Amazon’s new retail bookstores have all of the books, but none of the charm

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Large book chains like Barnes & Noble have been shutting down bookstores for a decade now, which makes it a peculiar day when a new bookstore opens up in the heart of New York City. Even odder, it’s a physical store from Amazon, the online retailer whose Kindle ebook reader is a prime culprit in bookstore declines in the first place. But Amazon is always up to the task of transforming traditional experiences into opportunities that require you to use technology. Opening a physical bookstore may seem odd in 2017, but it’s no different than the release of Dash buttons or the opening of Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh food outlets. Amazon isn’t just on the web these days, it’s everywhere. Sadly, it has yet to learn what makes a bookstore great.

Walking into NYC’s first Amazon Books location — the seventh bookstore it has opened nationwide — the 4,000 square foot space is packed with books, but barely feels like a bookstore. Sure, there are rows of books separated by genre, from Young Adult novels to cookbooks; and the space looks big, carrying thousands of titles, but it feels as packed as a train car during rush hour. The maze of bookshelves and extremely tiny seating area leaves no room to hide and zone out with a stack of comics or relax and absorb yourself in the prologue to a new novel.

Instead of price tags, the shelves are littered with barcode scanners. Book sections are separated by how many stars books have, and small reader reviews sit beneath the books. The checkout station is in the center of the store, with a large “Amazon Books” sign hanging in a familiar font above, and though smaller bookshelves line the windows, customers entering the store are boldly greeted with all of Amazon’s tech products, from Kindle ebook readers to the Fire tablets, and Echo speakers.

If you enter a Barnes & Noble, it’s easy to settle in between the large spaces left among the shelves or take a seat at the conveniently integrated Starbucks at most locations. Although B&N locations are bigger than Amazon Books, it has a cozier vibe, and lets you create your own private space.

As a kid and, even now as an adult, I’ll venture into the nearest bookstore and find myself spending hours on the dusty carpet, nose buried in a book, wishing my wallet would let me walk out of there rolling a red wagon full of novels, Matilda style. My phone is lost somewhere at the bottom of my bag on silent and I no longer care to scroll through Instagram or answer what I would normally feel is an urgent text.

It’s hard to even clear your head in Amazon Books because you’re trapped on your phone. You use an app to do everything. It’s an essential part of the experience. Books are placed neatly on the shelves with all the covers facing out and have no price tags. So, you have no choice but to literally judge a book by it’s cover. If there is a particular title you’re interested in, you must open the Amazon app on your phone to scan the barcode, which pulls up the real-time price along with the lower Amazon Prime price — a subtle way Amazon plans to convince patrons to sign up for a membership. It feels like Amazon is trying to eliminate the often-captivating experience of book browsing. Perhaps browsing for books is not efficient enough for Amazon’s algorithmic store.

While Amazon Fresh and Amazon Go seem interested in the food they sell, Amazon Books is using books as bait for the online retailer’s growing range of tech products. In some ways, the tech display resembles an Apple store, where the devices are readily available for customers to try out and play around with. I couldn’t help but notice the bright white lighting from above also resembled Apple’s “futuristic” ambiance.

The tech section of the store closely mirrors Barnes & Noble’s obsolete music section, which is stocked with the latest CDs, vinyls, and cassette tapes. If you initially came in to look for a book, you could also browse the endless options of entertainment. Tech gadgets are included in the new wave of enhancing arts and entertainment for the better, but at least B&N had the courtesy to separate the section more, and offer headphones for people who wanted to rock out to some cassette tapes and CDs in private. For Amazon, there is no separation between Echos, Fire tablets, and books. They’re all mushed together.

The tight layout of the store and constant price scanning process leaves no room to escape into the literary world. It was hard to hear myself think with people requesting Alexa to play random songs for them on full volume, let alone try to read a book. Amazon seems to have little interest in sharing actual literature. From the design, this store is geared toward folks who want any book that’s currently trending in pop culture (with a 4.5 star rating), but also wouldn’t mind purchasing an Amazon-powered digital home assistant instead.

The commonality behind Amazon-run stores are that they don’t force you to disconnect from technology, but enable the habit instead. It’s considered a bookstore, but Amazon Books is really about selling the online retailer’s popular gadgets in a physical retail space. Amazon’s main focus was never to only be your go-to bookstore. Its plan is to take complex technology and find ways to inject Amazon’s online store into your everyday tasks until you find yourself automatically using Amazon.com when you need to buy anything at all.

Visiting the store was an experience that I thought would be pretty fun, and a step in the right direction to salvage the stigma of physical books. But where’s the fun? Sadly, books may have helped kick start Amazon, but it doesn’t seem to understand or care about the book-buying experience. Amazon Books is just another way to reel people in to shop for media and devices.

Shakespeare didn’t die for you to walk into a bookstore, and walk out with a smart device.

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