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The New Yorker Visits Amazon Books, But Can’t See The Business For The Architecture

5791297673_86b519dea1_oMany people have written about Amazon’s first bookstore in the two months since it opened, but few have been quite so clueless as The New Yorker (although The Atlantic came close).

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

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Anne January 1, 2016 um 9:26 pm

While it doesn’t make the article any more informative or appealing to me, I noted that de Monchaux is an architect and is also listed as an adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia. Some of the articles he has written are also tagged "architecture writer". I suspect this kind of writing (architectural critique?) is normal for him regardless of subject. It was likely the New Yorker that wanted some pointless article taking a jab or two at Amazon and Starbucks and Restoration Hardware and University Village. I guess.

Nate Hoffelder January 1, 2016 um 9:33 pm

Now that is a detail I should have noticed. Facepalm.

In my defense, I have to wonder why The New Yorker would send an architect to write about Amazon’s first bookstore.

Chris Meadows, Editor of Teleread January 1, 2016 um 11:25 pm

Because they wanted to know how the space was designed and used, maybe?

Nate Hoffelder January 2, 2016 um 7:16 am

@ Chris

But he didn’t actually say anything about that topic. He engaged in verbal diarrhea.

puzzled January 2, 2016 um 6:14 am

Because they needed to fill a 1435 word hole in the magazine, and Lorem Ipsum has recently had its copyright extended?

Nate Hoffelder January 2, 2016 um 8:17 am

@ Puzzled

That makes as much sense as anything else.

fjtorres January 2, 2016 um 7:39 am

The writer may be an architect but he writes like the stereotypical tweed jacket and pipe english professor from tv murder mysteries. I can easily see Columbo fingering him for his usual "one more thing" just for the obfuscation. No innocent bystander talks that much saying nothing. He obviously has something to hide. 😉

Nate Hoffelder January 2, 2016 um 8:16 am

@ Felix Fun fact: My mother has a degree in architectural engineering. I grew up listening to her talk about this kind of thing, so I know the difference between thoughtful analysis and literary diarrhea.

This is definitely the latter.

Barry January 2, 2016 um 8:44 am

I’ve read a number of articles about Amazon’s new store and I like that the writers discuss it from various viewpoints. If one comes at it from a viewpoint that doesn’t particularly interest you that doesn’t mean that it’s not useful, that just means it’s not interesting to you. I had previously read that article and enjoyed it.

I like a lot of variety in my reading.


Anne January 2, 2016 um 11:16 am

@Barry- What did you enjoy about this particular article? I kept waiting for him to answer the title in the article and I cared enough to check his background in an effort to see where he was coming from. I either missed it or just didn’t get it. It just seemed like he was taking scattered shots all around without addressing his premise.

Barry January 2, 2016 um 8:29 pm

I read it several days ago so I just re-read it to be able to answer you. You might want to do the same. His last paragraph explains the title, although I think the whole article does that as well.

He’s an architect giving his impressions using architectural terminology. I don’t know much about architecture but when I was in college a few of my friends were architecture majors and I went with them to hear a few speakers on the topic. They also used a lot of allusions that didn’t ring any bells for me. I still always found it fascinating. I try to avoid being prevented by the parts I don’t understand from learning from the parts I do.

I enjoy learning about things I don’t know. So from this article I learned a bit how an architect might see a new store and how it fits the stores around it.

I found this fairly difficult reading but with the help of google I learned a bit about Amazon’s store and more about this guy’s point of view about it. I’ve read a number of other articles about the new store but they were all mostly kind of the same. This was different.

It’s a bit like reading an introduction to a book written by someone other than the author. They usually go pretty far afield in describing the book and they’re usually more about impressions than facts.

My career was as a computer programmer so I understand about taking things literally. If a program says x = 1 then it equals 1. It doesn’t sort of equal something like one. But my hobby, most of my life, was drawing, sculpture and music, so I have a serious love of non-literal, impressionistic things as well. I was a good programmer and about as bad an artist and musician as I was good as a programmer, but at least I was good enough to learn to trust that side of me.

In this case the writing was good, if a bit more florid than I usually like, but overall it was an enjoyable read.

Also it’s a New Yorker article and they’re always at least a bit flowery. 🙂


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