Amazon Explores the Brave New World of Brick and Mortar Book Sales

| The Back Page

Did you hear the one about night being day, up being down, black being white, and Amazon opening up a brick and mortar book store? It turns out one of those things is true—earlier this week, Amazon opened its first brick and mortar book store in the tony confines of Seattle’s University Village.

Amazon Books

Amazon Books in Seattle's University Village
Source: Amazon

If you're not familiar with Seattle, but University Village rings a bell, that could be because it boasts an Apple Store, which then led to Microsoft opening up one of its retail stores across the street. I'll get into Apple-envy later in the piece, but the first question is why Amazon is going back to the future by dipping its toes into the antiquated world of brick and mortar stores.

Online Discovery Is Awful

The first thought that crossed my mind is that Amazon is tacitly admitting online discovery is unsolvable. I have long been of the belief that browsing books in a book store (or library) is infinitely preferable to shopping online. Same is true for music for me, though less so.

At the same time, I want ebooks instead of physical books. For years, I've been thinking about how awesome it would be if I could go into a Barnes & Noble, browse the shelves, and buy an ebook version of my selections. I won't say out loud that I wanted an ebook version with my physical book so I could own the former and read the latter, because that might reveal my OCD to the world.

Oops. Was that my out loud voice just now?

Getting both versions for the same price was never in the cards, however, because publishers want money for both copies. Absent my penchant for collecting books, the next best thing would be to browse book shelves, look at the covers (I'm weak! I admit it), read the book jackets, and then buy the ebook. That would have kept me a Barnes & Noble customer rather than an Apple iBooks customer.

That was doomed when Barnes & Noble separated its Nook ebook business. That was when I knew that if I was ever going to get that experience it would have to come from an independent book store, but that scenario didn't seem likely, either.

Yet here's Amazon doing just that. Amazon Books features thousands of books, many with their covers facing customers. Those books feature a placard with its Amazon rating (there will be an emphasis on 4 and 5 star books), a quote from an Amazon review (which is clever), and a bar code so you can order the book online, get the Kindle version, or add it to your Wish List.

Amazon Books Placard

Rating, Quote, and Helpful Barcode for Ordering on
Source: Amazon

Boom! As a book lover, that's where it is! Amazon, a company I have criticized for years for encouraging "showrooming," or the idea of using other companies' brick and mortar stores to browse and look at items and then order them from Amazon, is showrooming itself, and that's something completely different. In fact, it's great.

Amazon is marrying its best-in-class inventory management and customer-understanding to a physical showroom where we can browse in a way that offers a better book browsing experience. I like it, even if I prefer Apple's iBooks app to Amazon's Kindle app on my iPad.

Next: Apple Envy and Apes

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  I have long been of the belief that browsing books in a book store (or library) is infinitely preferable to shopping online.

Absolutely correct. If I may be allowed a slight digression…

Back in the late 1980’s I had gone back to college at the U of MN. The primary class I took was Palaeontology from Dr. Sloan. This class was a lot of lab work, and lectures but the majority of the grade was a term paper. We’d take a clade and explore it’s evolutionary history in detail. This meant a lot of days in Walter Library hunting up books.

Walter Library was a large almost cubical building with lots of marble and old wood, reading rooms, and periodical rooms.But two thirds of the building was dedicated to The Stacks. The Stacks was a huge bookcase. The ceilings were low and the rows narrow. There were twelve levels in the book case I think, and access between levels was by narrow wobbly stairs steep enough to almost be ladders. You could see through the bookshelves into the levels above and below. It was dim and spooky. It smelled of musty books and dust. There were corners with little built in tables where you could read undisturbed and a few windows where you could, if you really wanted to, peer out into the grey Minnesota winter. the Stacks would not have been out of place in Diagon Alley.

I loved the place.

You’d find the listing of the book you wanted in the card catalogue or periodical index and then go into the stacks in search of your quarry. The interesting thing was that often the book next to it on the shelf was more useful than the one you were looking for. I’d spend whole days in The Stacks hunting up lead after lead. Often I’d find one lead and a citation within would send me off searching for the next, and so on and so on. I was in heaven.

Then in the late 1990’s they decided that Walter Library needed a remodelling. They went to a closed stack model where you find your book online, put in your request online and then the librarian would go up and find the book. The result? The magic was gone. It was now just another impersonal place. As homey as a McDonalds. And the biggest advantage of the old model was gone too. No one would know if the book next to the one they asked for would be more useful. Walter Library went from a wonderful place of exploration and discovery, to a literary fast food joint.

I still mourn the loss.

So yes I still prefer physical bookstores over online ones too. But with what Amazon has done to the book industry I don’t think I’ll be hitting their new store.


Then geoduck, I assume you wouldn’t like NC State’s implementation?

Forget the librarian. Use the bookBot.


Ugh that’s awful. The part that got me though was where it said:

Requiring 1/9 the space of conventional shelving, the bookBot helps transform this 21st-century library from a storage facility into a rich environment of learning and collaborative spaces.

When it’s doing precicely the opposite. The books and dealing with books in the stacks is how you learn and explore, and yes, in a real way collaberate. I ran into a good number of people in the stacks searching for the bound copies of Nature or the section on Astrophysics and we’d get to talking.

What’s my idea of a perfect library? Try this for a start. The library from Ghost in the Shell:
Expand it to multiple levels and you’d have a place I’d love to wander.


I’m with you, geo. A physical version of the crappy online systems we have is not better, in my opinion. User reviews populated with the opinions of 12-year -olds (bless their hearts) that have learned how to use their smart phones or folks complaining about the insufficiency of their devices to run content are less than useful and totally throw off the curve. I think it may be too late to remedy the show rooming situation. All that any of this smacks of to me is Amazon tightening its choke hold, I’m actually hoping they are unsuccessful with their endeavor.

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