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Commentary: Amazon Should Leave Brick-And-Mortar To The Little Guys

A customer shops at the opening day for Amazon Books, the first brick-and-mortar retail store for online retail giant, on Nov. 3, 2015, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
A customer shops at the opening day for Amazon Books, the first brick-and-mortar retail store for online retail giant, on Nov. 3, 2015, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Beloved or reviled, Amazon has become a regular player in our consumer experience. Already famous for having a hand in putting many a small bookshop (and other stores) out of business, the online retailer has expanded its presence into the non-digital arena.

Amazon has already opened actual bookstores — what the company calls Amazon Books — in Seattle and San Diego. Plans are afoot to launch more retail locations in Portland, Chicago and New York City.

And yes, also Boston.

Home to one of the nation’s most vibrant indie bookseller scenes, Greater Boston will be the site of an Amazon Books branch in Dedham at the Legacy Place shopping center, opening sometime in 2017.

Since Amazon’s founding in 1994 at the dawn of the internet, we’ve all learned to coexist with this behemoth — and not just grumpy book lovers like me whose mantra has been to support the little guy. But this latest move is ironic. Amazon is sending its slithery tendrils into the very sphere it helped to decimate, the brick-and-mortar book business.

Ed Hermance, the owner of Giovanni's Room, the nation's oldest gay bookstore, works at his desk April 29, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP file photo)
Ed Hermance, the owner of Giovanni's Room, the nation's oldest gay bookstore, works at his desk April 29, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP file photo)

As a former bookseller myself, I lament these events. Must Amazon nose in on the very territory that indie bookstores have cultivated for decades? In less generous moods, I complain to the heavens — or, perhaps, to “the cloud” — when is enough, enough? Can't you be satisfied with dominating online sales?

If you recall, the online giant already has several notches on its belt. It jump-started the decline of retail shopping in general, and independent bookstores in particular. But not just the indies: The bankruptcy of Borders in 2011 has been largely attributed to the rise of Amazon, and their “aggressive discounting of books online,” according to Fortune. It rules self-publishing markets and has begun to publish its own titles, not to mention Amazon’s forays into financing its own movie and TV content.

Supporters of Amazon’s bookshops will say, ‘Dude, it’s a free market.’ Why should consumers care about the Darwinian nature of bookstores going in and out of business? Shoppers have benefitted when Walmart and CVS drove Main Street pharmacies to an early grave. Locals might miss these “everyone knows your name,” family-centered businesses, but hey, nothing stops Americans from the endless pursuit of better prices, more for less.

Thankfully, in the book world, the outlook for indies isn’t as grim as it was a decade ago. According to The New York Times, from 2010 to 2015, the raw number of independent bookstores grew from 1,410 indies in 1,660 locations in 2010 to 1,712 shops in 2,227 locations in 2015. That’s a 21 percent leap.

To be sure, the Boston branch poses no immediate threat to our hometown favorites. Amazon Books is headed to what some might call an already soulless shopping center, the luxury Legacy Place, where there’s nary an indie for miles. It’s not like Amazon Books is invading Harvard Square. Not yet.

Amazon Books is headed to what some might call an already soulless shopping center, the luxury Legacy Place.

And fortunately, area book fans support our local shops. As I plugged in my New York Times travel story on Cambridge, we are blessed to have some of the best locally owned bookstores in the nation — many right in Harvard Square, a retail zone already undergoing another round of growing pains, a fact Alex Green rightly pointed out in a recent Cognoscenti piece that commented on the likely shuttering of The Curious George Store.

Indies thrive here, like Porter Square Books, Brookline Booksmith, Harvard Book Store, Trident Booksellers and Cafe, Brattle Book Shop, Newtonville Books and, further afield, An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville — the brainchild of the author of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, Jeff Kinney.

I recently attended the New England Independent Booksellers Association conference in Providence, where I spoke with many booksellers. I ran into a colleague who is opening an indie bookstore in Belmont next spring. Despite the always uncertain climate for indie shops, he's taking a chance and putting his savings on the line.

But here’s the rub: More may be lost when Amazon expands its kudzu-like growth everywhere. The online chain’s impact threatens to be even more catastrophic to communities than when Barnes & Noble took over more than 700 college bookstores nationwide, sticking it to students by turning a profit on the lucrative textbook market.

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The issue many consumers may not see is that Amazon has the largesse to fail.

The issue many consumers may not see is that Amazon has the largesse to fail. These Amazon Books outlets only gross $2 million annually in sales, a paltry sum compared to Amazon’s hefty $20 billion overall revenue for “media products, a category that includes books," according to The Boston Globe. Some suggest these shops exist not to turn a profit, but mainly to push consumers to buy their e-book reading devices, much like their existing two-dozen “pop-up” electronics stores. Amazon’s got nothing to lose.

But like the predatory practices of a lot of chains (Starbucks among them), Amazon and its coffers can afford to dabble in this little experiment of opening a few shops and weather the loss if they shutter. These giants often pick off the clientele of existing mom-and-pops, over-saturating local markets, and forcing indies to close (a practice well documented in Naomi Klein's book "No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies"). Then, the big chains regroup. Even after financial losses, their foothold is secure. Meanwhile, their nest eggs gone, the cash-starved indies go belly up. These same entrepreneurs won’t open another bookstore anytime soon.

It's an outrage since much of the indies’ recent success is due to being creative and attentive to their customer base. They’ve added cafes, bolstered community outreach, and offered a robust series of events and loyalty programs. Wanna bet that Amazon will eventually try to duplicate this very formula?

Customers stand near a display of Kindle electronic readers at the opening day for Amazon Books, the first brick-and-mortar retail store for online retail giant Amazon, Nov. 3, 2015, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
Customers stand near a display of Kindle electronic readers at the opening day for Amazon Books, the first brick-and-mortar retail store for online retail giant Amazon, Nov. 3, 2015, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Details of the exact offerings at the future Dedham Amazon Books are yet to be determined. But we can assume the retail experience will be similar to existing locations in Seattle and San Diego. I haven’t seen either, but taking a look at photos and text on Amazon’s website, books and devices (the Kindle, naturally) are the primary focus. Other merch — cards, games, plush toys — don’t seem to be on offer.

But these retail shops do have a curious way of selecting their stock. While the company says each Amazon Books location is “a store without walls” that “integrates the benefits of offline and online shopping to help you find books and devices you’ll love,” actual numbers of books on the shelves seems mighty limited. The selection is apparently based on Amazon.com customer ratings (mostly four stars or above), sales, Goodreads reviews and the opinions of Amazon’s “curators.” In other words, the selection is a popularity contest. Customers aren’t likely to find many hidden gems from small and indie presses. Expect lots of bestsellers and already-knowns.

Amazon also says, “We place books face-out on the shelves, so each can communicate its own essence.” With no books packed into the shelves like sardines, spine out, each store is going to offer an incredibly limited number of titles.

As businesses get bigger, so do homogenization, tyranny by data and the echo-chamber of the algorithm.

The lesson? As businesses get bigger, so do homogenization, tyranny by data and the echo-chamber of the algorithm. Selection, diversity and choice plummet.

To me, this seems the biggest threat posed by Amazon Books.

These stores, just like Amazon online, can’t recommend a book the way an independent bookseller can — one book at a time, human to human.

And my guess is that Amazon Books employees will be about as enthusiastic as the average chain store clerk. The company appears to be adopting the all-too-common practice of other big-box retailers: Give workers less than 20 hours a week to avoid paying benefits and health care. Their job posting for Amazon Books associate for the Dedham store announces “Please note: we're looking for only part-time associates at this time.” Sounds like a recipe for disgruntlement.

I say to you, Amazon, can you not back down a little? Go back to the shadows of the Internet where you belong.

I frequent my local indie store for the people, the knowledge base, the banter, the community. I don’t want my books recommended to me by the equivalent of “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” and “You Might Also Like” prompts.

I know America is the land of the free market. Still, I say to you, Amazon, can you not back down a little? Go back to the shadows of the internet where you belong. Let these little guys survive.

If you don’t, here’s my piddling threat. If I ever find myself haunting one of your brick-and-mortar Amazon Books stores, I’ll do what countless price-addicted shoppers now do at indie shops — except with this twist. I’ll take a picture of a book I want to buy. Then I’ll purchase it, instead, at my local bookseller.

Ethan Gilsdorf Twitter Contributor
Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer, critic and author of "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks."

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