It’s come to this: We’re now eulogizing giant corporate retail chains. Suburban D.C. will lose one of its largest bookstores when the 20-year-old Barnes & Noble flagship in Bethesda closes at the end of this year. Rumored to be one of the largest and highest-trafficked Barnes & Noble locations, second only to New York’s Union Square, the store was at the center of the development of Bethesda Row, an avenue of retail outlets that now includes a Kate Spade, Sur La Table, and The North Face, making professorial Bethesda into the kind of suburb that commands $10.5 million for a “downtown” penthouse. The Barnes & Noble was the beginning of this transformation, and now it has come to the end.
“What in the world is causing the retail meltdown of 2017?” asks Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. With closures from once-heavy hitters including J.C. Penney, Sears, Sports Authority, and now the bankruptcy of Payless, the future of retail is, well, weird. Besides the obvious shift to online shopping, the market may be correcting for an overabundance of malls and big box stores. But it also may shift again, Thompson, suggests, with a move towards new technology like self-driving cars. Retail may not be dead, but it’s impossible to know what kind of new environments it will invent.
If it was up to Amazon, the future of retail would be a “deeply, unsettlingly normal place,” a “soulless” and “antiseptic” store, which is how a Chicago Tribune reporter described the company’s recently opened brick-and-mortar location in that city.
Out of view of the customer, Amazon’s physical spaces were alleged to be miserable places. Journalists went undercover to document the harsh conditions of Amazon’s distribution warehouses, which were enormous spaces quantified for maximum efficiency, but not for human interaction. As Mac McClelland noted in her 2012 undercover story for Mother Jones:
The place is immense. Cold, cavernous. Silent, despite thousands of people quietly doing their picking, or standing along the conveyors quietly packing or box-taping, nothing noisy but the occasional whir of a passing forklift. My scanner tells me in what exact section—there are nine merchandise sections, so sprawling that there’s a map attached to my ID badge—of vast shelving systems the item I’m supposed to find resides. It also tells me how many seconds it thinks I should take to get there. Dallas sector, section yellow, row H34, bin 22, level D: wearable blanket. Battery-operated flour sifter. Twenty seconds. I count how many steps it takes me to speed-walk to my destination: 20. At 5-foot-9, I’ve got a decently long stride, and I only cover the 20 steps and locate the exact shelving unit in the allotted time if I don’t hesitate for one second or get lost or take a drink of water before heading in the right direction as fast as I can walk or even occasionally jog. Olive-oil mister. Male libido enhancement pills. Rifle strap. Who the fuck buys their paper towels off the internet? Fairy calendar. Neoprene lunch bag. Often as not, I miss my time target.
With the decision to open physical stores, Amazon must now come algorithm-to-face with its customers: Real live people. But what are people? It’s impossible to know. The data tells us that people exist in three dimensions, need air and occasionally water, they need books for planes and beaches, and also maybe as gifts to other humans? Tribune reporter Christopher Borelli logged time in the newest iteration of Amazon’s human space in Chicago:
Shopping there is as frictionless as a one-click purchase. There are no quirks, no attempts at warmth. There is no store cat. There are no handwritten notes about what the staff loves. The only difference between the children’s section and the rest of the store is that the children’s section has a rug. It is, in businessspeak, a bricks-and-mortar presence, so unimaginative its facade is brick.
Walking around Amazon Books, you feel as if you are not in a bookstore but a marketing experiment and, to suggest a human hand was involved (and not an alien species or cold digital empire), a calculated randomness had been factored in: There are turntables for sale; there are more coloring books than a Barnes & Noble can hold; there is an Asian travel section that includes South Africa in its definition of Asia. Say you’re looking for the first novel from The New Yorker’s Elif Batuman. It’s beside a blender. Say you’ve never heard of Elif Batuman—you’re in the right place.
Amazon Books is not what you would call a book lover’s paradise. You’re more likely to get a lengthy explanation of pricing—Prime members receive their usual discount, everyone else pays list—than get into a conversation about the new George Saunders. Perhaps because, unlike traditional bookstores, the stock has less to do with taste and its employees’ reading experiences and more to do with algorithms and analytics. As explained by those employees, its “highly curated” selection is culled from a mix of Amazon.com best-sellers, book-buying trends, online ratings and, yes, the discretion of a curation team. You are told almost every book in the store received at least four stars (out of five) from Amazon reviewers, but you are not told Amazon reviews tend to be generous.
In other words, it’s the kind of bookstore Paul Ryan might enjoy. The best books have risen to the top by their own merit, and the quality of these books can be measured by their price and also their rating. They’re good books, Brent. The market has made them good.
- My 2.5 Star Trip to Amazon’s Bizarre New Bookstore, by Dustin Kurtz. The New Republic, November 4, 2015 (2,500 words / 10 minutes).
- I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave, by Mac McClelland. Mother Jones. March / April 2012 (8,300 words / 33 minutes).