Amazon Couldn't Disrupt Reading

By Chandra Steele Features PCmag

"Earth's biggest bookstore," that was our first introduction to Amazon. When ecommerce was new, when people were still afraid to give their credit-card info online, Amazon lured them with that slogan and cheap books delivered to their door.

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Reading a 1997 Slate piece on how ad hoc the early Amazon system was two years in is almost charming. The enemy of the time in the book industry was the big-box bookstore.

Then we found ourselves burying those stores and even praising them. Borders had a slow death, shutting store after store and filing for bankruptcy until it finally closed for good in 2011. Barnes & Noble has been closing about 15 stores a year for over a decade.

When two-day delivery of books was too slow Amazon introduced us to ereaders and the instantaneous delivery of books to a device in your hand. In 2011 ebook sales surpassed print book sales for the first time on Amazon.

It would have seemed five years ago that Amazon had succeeded in doing what tech companies set out to do: entirely disrupt a traditional industry.

What it didn't expect is for readers to resist. The bookstores that are left have seen their sales go up at a pretty steady pace since 2015. Ebook sales are plummeting, falling nearly 19% in the United States in 2016.

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Despite Amazon's success in tearing down retail, it's found that it can't change how people relate to books. Around the time of this upsurge, we learned of Amazon's plan to open hundreds of bookstores.

Like any canny company, tech or not, Amazon is following the demands of the market and the market is made of people, people who want to hold real books in their hands, who want to flip through their pages while they shop for them, and want to be surrounded by other people when they do it. For as solitary as the act of reading can be, readers are a community.

If Amazon pauses to consider how much it has been shaped by readers instead of the other way around it would see that its retail opportunity is greatest not among the land of existing Amazon and bookstore shoppers.

The closing of bookstores has left book deserts across America, that as with all societal issues, disproportionately affect the poor. Amazon's newest bookstore just opened today in the glossy Time Warner Center in New York, a temple to capitalism. There is no shortage of bookstores in Manhattan but the outer boroughs are a different story. Queens, New York's largest borough and the most ethnically diverse place on the planet, has just one bookstore, the excellent but very small Astoria Bookshop. And the Bronx lost its last bookstore, a Barnes & Noble, a few months ago.

Community organizers are stepping in with The Queens Bookshop Initiative having just reached its goal of securing space and funding for a store and The Lit Bar trying to do the same thing in the Bronx. As a strong believer in independent bookstores I want these initiatives to succeed and for there to be more like them. Yet as a person who's had their life formed by a love of reading I want there to be as many bookstores as possible and that means corporate bookstore alongside community ones.

If Amazon wants to do what is best for itself, it will make a move that is also what's best for readers and open bookstores in the poor and working-class areas that have been let without them.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.