The Bookstore Made By the Bookseller That Thinks Books Are a Pure Commodity

Aside from the bemusement of seeing a bricks and mortar bookstore launched by the online retailer that led a million pundits to declare the death of the bricks and mortar bookstore, I’m genuinely curious to see what Amazon thinks a bookstore should be for the reason that the Amazon website was founded on the principle that books were a pure commodity. That is, that any copy of a book was perfectly exchangable with any other copy of that same book, and all you needed to do to sell them was to find the person who wanted to buy that particular book.

Interestingly, though, Dustin Kurtz’s delightful overview of Amazon’s first physical bookstore seems to indicate that Amazon is departing from that ideology:

Amazon Books is paying its booksellers well—wages begin at $18 an hour, with benefits. That’s well above starting rates at most indies; it also comes in ahead of Seattle’s impending $15 minimum wage. The effort Amazon had to exert to recruit these talented booksellers—they were noticeably good at their jobs—and the wages they’ve had to offer, stand in an odd juxtaposition to one of the central ideas of the site. Take the shelf-talkers. Amazon has always asserted that there is value—financial and culturally—to letting readers decide which books are good. Now, not only are they bringing in gatekeepers (the press release uses the word “curator”) to tweak and hone those lists of books, and to present the books in an attractive and reasonably intelligent manner, but they’ve had to pay them well in order to bring them into the Amazon fold. This is, first, one of Amazon’s occasional seemingly accidental acts of decency in their continued expansion, but it is also a hell of a big asterisk on what has been their guiding principle: that books are all made equal and people can choose what they want with little oversight or guidance.

Of course, this is still Amazon after all, so one can’t expect them to depart entirely from their books-as-pure-commodity orthodoxy. I’m interested to see where this goes. Unless this is really just the whim of an over-empowered Amazon middle manager, there is obviously a bigger strategy here. But, of course, Amazon is famous for just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, and I’m sure they’ve spent far more on long-since-discarded algorithms and apps than this whole store cost to set up, so maybe this is just a whim.

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