The best bookstores, in my view, are crammed-to-overflowing with book after book begging to be discovered. If it’s a used bookstore, all the better. You might say I like my bookstores like I like my Oreo cookies: stale and double-stuffed.
Which is why I despise Amazon’s slick, well-lit, data-driven IRL bookstore in Lakeview. Though I will admit through gritted teeth that a bad bookstore is better than no bookstore at all, if you value the life of your mind, avoid this place.
I Like Your Ponytail
Amazon Books opened in Chicago in March of this year and is the fifth of its kind in the U.S. Not surprisingly, Amazon’s home city, Seattle, got the first-ever brick version of the online retail behemoth two years ago. Other cities home to Amazon Books won’t surprise you: Portland, Boston, and San Diego have one; New York’s got two. But fear not, suburban Omaha: Amazon likely has plans to come to a shopping mall near you. All those empty Barnes & Noble lots are move-in ready; how convenient.
Indeed, it’s the matter of Amazon’s location in Chicago (3232 N. Southport Street) which we must first examine, as the issues I have with the business have a good deal to do with its address.
Amazon’s data-driven bookstore — we’ll get to data in a minute — is a crown jewel in the stretch of shops running along Southport Street from Belmont to Grace, an area dubbed recently the “Southport Corridor.”
What sorts of shops will you find in the Southport Corridor? Let me put it this way: If you need new Lululemon running shorts, some artisanal asiago, PBA-free baby bottles and/or dog chews, and a diamond solitaire necklace, you’re gonna crush your errands on the Southport Corridor. There are a lot of ponytails and wedding rings, is what I’m saying. And strollers. Murders of them.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Acura SUVs or a neighborhood which seems to be working toward its own frozen yogurt district. But it would be hard to argue such a place is interested in facilitating dangerous ideas or cultivating revolutions of the personal or public kind — which is what I have always understood to be the purpose of bookstores.
And if that’s true, if a bookstore’s function is to serve as headquarters for people who have a sinking suspicion that this is not all there is, well, such a place simply won’t do in the Southport Corridor, now will it?
That is, unless there was a mathematically calculated way to make a bookstore utterly anodyne. If there were way to minimize risk, it could work. Bookstore as spork. Bookstore as Caesar salad with grilled chicken, dressing on the side.
Could it be done? How would customers be sure no offending title would breach the gates? And who on Earth would have the power to reign in the unruly, messy, eternally multiplying chaos that is books for to wrestle it to the manicured lawn?
We’re seeing more and more that those who control the data control our experience. Amazon’s consumer database is the most powerful in the world. Thus, when you enter what amounts to Amazon’s living room, set aside the silly notion you are in control of what happens there.
The first thing you’ll notice at Amazon Books is that the titles are not shelved as they usually are in bookstores and libraries: vertically placed, spines out. At Amazon, titles are placed flat, face up, on rows of shallow, gently-graded trays. This adjustment has been mistaken for a real marketplace “disruption”, an ingenious bookstore makeover. But it’s only a sales strategy, nothing more. Call it novel positioning.
Think about it: When you shop for books on Amazon.com, you don’t see spines; you see covers. Amazon has made a lot of money off people (like me) who totally judge books by covers. Covers sell books, not spines. I figure when it came time to create its merchandising strategy, the largest online book retailer on the planet wasn’t going to fix what is working beautifully. The covers will face up, Bezos proclaimed, even as it reduces inventory space. (Which it does. Drastically.)
When I asked a friendly Amazon Associate about the wacky setup, I was told that “placing the books face up encourages discovery.”
My ass it will.
Along with a few standard bookstore categories (e.g., Non-Fiction, Mystery, and Young Adult, etc.), Amazon Books has created highly nuanced, data-driven sections such as “Popular Books In Southport” and “Page Turners: Books That Kindle Readers Said They Finished In Three Hours”. There’s a “If You Like, You’ll Love” shelf, where books on the left-hand side each have a algorithmically-determined counterpart on the right. If you like John Updike, you’ll love Philip Roth, for example.
But when Big Data uses popular opinion to determine what products get served to you on platters in a pretty neighborhood on the northside of Chicago, the customer will “discover” a painfully narrow range of books — those books which Amazon has intentionally placed in her path, based on the numbers. The set she’s working with is flawed. Sure, she might not have known there was new, unauthorized biography of Ariana Huffington, but that’s hardly “discovery”; that’s like, looking at stuff.
Amazon’s data-designed bookstore makes it impossible to step outside the set. You will never chance upon Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, or accidentally start reading Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy long enough to get a parking ticket (which would be money well spent).
Nor will you ever find in your hands, perhaps for the first time in your life, a copy of Mein Kampf, and that is too bad, since stumbling upon a book that turns out to be crawling with maggots is an experience every thinking person ought to have once in awhile. It’s important to find stuff you “like” and stuff your “like” likes, but it’s equally important to find stuff you want to throw against the wall.
With space at such a premium, it is guaranteed that Amazon Books will always stock precisely what the data tells them to stock, namely, safe stuff. But the world is not all Tuesdays With Morrie and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. How will you know, if that’s all you’re ever served? If it’s all you ever read, or, even creepier, all that’s ever read to you?
Don’t Lie To Me
I’m not saying Amazon shouldn’t tailor its stock. All booksellers are curators. Chicago’s own Women & Children First bills itself as a feminist bookstore; you can visit Lifeway Christian Stores for Evangelical literature. Of course a store’s inventory should serve its clientele.
(And don’t forget: Indie bookstores have been mining data way longer than Amazon. It’s called, “Hey, Jim! Order more Anarchist Cookbooks, would you? We’re sold out again.”)
The danger in Big Data-driven bookstores run by a colossus like Amazon is that they create silos we don’t notice. If you go into what looks like a general interest bookstore, you’re entitled to the belief that you’re in a general interest bookstore. But at Amazon Books, which totally looks like one, you’re not. The word “gaslighted” comes to mind.
If you’re not going to let books run wild in your bookstore, tell me. Make it known your shop offers “biographies, historical novels and mysteries,” like Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park. Call your bookstore Sluts-a-Go-Go and offer only the best in lady erotica or whatever. But don’t masquerade as a bookstore that “encourages discovery” when it has in fact been carefully engineered for two reasons: safety and sales. At these bookstores, you are the data, but Amazon is driving, make no mistake about that.
Before I left the store the other day, I asked the clerk one last question: If I wanted a book that wasn’t in the store, I could order it there, right?
To my astonishment, the answer was no. They don’t do that at Amazon Books. If you want some weird-ass shit, you’ll apparently have to go home and order it yourself.
And there you’ll be, standing in the kitchen, dimly aware that a book title had crossed your mind, something that sounded so interesting, written a long time ago by an author you had never heard of — what was the name? You’ll stare out the window and try to remember what it was. You’ll recall it sounded odd, like no book you’d ever read, but fascinating… You’ll shake your head. No, you can’t remember it, now, and it probably wasn’t that great if you can’t remember it.
Besides, you just bought a whole stack of books at the bookstore. You’ve got enough to read.
This article first appeared in F Newsmagazine’s September 2017 print edition.