Richard had no obvious sucessors, the shop was emptied when the lease ran out, and is going to become a delicatessen. 🙁 Since Borders vanished, we only have Waterstones and WH Smith in the UK. Waterstones is OK, but Smiths is a stationery store with books, as opposed to a proper bookstore. There’s the specialist Forbidden Planet, of course, but only if you’re in London or Birmingham. All this conspires to drive book-buyers towards Amazon.

  • The B & N in Cherry Hill (I work in the Jerz) is actually really nice. There’s also a Talbots nearby so you can pick up a slightly overpriced old lady sweater.

      • I spent five years working in B&N bookstores doing everything from bookselling to managing and I can tell you that yes, the bigger stores tend to be considered “flagship” stores and often have the office of the district manager on-site, usually in a corner in the back adjacent to the cavernous shipping/receiving room. As such, they tend to get more attention and have staffs that are more motivated and attentive. But that was years ago. I got out just before they started becoming more of a department store.

  • One Barnes & Noble that I adore is the one in Baltimore. The building is an old power plant with a view of the harbor with the coolest escalators I’ve ever been on. And it’s huge, so lots of books (in addition to the other stuff)….

  • Depending on the store, you can probably order books through your local indie, which not only makes them aware of authors they might not know but also keeps a portion of your $$s in your local economy. I’ve done that, and it’s a great way to support your favorite author’s new releases. My favorite local indie is a new/used bookstore that has author events and the best selection of greeting cards in town (including cards by local artists). I love to shop there. Friendly people, a small but really nice display of trendy new books, shelves full of cool older (used) books, and a special bookcase just for local authors. The closest B&N is about 30+ minutes of freeway driving away, so I definitely don’t shop there nearly as much as I do my indie.

  • Barnes and Noble with their layoffs in the past year and store changes deemphasizing new books and book stock in general seem to be deliberately going downhill…

  • Living in Austin, I can’t imagine ever shopping regularly at the Amazon store. I go to Book People for the staff, the experience, and book signings. And you’re right about the children’s section; it’s not just inviting, it’s irresistible. I’ve seen Neal Stephenson and Terry Pratchett and Chuck Palahniuk and so many others there. We’re fortunate to have such a place and it’d be criminal not to support it.

    For budget shopping, there’s always Amazon online or Half Price Books (for books by deceased authors). It’s really hard to see where an Amazon brick and mortar fills any need in my book-buying universe.

  • I can’t remember the last time I went into a bookshop that mostly just sold books – and not stationery, games, lottery tickets, toys, DVDs, blah blah blah. These days I think I’d have to travel to a neighbouring city to find one of those. Except for second-hand bookshops, which frankly are more in my price-range as a garret-starving writer. New books I mostly have to source from the library, alas.

  • The first Amazon bookstore opened up in the University Village shopping center in northeast Seattle a couple years ago, only a block from where I live. I think I’ve gone to it exactly three times–usually to accompany a friend or relative who was curious about the store. On all three visits I didn’t purchase anything. In comparison, I’ve been to other Seattle bookstores numerous times, and usually purchased at least one book. Why does the Amazon bookstore not attract me? I hate the bland, limited selection, the extremely narrow aisles, the annoying sales people, the boring clientele (even I feel boring when I go there), lack of author events, and the complete lack of discovery. It’s like an island of misfit books. There are three reasons to shop at Amazon.com for books: large selection, low price, and inexpensive shipping (if you don’t enjoy store shopping). The relatively tiny physical bookshop completely destroys that first reason, and you can get the same price online, oftentimes delivered free to your house, so why bother to go to a soulless store that might as well be staffed by robots?

  • It seems quite strange for Amazon to be providing a store when their whole raisin d’etre has been the literary version of the Borg, both for online reading and ordering hard copy. The shop feels catered for show, judging by your description. A shallow representation of books and inevitably pointing people to the online store of the particular novel they want isn’t in. Is this just an extravagant advertising billboard, like a 3D virtual reality version of advertising? Like you say, the Matrix. Disturbing thought that sloppy bookselling by the book store can neuter a book’s ability. Seems plausible when one thinks about it, but alarming nonetheless, because what recourse would an author or even publishing house have in that regard? This all just reinforces how poorly I have understood book selling in the context of writing. In Australia we have it worse I reckon. Books are horrifically priced, bordering on prohibitive, and there are few options. Outside of Melbourne and Sydney I doubt there are genuinely expansive options for book buyers in the major cities. There’s little in this article to give me hope for the Australian market. Not there’s a direct link, it’s just I can’t see any potential benefit arising. No, ‘oh, that could work really well here too’ type feel. Bothersome.

  • I’m lucky. I live in Eugene, Oregon. We have a whole bunch of indy bookstores in our valley. Everyone knows the owners. It’s as if they’re family. An Amazon bookstore would be interesting. I’m not sure how my town would accept it.

  • Thanks for your thoughts on the Amazon store. I live in Austin and have been meaning to get up there to check it out… but now? I think I just want to go Bookpeople again.

  • Thank you for this — I’m an indie bookseller of 12 years now and I’ve been very curious about the Amazon bookstores. None have opened near me, but this was the most in-depth and honest sounding review I’ve heard so far. And I still feel safe 🙂

  • I went to one of the Manhattan Amazon shops on a recent visit to the US, had a chat with a very helpful staff member and got as far as attempting to buy something only to be told they don’t accept cash. That was genuine US dollars I was trying to pay with, not my fancy exotic Bermuda dollars from home, and they wouldn’t take them. So I left without buying anything and won’t bother even going in for a look in their shops on my future trips. Seems like a flaw in the business model.

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