I am old enough to remember when the default method of purchasing a book was to go to a place called “bookstore.” Here in the Amazon Era, going to a bookstore feels…different.
For the most part, for me, going to a bookstore today means going to Barnes & Noble at the Grove in Los Angeles. If you don’t know what the Grove is…well, you should. It’s the best. At one point I would have scoffed at it (but still probably gone to it); now I embrace it. It’s a mall that is outside and styled after a European shopping district, with bricks and cobblestones and a dumb trolley and a dancing fountain with a few koi that may or may not be terrified of the dancing fountain (If you don’t know what a dancing fountain is, well, that’s okay). The Grove is also one of the top three malls for spotting Angelenos with excessive money, and number one in the subcategory of those with excessive money who are likely to be seen walking an expensive toy dog wearing shoes. I have yet to see a dog wearing shoes anywhere other than at the Grove, where I have seen it a total of three times, on a different dog each time.
There was a time when I was younger when I probably pretended to resent Barnes & Noble. That would have been when there were still enough independent bookstores for people to worry about them being run out of business by Barnes & Noble and Borders. But when I first moved to New York, the Barnes & Noble at Astor Place was an oasis. Before I knew anybody, and to a slightly lesser extent after I knew people, I spent a lot of time wandering around downtown Manhattan, often within some close orbit of Astor Place. Barnes & Noble was a beacon because I could go to the bathroom there without being noticed; and easy bathrooms were hard to come by downtown. And of the three Starbucks outlets within one block of Astor Place, the Starbucks inside the Barnes & Noble was the one where I could sit around and look at books and magazines without buying them. To put an approximate date on this period, one day I saw a line extending far down the block from Barnes & Noble, and it was for Dave Eggers signing copies of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” I recognized Dave Eggers as the name of the guy who had a weird little comic in the SF Weekly, and I was surprised to learn he was a writer. I did not wait in that line, though, and I still have never read that book though I did read a couple of his other books and for a while I was a big fan of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Many years after I saw that line I did get a signed copy of Dave Eggers “What is the What,” which I picked up off the shelf of the independent Skylight Books in Los Angeles, but it had already been signed and I didn’t have to wait in line. I don’t like lines.
Today when I frequent Barnes & Noble I don’t even feel pretend guilt. Since the rise of Amazon, Barnes & Noble feels like a hopeful little Mom and Pop operation, one that I hope has the gumption and income to stay afloat against all odds. I buy a book there when I can, though – because of Amazon – I get annoyed when I go there and they don’t have every and or any specific book I might possibly want to buy. Amazon sells every book that could possibly exist, and I am used to that; so when I go to Barnes & Noble, I am briefly astounded to find that they have only the most recent novel published by Daniel Kehlmann, instead of all of them. “What are they thinking?” I think. Well, they are not thinking; not that Amazon is. I assume Barnes & Noble could order a book for me; they have the internet. But Amazon is the internet.
And then there’s the Amazon Bookstore.
If the Grove is the outdoor mall for excessively moneyed types who want to flaunt their wealth and designer dogs with shoes, and who crave celebrity-level recognition whether or not they are celebrities, Century City is the mall for excessively moneyed people who want to exercise the power of that wealth for their own enjoyment, without having to worry about stepping on a dog’s shoes. It is also the home of the Amazon Bookstore. The first time I saw the Amazon Bookstore, I treated it like a joke. I walked by and scoffed or snorted and thought some ironic half-thought, much more interested in whatever I was headed towards than in finishing the thought. The Amazon Bookstore is far from the most interesting place in the Century City mall, but, I now know it is not a joke. It is the truth. And since it is the truth we must all bear witness to it. Just don’t buy anything there for Christ’s sake, the place sucks.
There was a time when the internet first became ubiquitous, and there was a time when people realized they could make shitloads of money by selling things on the internet. I am always a few steps behind technologically, I was not really present for either of those revolutions. Perhaps that’s why I’m so eager to make the Amazon Bookstore my 2001 monolith, a rectangle I don’t fucking comprehend but that definitely makes me want to beat on my fellow apes’ heads with the nearest tapir femur. Somewhere in that fancy food court there must be the decently sized rib-bones of a free-range bison. But I digress. My point is, I was not there when people first started selling shit on the internet, but I feel it is safe to assume – and/or I have safely absorbed this fact – that there was a “turning point” in the growth of internet commerce when clever commercial “creatives” were talking about offering customers a website where they could buy shit in a way that felt like shopping in a store. And I further assume that they pulled it off; until everyone, and then everyone plus me, started routinely buying things on the internet, by which time it had evolved to the point that people no longer wanted to replicate the in-store experience, because though the shiny online “storefronts” might have been required to lure in some consumers, once we all spent a fair amount of time there we began to appreciate the internet shopping experience for its most valuable qualities, many of which derived from the fact that it was not like shopping in a store. Compared to shopping on the internet now, what is it like to shop in a store? It’s like going to Barnes & Noble, seeing they have only one novel by Daniel Kehlmann and thinking “What the fuck are they thinking?”
The first time I went into the store, I thought that it was the result of some clever commercial “creatives” talking about offering customers a store where they could buy shit in a way that felt like shopping online. And that is part of it – though the whole of it is far more clever and far more dangerous. But let’s look at that first level, in which they made a store that looks and feels like a website. First, the shelves, in which the proportion of books placed with the cover facing outward is much, much higher than in any normal bookstore. In most bookstores you will see most of the books placed with the spine facing outward, with maybe one title per bookshelf row having a few copies placed with the cover facing outward. In the Amazon Bookstore, every title has copies facing outward. This practice accomplishes two things: 1) It creates bookshelves that look more like webpages; each book is basically its own “thumbnail” that you can “click on” (aka “pick up”), and 2) It creates a bookstore with very few books.
Regarding the bookshelves that resemble web-pages: They really aren’t trying to be very subtle about it. On one of my visits I saw an employee wheeling out a fully stocked square bookshelf, with all its titles perfectly in place. By the time I spotted this, he was already sliding the shelf in between a couple of others, where it looked exactly like a webpage sliding into frame. I wish I had seen the bookshelf closer to its origins, because I have some questions: Do the employees stock these shelves somewhere in the back according to some predetermined layout and just wheel them out? Or do the bookshelves delivered from a warehouse pre-stocked and shrink-wrapped, maybe in a big-ass box full of the giant-bubble bubble-wrap. Maybe they have a popper on staff to jump on the big bubbles every morning when the fresh shelves arrive.
As to the second factor, i.e. the store having very few books: I don’t think they really expect you to find any books there. They would have to be crazy to expect a lot of people to find a book they wanted to buy from that paltry selection. The Amazon Bookstore offers about as many titles as an airport newsstand; and it probably gets a lot less traffic from people who are stuck there and have no choice but to buy a book if they want to have something to read. If I’m at LAX getting ready to get on a five-hour flight and I have nothing to read, there is an actual chance I will suck it up and buy whatever recent Stephen King book they have on hand. But in the Amazon Bookstore, in a mall, where I am not trapped? I look around at the books on offer and I say Hell No.
So what is the Amazon Bookstore’s business model? Do they appeal to portion of the population that simply does not include me, since, as I believe I have established, I am kind of a fancy reader with clever taste? (Remember how I talked about Daniel Kehlmann? I bet not everyone in America knows who he is : ) ) No, I don’t think that’s it – I suspect that someone who tends to more popular titles will also find there is not much to choose from, because, well, there are not many titles to choose from in any category. So how does it work?
The more benign interpretation of the Amazon Bookstore is that it serves as an advertisement for Amazon.com. “Here’s some of the shit you can find on Amazon.com,” says the Amazon Bookstore. And after walking around the store for a few minutes (and I can’t imagine staying there for more than a few minutes), perhaps one is led to dwell upon the inefficiency, nay, the futility of trying to accomplish meaningful, selection-rich shopping in an IRL (in real life) setting. Among those who are younger than myself and perhaps were not old enough to read in a pre-Amazon era, maybe they have never actually been inside a bookstore, and something as unclickable as a Mom Barnes and Pop Nobles or even an actual independent bookstore might be a bit too intimidating. For such a person who is scared of a bookstore but maybe also just a little bit bookstore-curious, perhaps the familiarity of the Amazon name will comfort them; and if such a person finds enough courage to actually enter the store, they will see the shelves that look like webpages, they will encounter the staff who behave and speak like pop-up windows and they will say “Aha, I get it: There are books for sale.” Encouraged, they will peruse the shelves…and probably not find anything. Once you click through the handful of shelves in the Amazon Bookstore, there’s nowhere else to go – except maybe online, where there are the infinite pages you can’t possibly fit into an IRL location, especially not with the crazy rents in West LA. “So this is a bookstore, huh? Well, bookstores suck! I’m going to go sit in the food court and shop on my phone.”
Remember, that was the more benign interpretation of the function of the Amazon Bookstore. I am 99% sure that in fact the Amazon Bookstore represents an IRL hub for Amazon.com. I am almost certain that what is supposed to happen is that we look around the store for a minute and do not find what we want, and we say to an employee “Why don’t you have _____?” and then in a flash the employee has us in front of a screen where he or she is arranging to have the item sent to us from Amazon.com. The reason I am not 100% sure of this is that in the two times I have visited the Amazon Bookstore, I have successfully avoided engaging with their staff directly. And herein lies a potential flaw in the concept: If the store is an IRL fabrication of a website, its staff are likely to behave like robots or pop-up windows or little “Can I help you?” dialogue boxes, and we all know those things are fairly easy to ignore. In Barnes & Noble, no matter how unwelcoming of human contact I appear, I cannot be sure an employee will not careen into my field of vision and say “Anything I can help you with?” At IRL Amazon, I found it fairly easy to scroll through and simply keep my cursor from landing on any of the red-shirted robots within the frame. In order to expand their reach, the Amazon Bookstore may need to employ some staff who can behave more like those aggressive pop-up windows I have heard one encounters on porn sites.
Next week’s review: The Pornhub.com Fuckstore in the Culver City Mall.