The irony of Amazon.com opening a new brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle is not lost on some longtime industry watchers who’ve seen the impact of Amazon on the independent book-selling business over the past two decades.
Amazon Books, the online giant’s first full-fledged brick-and-mortar retail location, opened its doors on Tuesday morning in Seattle’s University Village with an innovative take on the traditional bookstore that uses data to help people find something to read.
But industry experts and booksellers wonder why Amazon is renting space in an upscale shopping mall to re-invent the very type of business the company, in some ways, crushed over the past two decades.
“This goes against everything they’ve always done,” said John Mutter, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the book industry newsletter Shelf Awareness. “They were always going to be an Internet-only thing and not burn themselves with retail outlets. So it really is very striking that they are doing this now.”
Amazon — which started with the mission of selling nearly every book on the planet — is taking a minimalist approach in the 7,400 square-foot physical store. Just 5,000 to 6,000 books will be sold at Amazon Books, a low number compared to other bookstores.
Robert Sindelar, managing partner of independent Seattle-based Third Place Books, said that many customers walk into a bookstore with a specific title in mind versus just browsing through a curated selection.
“They want the immediate gratification of, ‘I came here to get this, I want this now,'” Sindelar explained. “They know that if they’re ultimately just ordering something to be mailed to their house, they can do that whenever. It will be interesting to see if customers act differently in an Amazon store than they would in a different store.”
Amazon is using customer review data from its online hub to pick what to sell at Amazon Books, as almost every book in the store carries a 4-star rating or higher on Amazon’s 5-star scale. The company also utilizes expertise from its own Amazon.com editors and book curators, along with information from Goodreads, the social book review site that Amazon acquired in 2013, to ultimately figure out which titles should be featured at Amazon Books.
Mutter isn’t sure if that strategy will work.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the book retailer that relies on algorithms and readers’ recommendations and cold sales metrics will do in a bricks-and-mortar space, where customers are used to dealing with booksellers who love books and have a lot of personal knowledge of the kind that is that opposite of Amazon’s corporate approach,” he said.
Bill Virgin, who is co-owner of Burien, Wash.-based Page 2 Books with his wife, Jenny Cole, noted that independent booksellers can’t really compete with Amazon on breadth of selection, price, or customer reach. But he said there are certain qualities that something like Amazon Books can’t offer.
“We can do some things Amazon can’t, like serve our local customer base — since Burien and U-Village are a long ways apart, that’s one reason why this isn’t a huge threat,” Virgin said. “We do work with some authors on national and even international sales, but we do a lot of work on hosting local and first-time authors who would get lost and unnoticed on Amazon. We’re also heavily involved with local schools and in community events, all as part of our own strategy to build a loyal and local core of customers.”
Virgin, a business journalist and former longtime columnist for the Seattle P-I, said he sees Amazon’s move “as one more experiment, not a precursor to a huge dive into bricks-and-mortar.”
“That business model’s weaknesses have already been demonstrated by Borders,” he said. “Publishers and bookstores alike are playing around with new models such as pop-up stores and satellite locations. Why wouldn’t Amazon do the same?”
Mutter, the Shelf Awareness publisher, said that for a lot of publishers and independent booksellers, Amazon is “considered the Darth Vader of the business.”
“The fact that they are opening a brick-and-mortar store is not the kind of thing to be celebrated by most people in the book business, frankly,” he noted.
Sindelar of Third Place Books said he’s not sure what impact Amazon’s bookstore will have on the book industry, but given the company’s history, he is a little concerned.
“Bookstores are about the exchange of ideas, and when you get people into an industry like that who don’t necessarily need to make money doing it — this is part of the problem with Amazon in the book industry in the first place — then you can kind of have a bloated presence,” he said.
Too many physical bookstores is “not good for anybody,” Sindelar added.
“Certainly if a store that carries only 5,000 titles all of a sudden extinguishes a store that carries possibly 50,000 titles or more, I don’t think that’s a good for the book-buying culture,” he noted.
Some existing booksellers did see a silver lining in Amazon’s move, as a sign that physical bookstores still have a place in our culture. “I think Amazon opening a physical store shows how that sentiment is not at all dissipating but rather growing, and a integral part of having a successful book selling business,” said Alex Hughes, events manager for Ada’s Technical Books in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
“We hope that if this goes well, if customers love it, we’d love to do it in other places,” she said.
Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos always preaches that the company is “willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.” Independent bookstores, many of which have closed down because of Amazon in the past decade or so, are actually finding recent success. Time will tell if Amazon’s newest experiment turns out to be a brilliant business decision or another Amazon trial that didn’t quite stick.