This past Wednesday morning I stopped by a brand new Amazon brick and mortar bookstore just up the road in Dedham. I walked out after roughly ten minutes of browsing with nothing to show for it.

I love bookstores. One of my favorite jobs was working for Borders Books & Music in Rockville, Maryland back in the early 1990s before the company went corporate and lost its way. The experience of walking in Amazon’s version of the bookstore could not have felt more alien to me. In fact, as counter-intuitive as this may sound, I don’t believe the overall mission of the store is the sale of books.

The store attempts to recreate the experience of buying books online. Shelves are apparently a thing of the past. Customers are confronted by walls of books with each cover facing out as opposed to the more economical spine out – an indication that maximizing the number of titles for each subject area is of little value.

The History section was a huge disappointment. Books are displayed with no apparent order. There is no breakdown by sub-topic or time period. All titles are equal. A book by Brian Kilmeade on Jefferson is no worse or better than a book by Alan Taylor. Each enjoys a customer review in its favor. From what I could tell, the only thing that unites the titles offered is that they are currently selling well. This is not the place to debate what titles a history section should have. Apart from a new biography of Grant and Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic I couldn’t find a single Civil War title. Oh well.

Please don’t ask if there are any academic press books.

In the end, the store felt more like a portal into the broader Amazon universe than a bookstore. They could just as well have been selling vacuum cleaners and I suspect that this is one of the goals of the customer experience. Enter as a book customer and leave relying even more on Amazon.com for your broader shopping needs. That’s fine.

I couldn’t be more pleased to see that independent bookstores are making a comeback. I certainly don’t expect to find the kind of selection that Borders and other large stores offered back in the 1990s, but I still enjoy the experience of weaving through and browsing shelves of books with my neighbors. Unfortunately, this experience felt nothing like that.

Support your local bookstores.

5 comments add yours

  1. On my recent honeymoon we spent time in NYC, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and St. Martin. My favorite place I visited? The Strand Bookstore in NYC. Spent two hours in that place.

    • You have to drag me kicking and screaming out of that place.

  2. Harvard coop bookstore in Harvard Square just a few years ago had 2 bookcases for Civil War books. Now it’s down to 2 shelves, and that’s the best bookstore in Boston, the only monster bookstore left in the inner city.

    • They recently divided their Civil War books. Books related to battles/campaigns/military leaders are now shelved in Military History. Still, they have reduced the number of titles over the past few years.

  3. Jia Tolentino and the New Yorker discovered the same thing at the new store in Time Warner Center:

    At the right of the shop is a large, Best Buy-esque electronics area that’s mainly dedicated to the Amazon Echo. The Echo section occupies more space in the store than the section dedicated to fiction, which you’ll find on the left. Under the “G”s in the fiction section you’ll find: Roxane Gay, Hazel Gaynor, Paolo Giordano, William Golding, Bryn Greenwood, and Yaa Gyasi. That’s it. Only a handful of authors have two titles featured on the shelves: Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Paulo Coelho, Emma Donoghue, Ernest Hemingway, Jojo Moyes, Liane Moriarty, Haruki Murakami, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Marilynne Robinson, and J. D. Salinger. Only John Steinbeck and W. Bruce Cameron have three titles displayed: Cameron’s are “A Dog’s Purpose,” “A Dog’s Journey,” and “A Dog’s Way Home.” Over all, there are fewer than two hundred titles on offer in the fiction section, and three thousand titles in the store as a whole. For comparison, McNally Jackson, in SoHo, stocks about sixty thousand titles; my favorite indie bookstore—Literati, in Ann Arbor, where I went to grad school—stocks twenty-five thousand, with five thousand titles in fiction. . . .

    The store’s biggest shortcoming, though, is that it is so clearly not intended for people who read regularly. I normally walk into a bookstore and shop the way a person might shop for clothes: I know what I like, what generally works for me, what new styles I might be ready to try. It was a strange feeling, on Thursday, to do laps around a bookstore without feeling a single unexpected thrill. There were no wild cards, no deep cuts, no oddballs—just books that were already best-sellers, pieces of clothing I knew wouldn’t fit me or that I already owned.

    Yeeesh.

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