By Mina Shah
Amazon released two major announcements last week, wherein they increased the number of weeks that new mothers can take for maternity leave (yes!), gave new fathers the ability to take paternity leave, if only for six weeks (yes!) and laid out their plan for constructing a books-and-mortar bookstore (yikes!).
I love paper books. I love the feel of holding a book as I’m reading, the way that the spine of paperbacks bend when you get between one- and two-thirds of the way through, the smell of books new and old. I can’t stand reading on a computer screen, because it makes my eyes feel like they’re going to fall out of my head. I become extremely incensed when anyone tries to talk about how paper books are dying out because of the upsurge in e-readers (which is objectively not going to happen, but that’s a subject for another column). So why am I so worried about Amazon’s new business plan to create and run a bricks-and-mortar bookstore?
For two critical reasons. Ultimately this move, if expanded, as I expect Amazon plans to do, will end up putting a lot of smaller, local bookstores out of business. When people buy things (books included) online from Amazon, the company tracks those purchases. This means that starting as soon as the company launched, they’ve been collecting data about your purchases, and yes, you.
With this data, they can predict what items buyers will want to buy in the future and plan marketing and sales in a way that will maximize purchases from users. Being able to use this data collected from online in the physical world will give the Amazon bookstore a huge advantage over local bookstores in terms of marketing, advertising and targeting the interests of local populations. This will inevitably make it much easier for the Amazon bookstore to make profits over local bookstores, increasing the likelihood of putting them out of business.
While some people might get excited by this idea (what could go wrong!? People will have bookstore experiences that are tailored just for them!), this is troubling, because the more local bookstores go out of business, the more control Amazon has over the book market. I don’t think it would be too crazy to imagine a world in which Amazon had a monopoly (or something which is effectively a monopoly) over the entire book market, both online and in the physical world.
The second argument that I have against the fall-out of a policy change like this is less quantifiable but just as important. There’s something inherent in experiences of local bookstores that is magical because of the fact that they aren’t tailored to you as a consumer by virtue of the data that your past purchases have produced. They are tailored to you by real people who own and care for personal stores, not by an algorithm.
When you walk into a local bookstore, you never know what you’ll find, but the store has been curated, in a manner of speaking, for your community. It is one of the most wonderful things to know that the experience of existing in a bookstore is not meant for you in particular, but it is meant to create a shared space in which random discovery is possible and a community can create or reflect its own identity.
If Amazon creates this bookstore and ends up taking over bookstores in general, we will lose the collectivity and community of local bookstores. The bookstores of the future would be designed for the individual. They would be specific and isolating and it would be much more difficult to discover, to truly discover, new genres or books which may be totally unrelated to a reader’s previous preferences. Thus, we end up feeding an individual’s sense of entitlement that the world and its organization ought to be centered around us, something which we should be breaking down instead of reinforcing.
I know it may sound like a silly, small thing to worry about, the loss of a particular bookstore aesthetic. In reality, though, these sorts of small things are what make up the little jewels of the human existence. The ability to wander and discover in a space that is not your own is very important. And I don’t think that giving Amazon the ability to make a few extra bucks is worth sacrificing that.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.