April 6, 2018
Booksellers across the country reflect on the impact of Amazon Books
by Simon Reichley
This week, the American Booksellers Association published a field report on independent booksellers facing competition from the first wave of Amazon Books, the internet retailer’s unsavory foothold in meatspace. The first Amazon Books was announced towards the end of 2015, and over the last couple years, fifteen more have opened their doors, in New York City, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, and Boston. Which means that independent bookstores and chains have seen two full holiday cycles come and go, and are now in a position to make some assessment of the impact the stores have had on their local retail environments.
Liz Button, writing for the ABA’s Bookselling This Week, spoke with booksellers in Dedham, La Jolla, Seattle, and Chicago. The consensus among these four indies is that Amazon Books, as a retailer, hasn’t made that much of an impact, even as Amazon’s predation remains, more generally, a serious issue.
Peter H. Reynolds, owner of Blue Bunny Books and Toys in Dedham, Massachusetts, was initially worried, but, after adding a cafe expansion to the shop, actually saw sales increase in the year after Amazon arrived. He remains worried that as more and more shopping moves online, and as it becomes easier and easier to get next-day, or even same-day, delivery, fewer and fewer people will actually be out and about, reducing the number of walk-in customers.
Adrian Newell, book buyer at Warwick’s in La Jolla, notes that the store may have lost some bestseller trade, but that since Amazon Books is such a moronically organized and unpleasantly inhuman place to shop, overall traffic hasn’t been affected much. What has changed is the buying habits of customers around the holidays, who are now more likely to place order for same-day delivery in the days right before Christmas. As Newell told Button, “We used to say we could special-order a book and get it as quickly or even faster than you could online, but we can’t say that anymore.”
Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books in Seattle—the epicenter of the Amazone—has likewise not seen much long-term impact on sales. He mostly attributes this to the location of the Amazon Books closest to him: University Village, a high-end shopping mall that attracts a huge number of shoppers, but not necessarily the type of crowd that Third Place depends on for its business.
Lynn Mooney, co-owner of Women and Children First, a feminist bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, says that they haven’t seen all that much change, which she attributes to the strong character of her bookstore and the distinctly curated nature of her selection. Her analysis could serve as a roadmap for how indies can succeed in the age of Amazon:
“We do have a significant number of very loyal customers, and I think many of them, on principle, did not go to the Amazon store and have no intention to. We’re also a specialty bookstore, so many of the people who come to us do so knowing that we’re going to be especially deep and strong in certain areas that are important to them. A third reason is that customers who shop in indie bookstores appreciate the kind of curation of stock that happens and the discovery of titles that aren’t bestsellers.”
It’s certainly good news that Amazon’s weirdest and most dickish attempt to wipe bookstores off the face of the earth hasn’t quite had its desired effect. But as all the retailers in Button’s piece know, the real problem is likely to get worse. Just this week the ABA, in partnership with Civic Economics, released a state-by-state study evaluating the impact of Amazon’s online business on brick-and-mortar retail jobs and tax revenue. The results are dispiriting, but should not be surprising. And they support what Reynolds, Newell, Sindelar, and Mooney have observed: Amazon Books is “a pure and brain-dead emanation… of a rapacious free-market capitalism,” as our own Dennis Johnson put it. But it isn’t the actual action.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.