Amazon Books

Thomas de Monchaux, who appears to write extensively on architectural and cultural topics for the New Yorker, has penned a long analysis there of the design and layout of the new Amazon Books bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle. His view – elaborated at great length – is that Amazon’s design scheme “soothes our anxieties about technology” with a layout sort of like a Starbucks” using a “Heritage Modern or Warm Industrial” aesthetic. That implies that there’s some anxiety that needs soothing in the first place, but put that aside for now.

The author insinuates that “Amazon’s intention had been a miniature masquerade, to pose as the kind of downtown community bookstore that it (like Barnes & Noble before it) is conventionally said to have displaced.” Honestly, it just looks like a bookstore to me: conventional enough to allay anxieties, fine, but very little different from, say, a typical Waterstones interior in the UK. Okay, there may be brown shelving instead of black, rather like the old Borders stores in fact, but otherwise there’s precious little to choose in terms of ambience. And it also seems a bit much to call out Amazon for using faux-retro demi-industrial frontage in an American retail landscape bulging with Polo Ralph Lauren country house kitsch and Replay stores.

This also represents to me something of a misunderstanding of Amazon’s business. Yes, Amazon is all about tech, but what Amazon Books does well is ram home how much Amazon’s business remains about physical product. Amazon is Big Publishing’s single biggest market, and the street corner bookstore’s biggest rival, in physical books, as much as if not far more than in ebooks. It’s also a publisher of physical books, with Amazon Publishing. And what Amazon Books does very well is to underline how to use tech to support the physical retail experience.

As Amazon Books’ website proclaims, “the books in our store are selected based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.” Now, was anything stopping B&N or other bricks-and-mortar rivals digging into Amazon’s customer ratings, Goodreads assessments, and so on, and stocking on a similar basis? Maybe they can’t link back end to front end as nimbly as Amazon itself, but then they have far wider networks to do it across. Amazon for now has only one physical storefront. And yes, you can “walk out of the store with a book” or “lighten your load and buy it online” at, as well as “test drive Amazon’s devices,” but Amazon appears to be actually using its tech to simply make for better retail. Isn’t that a more significant, striking example of integrated retail experience?

Instead, we get plenty of flannel about how Amazon is prettying up its raw tech with much the same kind of styling that any other up-market retailer does. Was Amazon really trying to allay tech anxiety in the same way that early railway carriage designers copied the familiar lines of the stagecoach? I rather doubt it. But that makes for snider copy than a more analytical dive into how Amazon is actually levering technology in the retail space. It may all be very monopolistic and incestuous. But you still get the impression that other retailers ought to learn from it.


Amazon Books exterior


  1. Your right Paul. I left Seattle in 2012, but I spent many hours in the B&N megastore that used to be about a hundred yards from Amazon’s new store. The two could hardly be more different: a huge selection versus a limited one and a comfortable place to read versus the bookish equivalent of fast food.

    Amazon’s quite Darwinian, and thus always thinking in terms of occupying every ecological niche it can, lest a competitor develop and grow strong. One of Amazon’s current weak spots is ‘grab and run’ purchasing. If it’s Friday and you need a book for the coming three-day weekend, Amazon isn’t the answer. Even a next-day delivery will be too late. So you hit your local, non-Amazon bookstore for a recent bestseller. Occupying that niche is what this is all about.

    Amazon has no interest in imitating Starbucks and having an outlet on every street corner. Books don’t sell quite like coffee. But they do have reasons to place Amazon bookstores in highly trafficked locations in major cities. This store in University Village is perhaps the first of many, should it succeed. I hated to shop there because it was always crowded. Both Apple and Microsoft have stores there. This store is a test bed for other stores in busy locations in major cities. That’s the cream of book sales and Amazon wants to skim most of that cream for itself.

    Faced with that three day weekend, Amazon wants a Manhattan version of you to have a convenient Amazon store to drop by during your lunch break. They’re even making the prices like those online, so you save on postage as well as time.

    Does the design and layout matter? Probably not. When I lived in Seattle, I knew someone who was doing the interior design for the offices in Amazon’s new skyscrapers on South Lake Union. I suspect Amazon also contracted out the interior of this store. I wouldn’t make much of this or that feature.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books

  2. Remember you’re getting an architect’s point of view. He’s rhapsodizing, not just describing, so you’re getting his impressions and feelings as well as his point of view.

    A doctor writing that article might have described it’s effects on his blood pressure. Edna St. Vincent Millay might have discussed it’s effects on her death. Red Skelton writing that article might have described the conversation a couple of birds had while flying through the store. John Wayne might have written the article you want, saying “The place is full of books”. 🙂

    I think there’s a lot to be gained from articles like this as long as we don’t take them literally or too seriously. The same might be said of the bible.


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