As head of Amazon, Bezos went from selling books only online to launching a series of brick-and-mortar bookstores across the country, including two in the Washington metropolitan area. As co-owner of Politics and Prose, whose original location is in Northwest DC, I opened a few branches around the city.
For his favorite sites, Bezos chose Georgetown and Bethesda, two of the most established and expensive shopping districts. They were also where Barnes & Noble once operated, until he found the locations too difficult and unprofitable for a chain of bookstores.
P&P branches opened in Union market in northeast DC and the dock in the southwest, two historically underserved communities undergoing transformation and renewed growth. Committed as P&P remains at its roots in the North West, where the store was founded in 1984we sought to expand our book sales and community building efforts to other vibrant and diverse neighborhoods in the city.
From the start, the purpose of Amazon bookstores was never clear. Various accounts indicated their goal was less to sell books than to promote Prime membership and possibly some non-book products.
In style and concept, Amazon’s stores differed markedly from the independent bookstores that dot the DC landscape. They conveyed the homogenized corporate identity of the parent company rather than the distinctiveness of their communities. They lacked the quirky personality and warmth of indies. And their book offerings weren’t based on the choices of individual shoppers familiar with local customer interests, but on data generated by Amazon’s online shoppers. Walk into an Amazon bookstore and you’ll see what everyone was reading, not a carefully curated selection of books waiting to be discovered.
So it came as little surprise to me when Amazon confirmed on Wednesday that it was shutting down its 24 bookstores. It is also ending its pop-up kiosks and 4-star stores, which sold electronics, toys, and home goods.
But Amazon isn’t entirely brick-and-mortar. The company now intends to focus its physical retail efforts on Amazon Fresh, Whole Foods, Amazon Go and a new fashion company, Amazon style. In the process, Amazon is also likely to continue to pursue its “just get outtechnology, which eliminates checkouts.
Amazon’s exit from the physical bookstore business underscores what those of us know all too well: it’s not easy. This requires excellent customer service, a dedicated staff that provides knowledgeable advice on what to read, an inviting environment in which to browse and shop, and literary activities that connect customers directly to authors through lectures on the books and other programs. Above all, it requires a deep commitment to the local communities that support us.
Even during the pandemic of the past two years, most independent bookstores have managed to survive. This has meant doing what independents do best, which is adapting, innovating and staying focused on the community. At P&P, we began offering curbside pickup and local delivery services, moved our author conferences and literary courses online, and expanded our web ordering capabilities, all while keeping staff employed and protected from covid-19.
But Amazon remains a major threat to us and to independent bookstores around the world. Although it is now closing its physical book stores, the company persists as a dominant presence online, stifling competition and engaging in unfair practices.
A national conversation about the costs and consequences of Amazon’s enormous power is already underway, with attention focused on how the company is negatively affecting neighborhoods through the erosion of jobs, a loss of character for our hometowns and less money in sales taxes for local economies. Hopefully this attention will lead to some sort of breakdown or regulation.
In the meantime, it will be up to customers to make the critical choice between independent shopping and Amazon shopping. As Allison Hill, Executive Director of the Association of American Booksellers, declared, “As the pandemic subsides and we return to the social spaces that bring us together, we will decide whether we want to be trivialized or recognized as individuals. Independent businesses across the country add diversity, character and humanity to our communities and they need our support.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time celebrating the end of Amazon’s bookstores. Not given the challenges that Amazon still poses. But now there’s a new answer to the question about the difference between Jeff Bezos and me: I’m in the physical bookstore business, and he’s not.