There are advantages to living in Seattle. The first ever brick-and-mortar physical Amazon bookstore opened here recently in the University Village shopping mall near the University of Washington, and late on a rainy Saturday morning I had a chance to go check it out.
It’s not large as bookstores go. I’ve been in some Barnes & Noble stores, especially in New York, that dwarf it. But the beautiful thing about it is, apart from some displays of e-reading devices, it has books – only books. And the books are all displayed with the covers facing outward, making the book browsing experience wonderfully simple and relaxing. The selection of several thousand titles is culled by Amazon from the millions that it sells online by sales and reviewers’ ratings, meaning that you’re getting some very good, tried and true selections indeed.
As you enter the store, the nonfiction is on the right and the fiction on the left. These are broken down into subcategories such as biography, history, society, cookbooks, art, and so on for nonfiction and all the various genres in fiction. Straight ahead in the back is a special children’s section with books arranged on shelves according to age categories. Just outside of the children’s section to the left is a young adults section. In the center of the store are the displays of Kindle and Kindle Fire devices of various sizes and grades, all turned on so that customers can try them out. There are also an abundance of stools, benches, and chairs where customers can relax and peruse their finds, and the restrooms are spotlessly clean, practically gleaming.
The books don’t have prices, but there’s a good reason for this. The prices are linked to the online Amazon store, so that you pay the exact same price for the book that you would if you bought it online. There are scanning terminals located throughout the shop so you can scan the barcodes of the books you are interested in to find out how much you would pay for it. The pricing system is brilliant and compelling. Were I to go into any other physical bookstore, I would pay almost twice as much for the books I selected, or go out with half as many books, because I would pay full retail price. This way I get the best of both worlds: Amazon savings and the fun of browsing at a physical bookstore. As I looked over the covers, I continually recognized well-known titles that I have meant to read but haven’t gotten around to yet. Amazon’s method of selection ensures that the most desirable books are right there in your face.
Why would Amazon go to such trouble and expense? After all, they already run the biggest bookstore in the world online without the trouble of maintaining a physical location. Personally, I don’t think it’s some sort of all-encompassing leap from virtual to physical. It’s an experiment, like much of what Amazon does. If today’s crowd is any indication, it’s a great success. The place was full of book browsers, and it’s likely to get even more popular as the holiday season approaches. But that’s not the point. As I said, Amazon doesn’t need to go physical to make money.
This is a science fictional idea, as if the virtual Amazon book world stretched forth and conceptualized itself in physical form. It’s like an amusement park for book lovers, everything you always wanted in a bookstore: easy browsing, great selection, and unbeatable prices. I might also add: clean environment, efficient organization, and friendly and abundant salespeople.
Whether Amazon has the intention of expanding the idea into other cities I don’t know. If it does, and it selects the cities and locations wisely, the additional shops will probably also become immensely popular. If it doesn’t, this singular store will become a magnet for book lovers whenever they are in the Pacific Northwest.