Customers shop at the newly opened Amazon Books store in Columbus Circle in New York. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA
Drop in for a book. Walk out with a smart watch.
Shopping in one of Amazon’s brand-new, three-dimensional bookstores affords visitors the opportunity to buy many things that aren’t books. A hands-free sous vide, for example. Or a tablet computer. Or a smart speaker equipped with Amazon’s “Alexa” virtual butler app.
At a grand opening Thursday for Amazon’s first bookstore in New York City, the mystery in the air was why a company that had changed the world by taking retail sales online would reverse direction and move into brick-and-mortar. The New York location is the seventh Amazon bookstore to open nationally since 2015, with six additional stores planned to open by the end of the year.
It’s clearly a bookstore chain. The question is: what are they selling? And what greater strategy may be afoot?
Setting aside for a moment those questions (spoiler alert: Amazon declined to directly comment), the Guardian encountered the new retail space, inside the Time Warner Center mall at Columbus Circle, on its own terms, through customers’ eyes.
It looks like a modern bookstore, with a table of featured titles up front (The Oxford Companion to Wine, Trevor Noah: Born a Crime, etc) and ranks of shelves organized by the usual categories (fiction top sellers, travel, ages 3-7, etc).
‘I think it’s so ironic that so many wonderful bookstores were put out of business because of them, and now they’re opening up a bookstore,’ said one customer. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
There are some distinctly Amazon – and passing strange – features, such as technology stands where customers can scan books to see what kind of a discount they might get as members of Amazon Prime, the subscriptions program.
Also unique here: the section called “Page turners: books Kindle readers finish in three days or less”. Amazon can track how quickly people who purchase books on Kindle read them, a company spokesperson explained, without explaining how.
Matt Lantin, 21, an economics major shopping for self-help books, admired how every book at the store was displayed so that its full cover, and not just its spine, was visible. At Amazon Books, every title is a featured title.
“They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case, not only can you see the cover, but you can also see the review below it,” Lantin said, after requesting a moment to compose his comment.
Displaying books face-out, however, eats up shelf space fast. At 4,000 square feet, the Columbus Circle store features 3,000 titles at any time, according to the company. Further gobbling shelf space: about one-quarter of the retail floor is given over to sales of non-books. That includes things like Bose speakers, French presses and instant cameras, but also a lot of Amazon hardware: Kindles, hard drives, the aforementioned smart speakers and the Amazon Fire, the company’s bestselling answer to the iPad.
Yvonne Reid, 54, who works elsewhere in the Time Warner complex and had stopped in to see whether she could pick up a copy of Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life … And Maybe the World, judged the bookstore to be “beautiful”, but lacking in hangout space.
“I’m sorry that they don’t have more space where kids can come and sit and read,” said Reid, who reminisced about spending hours at Barnes & Noble when her kids were younger. “This does seem like more of a take-your-book-and-run kind of a thing.”
The arrival of Amazon bookstores, Reid noted, was part of a bigger picture.
“I think it’s so ironic that so many wonderful bookstores were put out of business because of them, and now they’re opening up a bookstore,” Reid said. “But I think it’s nice.”
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on that observation.
Dan Simon, the founder and publisher of the New York City-based Seven Stories Press, said Reid’s comment was accurate.
“They really did drive bookstores out of business,” said Simon, noting that Amazon added on to damage previously inflicted by big chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble.
“But the upside of that was after 30 years, what we have now is a culture of bookselling that has survived all those things, and is incredibly vibrant and tough. There’s a small-business acumen among booksellers in the US today that is unmatched.”
Simon (a former colleague of this reporter, it should be disclosed) welcomed the advent of Amazon Books.
“It’s such a dynamic time now in the marketplace of books that on one side, another sort of bookstore is a good thing, plain and simply,” he said. “We want more physical bookstores.
“On the other side, it’s important to note that these stores are pretty small. Four thousand square feet – it’s not tiny, but the superstores were like 25,000, 30,000 square feet. So this is a small store. It’s not going to have a wide selection.”
About one-quarter of the retail floor is given over to sales of non-books. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Official Amazon verbiage says the bookstore “is all about discovery” and offers readers a connection “to a community of millions of booklovers” whose reviews of the books on sale are displayed in the store. But like everything else in the store, you don’t have to leave home to get that: those reviews are available – and more readily – online.
Meanwhile, Amazon is in a battle of giants, vying with Google and Apple for markets such as consumer technology that dwarf the market for books. The brick-and-mortar retail experience is central to Apple’s strategy. Google has opened pop-up stores and is increasingly focused on physical stores.
“Our goal of Amazon Books is to help customers and readers discover great books,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
Among all the hundreds of millions of products Amazon sells, Simon said, there are good reasons the company would choose to sell books in physical stores. The stores strengthen the company’s hold on the growing self-publishing market, ensuring a physical retail outlet for those titles, he said. Books were Amazon’s original product. And books are unique.
“The store points up one of the great truths of this historical moment in books, which is, even though Amazon is probably selling about half the books that are being sold, the online experience is not really a good one for books,” he said. “Plenty of people buy everything online, but not books. Because you want to touch them, you want to open them up. You want to hold them in your hand. You want to discover things that you aren’t looking for.”
Reid, the drop-in customer, said there was no second-guessing Amazon’s decision.
“I love the bookstore,” she said. “You can actually touch the book.”