April 5, 2017
Amazon Books to descend on New York like a swarm of locusts
by Simon Reichley
Brace yourselves! This year, after months of cross-continental rubbernecking and anxious blogging, New York City will reluctantly quarter not one but two iterations of Amazon Books, the brick-and-mortar “boots on the ground” in Jeff Bezos’s sleepless war against market diversity and basic human decency.
According to reports in Publishers Weekly and elsewhere, this most recent fleshly manifestation of Amazon’s retail empire will crash against our shores “sometime in 2017,” establishing bulkheads at the Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle, and on West 34th Street, across from the Empire State Building. Assuming that the Hudson Yards project remains on track, sometime in 2018 New York may well be sharing space with three different Amazon Books locations.
Clearly, this is terrible news. New York has been hemorrhaging Barnes and Nobles for years now, and—for a city of its size and cultural footprint—it has an embarrassing dearth of smaller, community-oriented stores. As Catherine Curan points out in a recent New York Post article, New York’s 8.5 million residents share eight B&Ns, and not even 100 independent shops. That’s 79,000 people per bookstore. This is a real bummer and is, as has been made abundantly clear, almost entirely Amazon’s fault.
Luckily, Curan points out, the resistance has been getting its act together in the last couple years. Mainstay indies like WORD and Greenlight have expanded their operations, organizations like The Queens Bookshop Initiative and individuals like Noëlle Santos are pushing hard to bring more books to the outer boroughs, and members of the NYC literary community like Emma Straub are working to keep pace as independent icons (RIP BookCourt) close their doors.
This is encouraging! And, while Amazon goes all in on the ultra-glam tourist green zones of Manhattan, the reception of its previous efforts in Chicago and elsewhere has been markedly tepid. In a delightfully caustic piece in the Chicago Tribune, Christopher Borrelli describes his experience at the Lakeview store, which he calls “a deeply, unsettlingly normal place”:
Walking around Amazon Books, you feel as if you are not in a bookstore but a marketing experiment and, to suggest a human hand was involved (and not an alien species or cold digital empire), a calculated randomness had been factored in: There are turntables for sale; there are more coloring books than a Barnes & Noble can hold; there is an Asian travel section that includes South Africa and Israel in its definition of Asia. Say you’re looking for the first novel from The New Yorker’s Elif Batuman. It’s beside a blender.
Sounds like it’ll fit right in with the calculatingly upscale, soulless luxury of the Shops at Columbus Circle and the dystopian-oligarch’s paradise of THE Hudson Yards. One can only hope the gathering strength of New York’s indie community will be able to keep the contagion quarantined on the island.
Simon Reichley is assistant to the publishers and office manager at Melville House.