A place for new ideas to settle.

04 November 2015

Book ends

Amazon just built its own physical bookstore in the University Distric of Seattle. What a twist! So why do I think it's pointless for Amazon, and indeed any "corporate" bookseller, to operate a physical storefront? And why do I think that the only worthwhile brick-and-mortar bookstores are the "anything and everything" used bookstores? Simply put: serendipity versus suggestion. You may think that my ideas about the philosophy of bookstores are unorthodox, but if you agree, you might also like...

Recently New York Times Magazine ran a story about the fascinating gutter-market for ultra-cheap used books sold on Amazon.com. You know, all those books that are priced at $0.01 (+$3.99 shipping)? Turns out they're often rescued from the landfill—sometimes literally. Sort of like donations to a food bank, libraries and thrift stores often get far more donations than they can properly deal with:
[Thriftbooks], along with several other enormous used-book-selling operations that have popped up online in the past decade, is literally buying garbage. Thrift stores like Goodwill receive many more donations than they can physically accommodate. Employees rifle through donations, pick out the stuff that is most likely to sell and send the rest to a landfill. The same thing happens at public libraries; they can take only as many donations as their space and storage will allow, so eventually they have to dispose of books, too.
While grabbing books out of dumpsters and selling the somewhat-worthwhile ones on Amazon may sound a bit odd, the owner of Thriftbooks makes a good point: “10 years ago, before companies like mine existed, those books were seen as having no value at all.” And that's fair; moreover, it's almost certainly the case that most printed books haven't survived transitions to new printings or digitization, as is true of motion pictures:
But with each new iteration of the home viewing experience, the volume of available titles decreases. All of the movies available on celluloid never made it to VHS. All of the movies available on VHS never made it to DVD (40-45% never crossed over, according to estimates). And not all of the movies available on DVD are streaming — it’s not even close.
So I think this is, overall, a net good for readers of physical books: thanks to these gutter-book operations, it's a lot easier to find randomly specific titles (in the NYTMag author's case, trashy mid-century crime thrillers) that you could never get at a Barnes & Noble or local bookstore.

More recently, Amazon opened up an honest-to-Bezos, brick-and-mortar bookstore near the University of Washington. According to the Seattle Times article:
Amazon is betting that the troves of data it generates from shopping patterns on its website will give it advantages in its retail location that other bookstores can’t match. It will use data to pick titles that will most appeal to Seattle shoppers.

And that could also solve the business problem that has long plagued other bookstores: unsold books that gather dust on shelves and get sent back to publishers. More than most book retailers, Amazon has deep insight into customer buying habits and can stock its store with titles most likely to move.
What are brick-and-mortar bookstores good for? Well, first of all, in my highly subjective opinion, we first have to distinguish between types of bookstores.

Most obviously, there are corporate bookstores: Barnes & Noble, and now Amazon Bookstore I guess. These are stupid. Their strategy, as described in the Seattle Times article, is to guess at what you want to buy before you buy it, and therefore try to only stock those books with the greatest chance of being sold. Nothing wrong with that, except we already have a far better service for that, and it's called Amazon Dot Com. If I know what book I want, it's probably already in my Amazon wishlist. And with 2-day Prime shipping, well, I can be that patient at least.

The absolute best physical bookstores, I think, are "true" used bookstores. You know, the kind that seem to have more books than shelf space, sometimes literally—for example, Eclipse Books in Fairhaven, WA has stacks of books on the floor, because its many shelves are already full.

Why the scare quotes around "true"? Eh, well, here's the big subjectivity: I don't think all locally-owned bookstores, even ones that call themselves "new & used books," are "true" used bookstores. Often they're more like showcases for book lovers to feel good about themselves, and drink chai lattes together. You can tell when the employee recommended books are far too obvious (even when I agree with the reviews!), and when the store has far too much open space. True used bookstores are barely curated. Corporate-wannabe bookstores are overly curated.

I make this distinction because I think the appeal and the use of brick-and-mortar bookstores is the serendipity of finding random books. I wouldn't have picked up a book on the legal theory of censorship laws, or the existentialist critique of Freudian psychology, or a sociological analysis of role-playing gaming groups... except that I found them at used bookstores, or their temporary equivalent, library book sales.

Public libraries are sort of a middle ground: the true use of a library is to help you find books to fit your (already known) interest, in a more semantic, nuanced way than just buying habits. "I'm looking for books about the economics of the world's space programs since 1970" is the sort of highly-specific query that Amazon flubs at, and for which you'd be hard pressed to stumble upon a result at a used bookstore. But giving those sorts of answers is just part of a librarian's job description.

By comparison, even a bookstore like Powell's, spectacular as it is, really is more about the spectacle of books rather than actually just dumping a pile of random books in a single space for customers to freely forage around in.

To summarize: Corporate bookstores try a sort of guided-allocation model of bookselling. They buy the books they think "you" (that is, the aggregate book-buying individual, the average customer) want to buy. And so people do, they buy the "Bestsellers" in a very chicken-and-egg phenomenon; but other than that you get the physical book right away, why go anywhere when you can just go online and get the book in two days?

True used bookstores, by contrast, try a market-saturation model. They buy enough different kinds of books that any random customer has a pretty good chance of buying something. The assumption is not that everyone wants the same book (although of course popularity affects every bookseller's supply decisions), but that everyone will want some book. The whole ethos of serendipity is diametrically opposed to Amazon's ethos of cultivation and curation. Sure, their recommender engine might offer up what seem like serendipitous suggestions, but they're actually predictions based on your buying habits and the buying habits of like-minded individuals. It's just the corporate bookselling model in real time.

So that's why I won't buy anything from the physical Amazon bookstore—if I ever go there.

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