It’s a march evening, we are walking down up-market (read boutique land) Georgetown in Washington DC. I am pointed at a book store! What in the earth was a book store doing amongst boutiques I wonder? It turns out it is not any book store, it is an Amazon Book Store! But didn’t Amazon single-handedly along with all our happy clicks shut down book stores across the world. Didn’t the internet, phones and tabs and of course non-stop hyperactive social media lifestyles make reading books itself passé!
Amazon, lest we forget is the name of a magnanimous river system in South America, one of the wildest of the larger river systems of the world with eye-popping biodiversity. It is important to mention that because soon we will have people stating incredulously that the name of this mighty river resembles that of the largest corporation in the world and not vice versa as it should be.
Amazon came onto the scene in the IT heady 90s, a product of Silicon Valley, books were amongst its first products, it was known only as an online bookstore that delivered incomparable discounts home! As internet usage and online payment systems ratcheted up so did the fortunes of Amazon but at the expense of book stores (and equivalents of kirana (grocery) stores in the west). Book stores in India, were already few, to begin with, mostly English, with a few states also displaying a regional language book store culture. Books were often a bit disorganized but that was part of the charm and for many of us who couldn’t afford books themselves, they were a place to browse, the book equivalent of window shopping. Some of these places also became iconic, they offered spaces for exchange, discussion, intellectual debate and sharing and surely in many cases poetry dripping romances, dying to be published writers and poets spaces of angst and solace. Often the owner was a bit of an institution in himself and recommended books depending on the tastes of individual buyers who developed a long-lasting relationship with the place and people working there.
However virtually nobody could survive the Amazon onslaught and few that did manage because they ran a book distribution business, had minimal overheads in terms of rents, were plain stubborn or were able to become a bit chic with the a café, reading and co-working space rather than just bookselling, the café bringing in important revenue as well as serving as a space for other activities like book launches etc.
So, it was rather surreal to see a posh Amazon BOOK store! I decided on a peek a boo. I must confess that the space was rather insipid and the selection rather thin. All books were displayed with the cover page facing the viewer and one could read details on the book including Amazon review likes, best selling ranking etc via an app-enabled QR code on the right-hand side (if I remember right). The books on display seemed to the top-selling in each of the different categories, how boring I thought even as a shopping experience! The colleague I was hanging out with, was rather fascinated by all this tech-enabled stuff, left me wondering whether he had ever frequented a brick and mortar book store earlier.
After this rather lukewarm visit, I started reading up on this counter-intuitive phenomenon! I couldn’t find something on what exactly Amazon is up to, there was no way the book sale from these very boutique places could cover the costs of running these places for Amazon, so it seems it is part of some deep brand building exercise. Incidentally, as far as US territory goes, Amazon already has had brick and mortar stores which they shut down entirely a few years back. As of October 2018 (I couldn’t find figures post that date) they had opened 18 book stores across the US.
For all you know in a few years visiting a book store may be back in fashion again!
(There is an interesting visit report to the 1st Amazon book store just after it had opened in Seattle.)