The physical world is a wonderful medium, and it’s not going to go away.
—Jeff Bezos, 1999
Chances are, if you are reading this, that you have for some period of your life been a regular at the kind of bookstore owned and run by a mean old walrus with ketchup stains on his shirt and strata of nicotine marbled into his whiskers, and who turns out to be very knowledgeable and cool and non-creepy once you get to know him. And even though his shop is a musty mess, books piled up like little temples and triple-layered on the shelves and hoarded into far-fetched crannies, he always knows exactly where everything is (and you could always find something surprising and secret and wonderful in there). And then you sort of got to know him a little, and he gave you a dog-eared Pynchon novel when you went away to college, and it changed your taste in prose forever. That bookstore—your corner bookstore, the one with real character and worn wooden floors, the one where everybody knows your name—if it is still there, has been barely breaking even for the past twenty years and more. Overall sales of printed books have actually risen modestly over the past four or five years. But you-know-who is scarfing up more and more of the pie. Amazon is now responsible for the sale of north of 40 percent of all new printed books sold in the United States. Amazon sells about two thirds of all books sold online. Amazon has about 350 million customers worldwide, of which an estimated 90 million are Prime members.
When it comes to bookstores, bibliophiles often display a fiercely anti-corporate, moralistic streak. (Back in the late Nineties, your pimpled correspondent worked at Blue Dragon Bookshop and wore a t-shirt bearing the proud legend “Support your local independent bookstore: Friends don’t let friends buy books at Barnes & Noble.”) So when Amazon set up shop in the Time Warner Center by Columbus Circle in New York City last year—one of ten stores it opened around the country in 2017—it was no surprise when the bookworm waxed wroth.