After nearly a week of cabin fever due to Portland’s “Snowpocalypse,” Dan and I decided to risk icy roads and drive to the Washington Square Mall. We are still fairly new to Portland and this was our first visit to the Washington Square Mall, which is fabulous. I was pleased to see many of my favorite stores, including an enormous Nordstrom. However, our specific purpose was to check out Amazon Books, the third in a growing chain of traditional “Brick and Mortar” bookstores that Amazon.com has opened.
I feel it’s safe to say that most people in the book community, whether they are book lovers or industry professionals, would vehemently agree that “Print is Not Dead,” and to that end, the idea of new bookstores opening is a happy sign. However, when I attended the 2016 AWP Conference, there was a lot of buzz regarding Amazon and worries over what their new bookstores would do to our beloved independent bookstores. Is there room for both to co-exist?
My initial impression of Amazon Books is that it’s incredibly welcoming and inviting. The store was full of shoppers, but the aisles are easy to navigate and the products are spaciously displayed. Nothing is crammed or out of place. Amazon Books was impeccably organized.
Notice that all of the books face-forward? This is throughout the entire store, with every book. Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books, in it, Lahiri writes about moving abroad, and since she has so few posessions in her new home, she faces her books forward, using the covers as art. It forced her to really think about book covers; what goes into making them, and how they represent what is between those covers. I thought of Lahiri as I browsed, really taking a look at all the beautiful covers and noting how certain authors have become so recognizable from the style of their covers, with a font or palette that is used from book to book.
Facing the books forward, also limits the space for inventory. Amazon Books is a carefully curated store, and the stock seems to be exclusively popular books and classics. The thing I love most about browsing in an independent bookstore, is the odd-ball discoveries, the books from small presses or ones that the owner of the store stocks out of love. I like the sense of risk in stocking books that are not well-known or already popular. This isn’t to say that I don’t read plenty of bestsellers, I do, however it’s not as much fun to browse amongst bestsellers. The sections of a bookstore that I usually shop from are Fiction, Travel, and Non-Fiction/Memoir; in Amazon Books, I was familiar with a majority of the books stocked in these sections. I saw plenty that I wanted to buy, but I didn’t have a single discovery. This made me realize that Amazon Books is not directly competing with the independent Bookstores that I treasure. If anything, they are more closely competing with Barnes and Noble, which may have more stock, but is not nearly as pleasant of a shopping experience. I’ve not visited a Barnes and Noble in Oregon, but the ones that I had near my home in California, were always messy and increasingly filled with non-book related items.
I appreciate that Amazon Books has sections dedicated to local authors and employee recommendations. Although it’s primarily a place for bestsellers, it’s not devoid of a personal touch.
What about the Kindle? I was a reluctant Kindle owner, when a first generation Kindle was gifted to me from my aunt and uncle in 2008. My aunt worshipped at the shrine of Oprah, and when Oprah featured the Kindle on her annual Oprah’s Favorite Things, my aunt immediately called Amazon and got on a waitlist. When I opened my present on Christmas, I had no idea what I was holding. I had never heard of the Kindle. My aunt, by no means a technology expert, was chuffed to have presented me with not only the year’s hottest gadget, but one that was book related. She spent the rest of her life gloating about being in “the know” about the Kindle, before her young-ish niece.
I say I was reluctant, because I didn’t want to give up my physical books. I barely used that first generation Kindle. It took me years to realize that e-readers are awesome for travel, and easier to read in bed. I’m now on my fourth Kindle and I’m a fan. Amazon Books dedicates a small corner of their store to Kindles, and other Amazon technology, like Alexa ( Alexa has been another woman in our house for over a year, we love her). What’s great about this, is it serves as a place to go with your Kindle questions or problems. Sometimes it’s just nice to get help from a human standing in front of you, rather than dealing with customer service over the phone. In a clever move, Kindles are set up around the store, so that you can check one out, without feeling like an employee is hovering. This said, I found all of the staff to be friendly and helpful, without giving any type of sales pitch.
All of this sounds great, but what about prices? If you are a member of Amazon Prime, you will get the same price as Amazon.com. If you’re not a Prime member, the price was as marked on the book, which I found a little high. Price checkers are scattered throughout the store. Like the stock market, the prices on Amazon.com are always shifting. The Amazon Prime price is where Amazon Books destroys other bookstores. Unless a book is on special offer, it’s rare to see prices quite this low. Also, it seems that the Kindle prices are often higher than the print prices.
Check-out was a breeze. I used the same credit card that I normally use for my Amazon Prime purchases and my account was located immediately. An email receipt was sent, without me having to provide any additional information.
I purchased Paul Beatty’s novel, The Sellout, and the book was automatically removed from my Amazon Wishlist.
I was impressed with Amazon Books. The store is inviting and a pleasant browsing experience. The prices cannot be beat, yet I’m relieved that they are currently not positioning themselves to compete with the things that I love about my indy bookstores. I feel like each has their own place and each can gain my business for different reasons. The world is a better place for having more bookstores.