James Werrell

Amazon Books is going back to the future

Customer Kirsty Carey makes one of the first purchases Tuesday with clerk Marissa Pacchiarotti at the opening day for Amazon Books, the first brick-and-mortar retail store for online retail giant Amazon in Seattle.
Customer Kirsty Carey makes one of the first purchases Tuesday with clerk Marissa Pacchiarotti at the opening day for Amazon Books, the first brick-and-mortar retail store for online retail giant Amazon in Seattle. AP

A bookstore is a nice place to be.

It’s quiet and serene. Sometimes music is playing gently in the background, usually jazz or classical.

You can take your time browsing among the stacks, reading the blurbs on the latest best-sellers, perusing the coffee-table books, looking for books you haven’t read by favorite authors. And because the market for books is so uncertain, bookstores often stock other interesting items, such as handmade pottery, calendars, greeting cards, stationery, candles, you name it.

Many bookstores also offer free coffee or tea. And there usually is a cat sitting somewhere in the store.

Sadly, though, I rarely emerge from a bookstore with a new book. Frankly, they’re usually too expensive. I can go home and order the book I want online for much less.

The arguments for brick-and-mortar bookstores are familiar. You can get advice from booksellers, feedback from actual readers. And it’s instant gratification: You can hold the book in your hands without waiting to get it in the mail – after your interest in reading it might have waned.

Bookstores also offer the opportunity for regional authors to sell books by word of mouth and possibly break out to a larger audience. And, really, who doesn’t relish sticking it to the big online giants by shopping locally?

But I like cheap books, and I don’t care if the spines are broken or the covers are bent or the pages are not pristine. I’m satisfied if the book isn’t falling apart.

This makes me wonder why Amazon.com has decided to build a bookstore – a physical one, not an online store. Amazon Books, which opened its doors Tuesday in Seattle, has 5,500 square-feet of retail space, 2,000 square-feet of storage, and is Amazon.com’s first physical store of any kind.

This is not exactly Ye Olde Book Shoppe. As Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, noted, “We’ve applied 20 years of online bookselling experience to build a store that integrates the benefits of offline and online book shopping.”

That includes displaying all books “face-out.” Amazon.com customer ratings and reviews will be featured nearby.

High-tech reading devices such as the Kindle, Amazon Echo, Fire TV and Fire Tablet also will be available. And customers can test-drive them in the store.

Best of all, books and e-books will be priced the same as those available online. It is the same deal without the wait.

Amazon Books an interesting concept. The only question is whether it can compete with ... Amazon.com.

Other bookstore chains are having a hard time doing that. Borders went bankrupt, and Barnes & Noble is in a tough fight with online retailers. Bookstore revenues industry-wide decline sharply every year.

Amazon.com now sells more than 40 percent of all new books and nearly 70 percent of e-books, according to the Los Angeles Times. Retailers such as Target and Walmart, not neighborhood bookstores, scoop up much of the rest of the market. That doesn’t leave much room for the quaint little bookstore.

We all know the world is going digital. Look at the newspaper industry!

Online checkups by the family doctor also are a growing trend. Instead of waiting in an office with uncomfortable chairs and old magazines for half an hour, you can wait on your living room couch until the doc is ready to examine you via your laptop.

So, how much longer will the publishing industry continue to kill trees to print physical books? And how long will booksellers try to make a living selling them?

Book lovers have a ready list of attributes that draw them to physical books. You can lug them from one room to the next; you can take them to the beach; you can spill iced tea on them; you can give them to a friend when you’re finished with them. And a new book smells good.

But many of those same things also can be said of e-books, although they have no perceptible aroma. And once you have an e-reader, a trip to the bookstore is unnecessary.

Maybe Amazon Books has a formula for keeping bookstores alive, at least for a while. Better watch out for that monster online retailer, though.

James Werrell is the opinion page editor for The Herald.