The timing of the rumors were off by about 16 months, but the first store may have opened earlier this month in San Fransisco. The WSJ says that a pop-up store/kiosk opened up for a couple weeks in an SF-area mall:
The Seattle retailer has a pop-up shop within a San Francisco mall where it is selling the devices as well as branded covers and power adapters from vending machines. There are sample Kindles on display for shoppers to test.
At the San Francisco popup store, Kindle Paperwhite e-readers were displayed on shelves beside well-worn hardcover books like a volume of Lord Byron’s poetry and Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers.” Two women staffed the site in Kindle-branded denim shirts.
Amazon reportedly set up booths in 2 locations at the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall, including a small booth and this larger installation shown below:
Both locations are temporary and it's not completely clear whether they're staffed by anyone from Amazon. While Amazon has been hiring Kindle field reps since June of this year, those reps would likely be more willing to talk than the one employee cornered by the WSJ reporter. She did not give her name, and she said she was not an Amazon employee.
So, do you think this means Amazon might actually be interested in a retail store?
Update: Amazon says that these aren't retail stores.
The rumors of the past couple years were pretty conclusively disproved last Fall when Jeff Bezos denied any interest in opening Kindle-branded retail stores, but he did also say that Amazon didn't see how they could run a store that was better than existing retailers. Maybe these pop up stores are a sign that Amazon is testing a new idea for retail.
I don't think so, but times change.
If nothing else, who would have guessed that Amazon would put their logo on a chain of retail kiosks in Brazil? Those kiosks sold Kindle gear, but were operated by the Brazilian cellphone retailer Superfone, which at one point had 9 Kindle kiosks. Perhaps Amazon is testing a similar idea for the US.
Many are probably going to point out that Amazon is short of retail partners now that Target, Walmart, and other major retailers have stopped carrying the Kindle, and even the one or 2 indie retailers that Amazon manages to pick up under the Amazon Source program won't be enough to fill the gap.
While that is true, I am not convinced that Amazon's own chain of retail stores can solve the problem either; there's no way Amazon could open enough locations to match Walmart or Target.
And it's not like the Kindle hardware has the profit margins of Apple gadgetry, so any retail location run by Amazon just to sell Kindles would probably be a money-losing operation.
With that in mind I am going to stick with my current disbelief. There just isn't enough evidence to convince me to change my mind.