Yesterday saw an avalanche of think-pieces and first-person accounts of the launch day for Amazon Books, the online retailer's first physical bookstore in University Village. The most notorious of these hot takes was Megan Garber's piece for the Atlantic, titled "Did Amazon Just Replace the Public Library?" I honestly can't tell if Garber's piece is supposed to be a joke or a troll or not. It certainly reads like it's trying to be funny.
Garber begins by extolling the beauty of Apple Stores, saying they "celebrate both introspection and communion. They are meant to humble and inspire." She also seems to think that bookstores are a nostalgia act: "There’s a lot of wood. There are a lot of shelves. There are a lot of books! The dream of the ’90s is alive in Seattle, apparently."
Seriously: is there any way to interpret the comparison of Amazon Books to "a Barnes & Noble of yore" as a serious statement? Or Garber's assertion that "Amazon has always been, implicitly, about community?" (Amazon is all about buying books without the intrusion of community. Specifically, you go to Amazon if you want to buy something without human interaction. Posting a one-star review of Hamlet is not a substitute for person-to-person communication.) And the neck-snappingly pretentious paragraph that concludes Garber's piece reads like satire:
...Amazon Books could become something else in the process, emulating institutions that have been their own kinds of cathedrals: libraries. Which have traditionally been just what Amazon is aiming to create: spaces that are premised on books, but realized by community. The books here may be bought rather than borrowed, certainly, but in terms of the space created, the goal is the same. Amazon Books is a store doing the work of a cultural institution. It’s about commerce, yes, but it’s also about collectivity. It is, in form if not in name, a library.
Uh, no. It is, in form and name, a bookstore. Libraries are places where you can borrow books, but those books belong to a larger community. Bookstores are where you go to buy books. Perhaps the problem is that Garber seems to believe bookstores don't exist anymore, even though Seattle booksellers are right now more profitable than they've been in a generation.
The best thing I can say about Garber's piece is that it spawned a wonderful little Twitter rant by APRIL Festival co-founder Willie Fitzgerald about the APRIL origin story, which involves the sadly defunct Capitol Hill bookstore Pilot Books. Click through and read the whole story:
Holy fucking christ my eyes started bleeding two grafs into this goddamn nonsense
https://t.co/cVHUNYTd27— Willie Fitzgerald (@williefitz) November 3, 2015
Meanwhile, the reviews are coming in for Amazon Books, and they're generally confused. For Ars Technica, Sam Machkovech reports that the bookstore is a shallow dive into a poorly stocked collection that might just be "an ideal shopping experience for some clueless book shoppers."
Seattle Review of Books contributor Judy Oldfield sent along her experiences at Amazon Books in an email. She kindly agreed to let us excerpt her account here.
I looked for books by Naomi Jackson, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Mona Eltahawy. I looked for these because they are all by women of color and all writers who read at Elliott Bay [Book Company] this year. I know that our local indie stores sell them, because I bought all of them from either EB or University Book Store. Amazon didn't have any of them...The local authors table included Where'd You Go Bernadette, and The Art of Racing in the Rain as well as books about Boeing and Pete Carroll. But I didn't find anything by Matt Ruff or Nisi Shawl (there or anywhere else in the store). Seems like to be celebrated as a local author, you must either have a restaurant, write about something/someone famous, or have a bestselling book.
Oldfield also pointed out a glaring problem with Amazon Books carrying such a limited inventory: their comics selection is weirdly spotty. They carry many copies of a single graphic novel, but they don't carry all the books in a series. For example, "they have about a dozen or more [copies] of Fables vol 1. For Ms. Marvel, it's volume 3. For Saga, they had both volumes 1 and 5, but they weren't next to each other. For Sex Criminals, only volume 2."
I can tell you that the second volume of Sex Criminals isn't going to make much sense without reading volume one first. But what happens if you ask for the first volume of Sex Criminals at Amazon Books? Reportedly, the booksellers helpfully suggest you order it on Amazon.com. So the bookstore exists to promote the website by driving people to the website to make up for the bookstore's shortcomings? What a weird, recursive experience.