UPDATE: This is a breaking story and we are adding updates at the bottom as they arise.
Not long ago Starre wrote that books and the independent bookstore aren’t dead. Perhaps she should call the rewrite desk. Look out, independent bookstores: Amazon is coming to town, opening as many as 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores across the country. This should make the indies very nervous.
Now it should be noted upfront that all of this media coverage is coming from one statement quoted in a paywalled Wall Street Journal article quoting the CEO of a major shopping center operator, General Growth Properties' Sandeep Mathrani, who said in an earnings call: “You’ve got Amazon opening brick-and-mortar bookstores and their goal is to open, as I understand, 300 to 400.” Everything else is conjecture. Matt Novak of Gizmodo, one of the first to write about this, has updates in his article with denials and obfuscations:
Update 6:25pm EST: Anonymous Amazon sources are somewhat angry about the reports, which come from a non-Amazon CEO, and are calling the entire story (this one included) “misleading.” Gizmodo has repeatedly asked for on-the-record denials from multiple sources within Amazon and been denied.
Update 6:43pm EST: Anonymous Amazon sources are particularly angry about my last update.
So it could all be flash in the pan, or it could be the real thing, because there is, in fact, some logic behind the idea. Amazon already has a brick-and-mortar store in Seattle (with real bricks!). According to Pavithra Mohan at Fast Company:
“We’ve applied 20 years of online bookselling experience to build a store that integrates the benefits of offline and online book shopping,” Amazon Books VP Jennifer Cast said at the time. “The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated four stars or above, and many are award winners.”
The store only carries about 5,000 titles, compared to 10 times that in a typical Borders store. It's the inversion of the long tail, where you could get everything on the Internet; this is the short tail, where the best sellers are cherry picked. One indie bookseller in Seattle described the store in the Guardian as “sterile” and “not what we think of as a normal bookstore. It’s like a cross between a Microsoft store and an airport bookstore.” But an indie cannot afford to display many books with covers facing out, and those reviews matter.
By using its own data, Amazon knows what will move, and of course it can afford to sell the books in the store at the same price as it does online, which nobody else can do. As Pam Cady of the University Book Store in Seattle tells the Guardian,
“Everyone’s had to adjust to Amazon online,” she says, “but having a store just down the street is a little different. We’re at ground zero. We’re in the blast.” University Book Store is less than a mile away from Amazon Books… It scares me what could happen not just to us, but to everyone.”
Amazon started online with books, so it makes sense that the company would start its offline business with books too, especially now that it has killed off most of the competition, including the bookstore I used to own a piece of.
But there may be a bigger ground game here — bigger than the company's Fires and Kindles and Echoes. Getting less press than its new bookstore is the fancy new product pickup store at UC Berkeley. These bookstores could combine both kinds of operations and become delivery hubs, dramatically reducing shipping costs. Books in the front and boxes in the back. (Perhaps soon you can pick up dinner as well.)
I noted earlier that this might just all be a flash in the pan, hyped almost from a tweet. But I suspect not; it all makes a lot of sense to me.
UPDATE 3 FEB 6:25 EST: Jason Del Rey of Recode reports that there is an initiative to open retail stores, led by a longtime Amazon executive:
Amazon will indeed open up more bookstores, but it also plans to eventually unveil other types of retail stores in addition to bookstores, according to two sources familiar with the plans. It’s not yet clear what those stores will sell or how they will be formatted, but the retail team’s mission is to reimagine what shopping in a physical store would be like if you merged the best of physical retail with the best of Amazon.
There will not be that many and General Growth Properties' Sandeep Mathrani, who made the call that launched a thousand posts and scared a thousand booksellers, has sort of retracted his statement.
There are no immediate plans for a rollout of 300 to 400 stores, two sources say, but they could not rule out that eventual outcome. The mall company CEO who originally asserted those numbers released a statement on Wednesday saying his comment “was not intended to represent Amazon’s plans.”
Watch this space; I suspect there will be more to come.