Amazon bookstores are expanding across the US. The latest one just opened in San Jose's swanky shopping mall, Santana Row. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)
The online retailer Amazon opened a bookstore in San Jose Thursday. Take a moment with that news. This is 20 years after the online retail giant helped lay waste to the brick and mortar book industry. The San Jose bookstore is not the first. It's Amazon’s tenth nationwide, its second in California and its first in the Bay Area.
In many respects, the Seattle-based behemoth is following on the footsteps of other tech giants like Apple and Microsoft. Vice president of Amazon's books division, Jennifer Cast, says customers like to see products in person -- books, and other things, too. "They need help," Cast says. "They need advice, and so we have associates who are experts on Amazon devices."
That said, the Amazon bookstore in San Jose's Santana Row delivers an impressive experience for book lovers, with numerous, distinctively Amazonian touches. You get the Amazon.com price if you’re signed up with the company’s membership program, Amazon Prime. Many of the bookstore sections follow what’s trending online. One area of the store called "Page Turners" highlights books that a large number of Kindle readers finished in three days or less.
Cast explains the bookstore is an extension of the web site. "We’ve been selling online for 20 years, and so we have a lot of information on what customers love: what customers are reading, why they're reading, how they're reading," she says.
Amazon's first high street store opened in 2015 in Seattle. While it's too soon to say whether the strategy works financially, there were plenty of curious and enthusiastic customers milling about the San Jose store on the first day.
Jim and Cynthia Williams of Campbell are both avid readers. She’s a Kindle fan. He’s not. "I have to have something to touch and feel,"Jim Williams says. "The hard copy has always been what I like. That’s part of the enjoyment of a book for me."
Before she retired, Cynthia Williams worked in finance in the tech industry and she sees Amazon's move as making business sense. "Well, they’re acquiring Whole Foods, so they’re obviously getting more into brick and mortar," she says. "So they’re bringing the businesses, the brick and mortar and the online together."
What goes around comes around
It's hard to truly quantify the devastation among independent bookstores that followed Amazon's launch in 1994. Back in 1995, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) claimed roughly 7,000 member stores. Today, there are roughly 2,300.
Amazon wasn't to blame alone. National chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble also helped to put many mom and pop stores across the country out of business. The independents that did survive did so by building communities with in-store events and the like, as well as specializing in genres such as children's books and science fiction.
"A new generation is coming into the business as both owner-managers and frontline booksellers," says Dan Cullen of the ABA, adding that bookstores are proving remarkably resilient despite the Age of the Internet.
"We got through it," says Suzi Hough, who manages Hicklebees, a San Jose children's bookstore that first opened in 1979. "We’re still here. And we think the same thing will happen again,"
Hough says she's able to stay in business because her store works to differentiate itself from Amazon, for example by offering an extensive calendar of author visits, book club gatherings, and events for educators. "We’re really two different animals," Hough says.
Eric Johnson of Recycle Bookstore in San Jose is similarly sanguine about Amazon's foray into the South Bay. "My initial reaction is really a big shrug of the shoulders," Johnson says. "It is obvious to me that Amazon opening up bookstores is not really intended as a serious attempt to compete as a traditional bookstore." Amazon's bookstore, he says, "is not so much a bookstore as it is a distribution center."
In the meantime, Amazon has plans to continue expanding. In California, more stores are planned for Walnut Creek and Los Angeles.
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