I was catching up on my reading this new year’s day when I came to a piece by Thomas De Monchaux where he recounts his experience in visiting Amazon Books. De Monchaux wastes 1435 words describing in intricate detail every single architectural element concerning Amazon Books, the physical structure it resides in, and the surrounding shopping center, all while neglecting to actually consider what he’s looking at or what it could mean.
Do you know the phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees”? Well, De Monchaux can’t see the business for the architecture.
Never has so much been written to express so little:
The Amazon bookstore does something similar: suspended somewhere between a tangible (albeit exquisitely staged) reality of paper and wood, and a perceptible (albeit artfully obscured) reality of pipes and machinery, the bookstore customer is able to experience a curated version of the ethical and visceral tension between front-of-house and back-of-house—between the sleek one-click seamlessness of the screen and the unceasing labor of the fulfillment center—as a kind of pleasure. In our global moment of high-tech fabrication and doorstep delivery, we are gradually becoming more aware of distant factories and warehouses, from urban China to exurban America, and of the dispossessed lives of the faraway people who make and move our possessions. Can it be a coincidence that this awareness parallels the emergence of an aesthetic that seems, somehow, to remind us of warehouses and factories—but, with all that burnished wood and polished metal, of warehouses and factories at rest, from another time, at their most impossibly beautiful?
Do you know how NPR occasionally broadcasts long editorials essays where the speaker discusses a personal subject in tedious detail?
That is what de Monchaux wrote for The New Yorker, and while this screed would be very entertaining if it were read by James Earl Jones or Stephen Fry, it is still so lacking in substance that it would still be a waste of time.
This is the closest de Monchaux comes to making a useful observation, and even here he fails to connect the dots and draw the obvious conclusion:
If Amazon’s intention had been a miniature masquerade, to pose as the kind of downtown community bookstore that it (like Barnes & Noble before it) is conventionally said to have displaced, then plenty of actual neighborhood storefronts were available in Seattle. A wave of smaller online retailers—especially clothiers and accessories-makers like Bonobos, Frank & Oak, and Warby Parker, for whom in-person trying-on is a thing—has done just that, recently opening bricks-and-mortar storefronts in urban downtowns from New York to San Francisco. Amazon’s decision to occupy a pseudo-neighborhood psuedo-storefront is, intentionally or inadvertently, more interesting.
de Monchaux almost grasps the idea that Amazon opened its first bookstore in an upscale shopping because it wanted to draw in the upscale customer base, but he doesn’t quite come out and say so.
As has been made clear from past coverage of Amazon Books, Amazon wants the upscale customer base because Money, but also because Amazon isn’t out to sell books so much as gather your in-store browsing patterns.
Rich customers are more likely to have a smartphone, and since the browsing experience at Amazon Books is built around the Amazon app, these are exactly the customers Amazon wants.
And de Monchaux just couldn’t make the connection.
To be fair, I worked backwards from what I already knew about Amazon Books, but then again de Monchaux could have done the same. The information and analysis is only a Google search away, had de Monchaux invested minimal effort.
But he didn’t.
image by jaumescar