Amazon is slowly killing the bookstore—or so we have thought, up to this point. After Borders closed, as Barnes & Noble has struggled to make a profit, many bibliophiles anxiously feared the day when their favorite pastime—perusing shelves loaded with actual physical books—would vanish. Even though the e-book has not yet conquered the codex, we’ve wondered whether it was merely a matter of time. Recently-published works such as Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore depict the physical bookstore as something ancient and quaint, unnecessary and easily replaced by the wonders of modern technology.
So it comes as something of a shock to hear that Amazon may open as many as 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores in the coming years. Why this move “backwards,” away from the progressive pull of technology and the digital world?
David Sax argues in The New Yorker that e-commerce isn’t as financially lucrative as we think it is. Amazon may in fact benefit from opening some physical locations: “online retailers rely heavily on offering the lowest possible price. And competition on price is intense, because a better offer is always just a click away,” he writes. Additionally, though we get amazing deals on shipping via Amazon, there really is no such thing as “free” shipping: “The U.P.S. driver doesn’t work for free, and the gas in the truck isn’t free, either. Amazon and other online retailers must absorb these costs, cutting into their potential profits and placing further stress on their pricing strategies.” But those aren’t the only reasons he believes such a move could be good for Amazon:
The move from e-commerce to physical retail makes sense for deeply human reasons, too. Shopping has never been purely a transactional exchange of cash for goods. It’s also what we do on vacation, on weekends, and when we walk down a street. We shop to be with people, to have a place to go, to touch things, to indulge our consumption fantasies. Online shopping can offer a kind of digital mimesis of these things, but it doesn’t reward consumers in the same way as a physical store. Right now, Amazon might be the best place to find any book on Earth and purchase it at the lowest possible price, but the experience of shopping there remains impoverished.
… The report of new Amazon stores comes at a time when independent bookstores are experiencing a surprisingly robust resurgence. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of new bookstores in the U.S. has grown by more than twenty-five per cent in the past six years, while in-store sales have also grown. … Aware of the advantages of physical space, some e-commerce companies are already opening stores or deepening their investments.
It’s interesting to ponder the way physical presences still influence our desire to buy goods. Companies do well when they are able to foster a brand with a particular ethos and appeal. This is more easily done, one might argue, in a physical space. Barnes & Noble, with its dark bookshelves and hunter green accents, its café with artistic portraits of famous authors, its carefree and bright children’s section, all contributed to its brand. Anthropologie is a store that works hard to curate its own image, with window displays created by local artists, the ever-present scent of candles, and piles of beautiful fabrics and textures. As Chavie Lieber writes for Racked, “Everything about Anthropologie’s stores is meticulously calculated. In an age where companies are closing brick-and-mortar stores and spending money on perfecting the e-commerce experience, Anthro has its eyes focused on its retail settings and the sensory components that attract legions of dedicated shoppers.” There’s no doubt that Anthropologie’s strong physical brand has contributed to its success in all venues of retail, both on and off the web. It has cultivated a following because people enjoy the experience and aesthetic of shopping at the store.
It’s also worth noting that social media such as Instagram and Snapchat—visually-based mediums that prompt us to share beautiful things we are experiencing in a given moment—have spurred on a return to the aesthetic sale. Most companies who advertise their goods on Instagram are trying to sell an experience, something that is lovely and envy-inducing. It would be hard to market an Kindle on Instagram—but a pile of aged volumes, their tattered covers made mysterious with pools of shadow and the perfect backdrop? And what if you added a young hipster in the corner, her eyes framed with glasses, clutching a perfectly poured latte?
One could easily see how physical bookstores could develop this aesthetic appeal, and how such an appeal might help an increasingly amorphous company such as Amazon cultivate an aesthetic, a face, that customers can connect with.
Whether Amazon can compete with the appeal of smaller, indie bookstores remains to be seen—many of them have done remarkably well in recent years, and the used bookstores have an advantage that many larger stores such as Barnes & Noble do not. Or at least, so suggests The Awl‘s Drew Nelles, in his profile of a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Queens:
Topos is a snug place to spend the day drinking coffee and talking to strangers. Offering coffee and books at the same place is not a novel idea, but it is one way for booksellers to pay the bills, even if nobody likes to read anymore. … One of Topos’s other founders, Benjamin Friedman, helped start the shop after fleeing St. Mark’s, the East Village landmark, which is tens of thousands of dollars in debt to its landlord, and has been perennially on the verge of closure. Other shops have shuttered, or fled Manhattan in search of cheaper rents. But this has not necessarily been the case for used bookstores, many of which are thriving. “Strangely enough, it’s the big chain bookstores that are more of an anachronism,” Björkenheim said. “Even Strand is having to do a lot more of what Barnes & Noble was desperately doing for the last ten years. I don’t even know what they’re selling now—more tchotchkes and t-shirts and tote bags. Which is something a used bookstore doesn’t necessarily have to resort to.” The whole industry was probably heading in this direction, he added: “smaller used bookstores, rather than enormous megastores.”
… Friedman, a cheerful, loquacious man who worked in new bookselling for many years, talked about why used bookstores are still a viable venture.“The not very glamorous economic answer is that it’s a lot easier to make money selling used books,” he said. “On the whole, the problem with new books is that there’s a list price set by the publisher and a discount price that’s also set by the publisher. So, as a new bookseller, you have no control over what the book sells for or what you pay for it. With used books, if you’re smart, you find ways to get them cheap, and you decide what you price them at. As a general rule, on any book, a used bookseller is probably making twice as much profit as a new bookseller. And that’s the difference between making it and not making it, because the profit margins on new books are razor-thin. At a used bookstore, no one is getting rich, but you can make enough to stay alive.”
It makes sense: bookstore owners who are able to get their books at estate sales and auctions are going to make more than those who have to negotiate prices with publishers. They have more flexibility and independence, and thus are more likely to make a profit.
But one of Topos’s customers also hints at another reason the used bookstore is often more successful, and it goes back to the aesthetic element a physical store can cultivate: “My favorite thing is the smell of used books,” a customer, Jeff Freer, told Nelles. “It’s the smell of, ‘We have something here.’ The smell of, ‘It’s not going to disappear.’ The digital can be gone in an instant. But smell has to come from time.”
We are sensory creatures. Our participation in the world is not just prompted by information and digital connection, but also by things such as feel, taste, touch. You can buy a copy of The Brothers Karamazov on your Kindle—or you can stroll over to the nearest bookstore on a rainy day. You can wander through the shelves, pick up a hardback copy, and flip through the pages. You can buy a latte from the café, settle into a shadowy corner, and begin reading with the quiet buzz of other readers around you. For some, the former option will always sound more palatable, because of the ease of the sale. But for others of us—the dogged bibliophiles who love reading for its aesthetic, as well as for its information—we’ll always go back to the bookstore.
But many of my book-loving friends feel almost offended at Amazon’s latest move. After the online retailer “killed” off several of their favorite bookstores, will they now replace them, opening up locations in old Borders buildings? (Probably not literally, but the image is a powerful one.) As Gizmodo put it, Amazon’s move “particularly amusing given how [they] spent the past two decades driving booksellers like B. Dalton, Borders, and Waldenbooks out of business by undercutting their prices. … We can’t wait to see Netflix open up laserdisc rental shops next.”
My guess is that Amazon, if its move pays off, will begin to compete with stores such as Barnes & Noble: larger bookstore franchises that sell mostly new copies. But the little indie bookstores, such as Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill Books or Politics & Prose, will continue to flourish. Because their customer base is seeking something that only they can provide: the appeal of the little, the local, and the old.