A Visit to Amazon’s Newest Brick and Mortar Bookstore

The first thing a bibliophile notices: It smells like books.

Author: Nicole Perrin

March 24, 2017

Shoppers checking out Chicago’s newly opened Amazon Books Store might have a first impression a bit different from most bookstores—the storefront windows are about equally divided between the café, books, and Amazon Echo devices. But their second impression will be more familiar, as the traditional bookstore smell pervades the space inside and front tables tout new hardcover nonfiction.

There’s a slight twist to those tables, though: The one nearest the door displays only books rated at least 4.8 stars out of five on Amazon’s ecommerce hub. The general principal holds throughout the store, which curates a selection of highly rated books across genres to display, face-out, in paperback and hardcover form, without a spine in sight.

The selection, though narrower than what there’s room for in a big-box format (and narrower than what’s available in similarly sized neighborhood stores that display books on shelves the traditional way), is pretty much what you’d expect. The general fiction section is a mix of contemporary literary fiction you’ve heard of everywhere, like Elena Ferrante and Jonathan Safran Foer novels, with traditional high school staples like Steinbeck and Hemingway, plus some newer titles that haven’t broken into the public consciousness yet. The poetry section includes 31 titles, hitting on Rumi and Allen Ginsberg alongside Claudia Rankine, Maya Angelou and Johnny Cash—but Anne Carson fans may be disappointed.

"If you like..."

The ultra-curated selection means you can’t really count on finding anything in particular. I knew I’d want to go through the checkout process in-store, so I planned to buy a new book that’s getting lots of publicity, Misty Copeland’s new title on her “Ballerina Body.” It seemed like a safe bet, especially since Copeland was in Chicago earlier this week to promote it. But the book was nowhere to be found.

I did manage to find some fiction I genuinely wanted—a collection of short stories by Ottessa Moshfegh. The selection seems counterintuitive, given that its sales rank on Amazon.com is around 15,000, compared to the No. 76-ranked “Ballerina Body.”

Of course, why would anyone need to find anything in particular at an Amazon brick-and-mortar store? If you know what you want, you can already order it with one click, and it’s likely to arrive in a day or two at most. The Amazon Book Store experience is clearly about serendipity, with sections set up to show “if you like ___, you’ll love ___” and an emphasis on social data from Amazon-owned Goodreads. Every front-facing book in the store also features an excerpt from an Amazon.com review of the item, grammatical errors and all.

And the most notable thing about that is how little it differs from a traditional bookstore, especially independent ones that have long featured staff recommendations and blurbs for popular books alongside ones you might not have heard of. During the checkout process, I followed easy instructions at the point of sale to pay using the Amazon app already installed on my smartphone, but even here there was a traditional element as the cashier asked me about my selection, seeming genuinely interested and asking me for more information on the author.