West and Grand

Books, Bricks and Mortar: The Sequel (Reflecting on the New Amazon Bookstore)

On Tuesday, November 3, 2015 at 9:30am, online giant Amazon opened its first physical retail store in Seattle. Naturally, the move made for big business headlines. The moment is like publishing’s own Return of the Jedi, albeit funded by the Death Star. Could Darth Vader really be saying, “Can I have a do-over?” (“Death Star” is just a metaphor, really. Really.)

Here at the Oxford Exchange, we read the headlines announcing the first Amazon store — integrated retail, apparently — and nodded. Back in 2012, we were told it was madness to open a bookstore, lunacy, bananas, hare-brained — have I missed one? Hadn’t we heard that bookstores were dying? Why, we were asked, would so much effort be applied to resuscitating the last dinosaur trapped in the tar pit of a world that was about to start producing mammals? Short your dinosaur stock; invest in warm-blooded creatures!  Well, for a start, we didn’t see bookstores as dinosaurs. Nor did we see them as ox carts, manual typewriters (which we still favor), the Victrola wind-up phonograph, carrier pigeons, or any other metaphor for the seriously out of date. We see them as our buddies, our comrades in a sacred fight, and you don’t leave your wounded buddies on the battlefield. 

Beyond the mere fact of the store, the news of Amazon’s first offline location highlighted other surprises, such as the decision to display every book face out. This is actually pretty weird. We understand just how weird because the Bookstore at the Oxford Exchange has done this since the beginning. It was a counterintuitive choice. Face-outs mean fewer books on the shelves, and that means smaller inventory, and from there, potentially lower sales. Yup, yup, yup. We know. But, we said, these books are beautiful. Unless the jacket is seen, the beauty might be missed. And what are the books, anyway? A spine doesn’t offer the same opportunity for discovery that a jacket does. It’s like trying to get to know a new city by looking only at its post offices. No matter how much post offices can tell us, it’s just a sliver of the full story. By the way, have you ever seen a rural Danish post office? They are utterly charming, but I don’t think one learns that much about Denmark in one. Well, maybe you do. The British postal service is considered a hallmark of British culture. 

This is not a digression. This is the very sort of conversation one can enjoy in a bookstore. Perhaps Amazon’s cold, server farm, persona knows this. 

In any case, what this mammal thought when she heard about the opening of Amazon bookstore was not that it proved the sturdiness of the business model of traditional bookstores. After all, they aren’t and will never be, say, the Apple store, though you are as likely to want everything in the place. The lesson here is to hold onto your beliefs, no matter what the hive-mind says. Perhaps something you value is currently not in style (that’s you, letter writing and Gustave Flaubert). Maybe you, too, feel like a dinosaur (I miss deposit slips). And yet, you are still you, and deserve to be seen for whatever you believe. That’s what a bookstore can do, offering the gifts of recognition, understanding, discovery, and a little help from a fellow traveler.  On some things, it’s all right to be unwavering. We are not creating obstacles to progress if we feel something deeply in our souls, and hold onto it. The Oxford Exchange was founded on the premise that we must follow our hearts. They are the most dependable barometers. 

The good news is that you don’t have to go all the way to Seattle to participate in the latest trend. Come visit us right here in Tampa, and see what all the excitement is about.


Alison Powell 

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