It’s often been said that Apple Stores—soaring glass, sweeping stairs, light-flooded spaces echoing with the din of human voices—function, in their way, as secular cathedrals. The stores— though the word “store” doesn’t quite feel adequate—celebrate both introspection and communion. They are meant to humble and inspire. “They feel iconic, like an emblem of the personal,” the cultural historian Erica Robles-Anderson has put it.
Apple’s success in translating the religious revivalism of digital retail spaces into physical ones is something other brands (Google, Microsoft, Samsung) have tried to emulate—with, generally, much less success. Theirs are stores that have not been converted, via savvy branding, into temples. But now there’s another digital retail behemoth trying to take a lesson from Apple: Amazon. Which on Tuesday opened its own digital-to-physical retail space: a large bookstore named, simply, Amazon Books. The store, in Seattle’s University Village, is notably (and, of course, ironically) Barnes & Noble-like in its aesthetic. There’s a lot of wood. There are a lot of shelves. There are a lot of books! The dream of the ’90s is alive in Seattle, apparently.
Amazon Books is on the one hand a continuation of efforts its parent company has made with its grocery offerings and locker-based pick-up systems: experiments with the merging of digital retail and physical. (The store is “a physical extension of Amazon.com,” its press release notes. It’s also “a store without walls.”)
But Amazon Books is also much more than simply another delivery platform. This is a store in the manner of TOMS, with its attached artisanal cafes, and of Anthropologie, with its integrated art installations: It’s a space that encourages patrons to hang out in, to spend time in, to settle down in. Amazon Books, like a Barnes & Noble of yore, comes complete with plush leatherette chairs for relaxed reading. There are open areas for browsing and chatting. There’s a kids’ area. (“Relax, read, and discover great books with your children,” the release invites.)
Which is also to say that Amazon Books is trying to be a place of community—a place where people will meet and hang out. A place that celebrates both introspection and extroversion. A place much like Apple’s buzzing, light-flooded, free-wifi-enabled temples—only with the tech gadgets on display being, for the most part, books.
Which makes sense. Amazon has always been, implicitly, about community, with “customers” and “customers who bought this item” and the like omnipresent, if anonymous, in the commercial transactions it hosts. Amazon Books is simply translating that implied community into a more immediate one. “To give you more information as you browse, our books are face-out,” Amazon notes, “and under each one is a review card with the Amazon.com customer rating and a review. You can read the opinions and assessments of Amazon.com’s book-loving customers to help you find great books.”
The selection of books on display, too, is determined by the community. (“The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments,” Amazon notes.) Instead of the Employee Picks shelves that are mainstays at local bookshops, Amazon’s store gives prominent placement to books that are “Highly Rated (4.8 Stars & Above).”
All of which gives Amazon Books a fighting chance to become what the Google store and the Microsoft store and their fellow efforts have failed to become: Apple-y cathedrals to commerce. But it also means that Amazon Books could become something else in the process, emulating institutions that have been their own kinds of cathedrals: libraries. Which have traditionally been just what Amazon is aiming to create: spaces that are premised on books, but realized by community. The books here may be bought rather than borrowed, certainly, but in terms of the space created, the goal is the same. Amazon Books is a store doing the work of a cultural institution. It’s about commerce, yes, but it’s also about collectivity. It is, in form if not in name, a library. And its librarians are the same people who serve as curators for amazon.com: fellow customers.