Amazon’s first “bricks and mortar” bookstore in New York, which opened last week, poses an exciting question for journalists: how do I hate thee?
Let me count the ways. It pushes books to the back to foreground electronics. It transposes some of the features of digital Amazon to the material store in ways that don’t make a great deal of sense. And it doesn’t know anything about books. This last point has been made repeatedly by reviewers of the bookshop, and it’s true there is a whiff of WH Smith about the place. If this store was in mid-90s Britain, Ian Botham’s biography would take up a whole window.
However, the first thing you notice when you walk in is an air of excitement. So great are the assumptions about Amazon’s power that people seem to be waiting for something to happen. Not the buying of books, but, say, the manager pressing a button to turn the store into a theme park. There is palpable anxiety at the cash desk. As was the case when Apple first opened its stores, what if Amazon has found a way to reinvent how we pay, and we get to the front and are flummoxed?
Actually, the experience of paying is briefly confusing. The sales clerk asks if I have Amazon Prime, then waits while I fiddle with my phone to show her, before giving me the benefit of Amazon’s online pricing. In keeping with the store, neither of the items I buy are proper books. (They are kids’ colouring books.)
It is common for desperate bookshops to flog stationery, wrapping paper or gift items, but Amazon Books goes a step further. In its cookbook section, there is an artfully arranged display of airtight bags for leftovers. By the door, a shelf is labelled: Pop Culture Toys and Collectibles Rated 4.5 and Up. Rated by whom? The store simply assumes we are all sufficiently fluent in Amazon to know that this refers to its online ratings system.
Books are grouped into familiar categories, and unfamiliar ones: for example, a display case advertises books that have “more than 10,000 reviews”, which ensures a good showing for Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Patton, and Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus, as well as The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, and that book about the kid who “went to heaven”.
Unlike Amazon online, there are, here and there, indications of a human sensibility at work. If you buy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a sign suggests you might also like The Iceberg by Marion Coutts – not an insane recommendation since both are literary memoirs about dying, and a contrast to the algorithm-based online recommendations off the back of the same purchase, which include Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.
In truth, I’m a little disappointed about how un-horrifying the store is. It isn’t the first place you might look for anything to read outside the top 50, but then, neither was Barnes & Noble.
Losing my laundry
In my neighbourhood, there was a much bigger retail scandal this week than Amazon Books: the local dry cleaner going out of business overnight. First, the concerned phone calls when clean clothes didn’t turn up. Then the unreturned messages. Finally, the trek to the store and the shock of a dark shop and locked door. By the time I got there, several people were peering through the window at their unattended dry cleaning, flapping their tickets uselessly. Undercutting indy book sellers is one thing; doing a midnight flit with one’s laundry is quite another.
I’m no egghead
A pigeon has laid an egg on our terrace, which is exciting for my two-year-olds, and shaming for me. We eat eggs, but we’re not eating this egg because it has a baby pigeon in it, I explain. Why are some eggs eggs and some eggs baby birds? “It’s to do with fertilisation,” I say vaguely, then realise I have no idea what I’m talking about. I need a book about avian husbandry.