I must confess, it’s been ages since I’ve been inside an honest-to-God, actual brick-and-mortar bookstore. Most of my browsing–and reading–is done via digital devices these days. Still, I was curious about the retailer’s new “real” bookstore (it opened in Seattle in November) and, living in this corner of the world, I felt duty-bound to check it out.
Amazon Books lives in University Village, an upscale outdoor shopping mall near the University of Washington. Super Bowl Sunday seemed as good a time as any to make an excursion. Who’d browse a bookstore then?
Turns out, everybody.
You’d think even university types would be stocking up before the big game, mobbing the nearest Whole Foods or local farmers market in a last-minute run for kale chips and soy cheese whiz and organic small-batch ginger beer.
People were stocking up inside Amazon Books. Like preppers hoarding canned goods for the coming zombie apocalypse, they scurried across the authentic, “real bookstore” hardwood in an anything-but-football frenzy to get their hands on the printed word in time for kickoff.
The introverted loner in me shuns crowds, even crowds of fellow bookworms. I did a quick once-around and left.
Still, I wanted a closer look. So a few days later I donned my pink trench coat and, looking to indulge my penchant for snooping, returned to the scene. (Yes, this was what I did with my 60-degrees-and-sunny-in-Seattle-in-February day off. How I suffer for my art.)
And what did I find at Amazon Books?
Ta-da! A bookstore.
A bookstore with the Amazon brand written all over it, but still, a bookstore.
First, a sign greets you in the entry letting you know that all prices are the same as on Amazon.com.
Next, all books–not just a featured few–have covers, not spines, facing front.
Ah, so many shiny, happy faces. I loved the covers-out method of display. It makes for a better browsing experience even if it means fewer titles fit on a shelf. Covers sell books. And, say one thing for print, it’s fun to run your fingers over said covers, though I was surprised how few actually had raised lettering or other textured features.
Look even closer and you see that on the shelf in front of each title is a card bearing an excerpt from a customer review (wonder if they verified those?) plus the number of reviews and the average star rating. In some cases, in lieu of showing a review quote, the card announces an award the book has won.
Though most books had high-four-star averages, not all had thousands or even hundreds of overall reviews. Some only had a few dozen. And only one review per book was excerpted. Frankly, zero out of one persons found this helpful. Seeker of truth that I am, I like to read the negative as well as the positive reviews before I buy.
And what, no sliding parade of also-boughts running underneath?
Yet more signs direct you to scan a book to find out its price. There’s a standing scanning device available in the aisle (think Macy’s). You can also use your phone’s Amazon app to scan for price.
At 5,500 square feet, the space is not–ahem–Amazonian, but it’s hardly cramped, either. The aisles were somewhat short but not too short, and there are displays on corners and in front of windows. Unlike my previous visit, my second visit came on a weekday afternoon when I had plenty of elbow room. And plenty of staff buzzing about offering help, but since I was being surreptitious, I remained content to wander on my own.
There are the usual aisle groupings by genre, but also distinctly Amazon ways of divvying up the selection, too. For example, one shelving unit boasts “classics recommended on Goodreads.” Another table features books rated 4.8 or above. Why 4.8? Why not 4.7? And do they update their signage in the store as regularly as the site updates its data? What if a book’s rating slips?
All this I could take or leave but there was one thing I was dying to know, one thing I wanted to see if I could find. How much did brick-and-mortar Amazon truly resemble online Amazon? I milled around and around the general fiction section, looking and looking, when at last something caught my eye. Hmm, drab cover taking itself much too seriously. Life-is-grim-and-then-you-die title. Literary fiction, sure, but could the pared-down look also bespeak possibly, maybe, that most elusive of creatures, a self-published paperback? In a “real” store where there should be only “real” books?
I checked the spine. No sign of a publisher’s logo. I check the copyright page. Copyright 2015 by the author. No publishing info other than the author’s name in sight. Ditto no list price.
I pulled out my phone, opened my Amazon app and looked up the title. Was it really? Could it be? Then, bingo, there it was. ISBN, CreateSpace. Gasp! It was! A self-published book. Highly rated, critically acclaimed and, no doubt, successful.
Now how did that get in here?
I kept going, browsing random trade paperbacks, checking spines, flipping to copyright pages. I found three more self-published works in general fiction and one in poetry. General fiction! And none, oddly enough, in the genres. (Though I did only look in mystery/thriller and romance.)
Gotta love the Zon.
Amazon, of course, has its own publishing imprints and I did spy a few of its notable reads on display, though not glaringly so. Among them were new release The Restaurant Critic’s Wife by Elizabeth LaBan in women’s fiction, and bestseller Crazy Little Thing by Tracy Brogan in romance.
I knew TRCW from browsing on the Amazon site. I’d read the sample and reviews and put it on my mental to-read list. The ebook retails for $3.99. I picked up the trade paperback version and ran it over to the scanner. (Note: no prices printed on the Amazon-pubs or indie-pubs that I saw.) Current price for TRCW in trade paperback: $8.36, marked down from $14.95. (Just like the website.)
Tempting, but I wanted to do more snooping.
I spent about thirty minutes in the store. I stuck mostly to fiction, but they had a children’s section and cookbooks and celebrity bios, et cetera, et cetera.
Oh, and Kindles.
No, I did not see Jeff Bezos.
How effective did I find the brick-and-mortar Amazon shopping experience?
All in all, I’m not sure how well the whole “filtering-results” algorithmy online style translates in the flesh. Some of it seemed helpful (covers facing out) and innovative (price scanning) and some of it seemed gimmicky. And indie authors on the shelves, even if only a precious few. I’m not complaining.
Like I said, gotta love the Zon, whatever it is they’re up to here.
Yet did I actually buy that paperback of The Restaurant Critic’s Wife on sale for $8.36? Nah. At $3.99, I’ll download the e-book. I have enough print tomes gathering dust on my own wood shelves at home, thank you very much.