April 6, 2017

There is a profession called bookseller and Amazon Books doesn’t hire them


I’m all for innovation. Hell, I even get excited about that eye-roll-inducing buzzword, “disruption.” If you have a truly original idea, better than what’s come before, it’ll always upset the status quo. That’s just how the world works.

But sometimes there are giant corporations that—by sheer force of dollars, marketing, and near-if-not-completely-criminal monopoly—force a homogenized consumer experience on the masses and call it “innovation.” I’m talking, of course, about Amazon Books.

As we’ve reported in the past, Amazon Books has entered the pupa stage of its metamorphosis, with the addition of a 6,000-square-foot bookstore in Chicago, not far from indie darlings like Unabridged Bookstore, Roscoe Books, and the Book Cellar. As should be expected when a 800-pound gorilla takes a dump on your city, the Chicago Tribune sent someone to experience it themselves. The results, in the form of reportage from Christopher Borelli, were beyond delightful.

For starters, from an employee, he receives the basic spiel on what the Amazon Books experience is supposed to be:

The first time I visited, an employee asked if I’d like the store explained.

I said I assumed it worked like a bookstore?

He said, no: The stock is a “highly curated selection” of books selected by a “curation team”; and that instead of shelving books with their spines facing out, books are shelved with their covers facing outward; and that, unlike other bookstores, the idea here is that you would wander about and perhaps find something that you didn’t know you wanted.

Like in a bookstore, I said.

Other bookstores aren’t like that, he said.

My takeaway here is that Amazon Books doesn’t hire booksellers. Their employees, well-meaning as I’m sure they are, haven’t interacted with the products they’re selling. They don’t review or comment on the books; they don’t put their favorites upfront; they don’t lead book clubs. They are register lackeys, sent to do the bidding of some ominous and unnamed “curation team” that has decided books are commercially safe from sales and reviews, a 4.6-star experience you will promptly forget.

It’s impersonal to the max, really the opposite of what good bookselling is. There’s no one there to hear about what you like and don’t like, or answer questions about their experience with a book. Is this one like that one? Is it a bit too racy for grandmama? Is there a poetry reading on Thursday?

Ultimately, what Amazon Books does isn’t innovation. It’s corporate, commercial, and stale, and something that will be swiftly drowned by the tide of indies rising around the country.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.