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You must relax and enjoy life as this is way to long of a post.
As I left Amazon Books on Southport Avenue for the last time — it’s closing March 19, after sitting there for five years, cold and vague, an enigmatic cultural artifact, never loved, requested or wished for — I stood on the sidewalk, took notes, and a woman in a Lululemon zip-up asked me what I was writing. I said, this Amazon Books, it’s closing.
“No! Boo-hoo! Jeff Bezos! So sorry! Maybe reopen in space!”
And that’s how the bourgeoisie are taking the news.
Now back to you, Satan.
Surely, there is a seat reserved in he-l for those who gloat over the closing of a bookstore. Perhaps the exception is this once ominous brick-and-mortar Amazon Books, the strangest excuse ever for a bookstore chain and, for five chilly years of life in Chicago, the d-mbest bookstore in the city. Jeff will get over it, move on and disrupt something else. (In the time it takes me to write this, he will have gained more personal wealth than several generations of my family will ever see.) On the other hand, we have lost the only bookstore in Chicago where you could pop in and buy a steeply discounted copy of “The 1619 Project” and a crockpot. Unless your go-to local bookstore is Costco.
No one will mourn this death.
But a few words must be said.
Poignantly, Amazon Books on Southport sat between a Capital One branch and a Free People clothing store, which is where Amazon Books also spiritually resided, between blunt corporate presence and neo-humane lifestyle marketing. Unlike every bookstore you’ve ever known, including those national chains with vast greeting card aisles, it sold books indifferently, like a court-ordered obligation, the way oil companies tout environmental initiatives. If you could find a kind word, you might say: Amazon Books was so nakedly about field research, Prime memberships and growing the e-book sector (by selling Kindles), instead of devouring local independent booksellers — which was the initial fear — it was an unintended reminder of the warmth of neighborhood bookstores.
I hadn’t stepped foot in this place in years.
When I returned last week, nothing had changed but the enthusiasm of the staff. Once, they seemed eager to explain the game-changing innovation and inevitable domination of an Amazon bookstore. This Southport location was Amazon’s fifth physical store outside Seattle. Its inventory consisted entirely of titles that received four or more stars on the Amazon website; rather than shelve books sideways, most aisles featured outward-facing book covers. Prime customers could buy everything at a discounted price, while everyone else would pay retail. This was the future. Five years later, they welcomed me with a mumble then went back to reading their phones. Their stock was as shallow and AI-directed as ever. Anne Frank sat awkwardly on the “F” shelf in the biographies, beside life stories of Jamie Foxx and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
They had not adopted a bookstore cat.
There was still no place to comfortably sit.
A customer asked for a dictionary. (They were out.)
A customer asked for the new Ann Patchett. (They were out.)
But there were an incongruous number of kitchen appliances for sale.
Being on one of my periodic Stephen King binges, I figured I could at least grab the second volume of “The Dark Tower,” but they had a few newer Kings and four copies of “Carrie.” Business books waited beside the front doors. Behind that, the wellness books.
Like in a Jewel-Osco, “Life is a Highway” played over the PA.
There were no attempts at quirks, few suggestions of personality, no handwritten index cards full of recommendations; but there was a cool Lego flower bouquet and several rows of Colleen Hoover novels. The “Popular Books in Chicago” section (David Sedaris, Malcolm Gladwell) told you only that Chicago is also a part of North America. The usual section of “Chicago interest” titles offered a handful of books on the Bears, the mob, pizza and ... Midwest foraging. The science and nature section — comparatively rich — had nothing by Rachel Carson or Barry Lopez, but it did have Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli and one copy of “Does It Fa-t? The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Fl-------e.”
It was almost as if, despite plenty of time to rethink and pivot, despite Amazon’s fearsome reputation for dominating its competition, not even Amazon cared very much.
Or maybe it just found it too difficult to quantify why bookstores matter.
When it first opened, local bookstore owners I spoke with worried about this place. They worried that the influence of Amazon itself — brick-and-mortar or virtual, still the largest bookseller in America — would at least strip their calendars of author appearances. But the opposite seemed to happen. No one ever thought of Amazon on Southport as a place of being, let alone meeting, browsing or waiting for an author to autograph. In fact, five years later, there are more independent booksellers in Chicago than before Amazon Books opened. In a spirit of goodwill, I asked nearby booksellers to offer condolences.
Said Matt Faries of Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview, founded 42 years ago: “I once went in out of curiosity and I was ignored. I just smelled like an independent bookseller.”
Said Sarah Hollenbeck of Women & Children First in Andersonville, founded 43 years ago: “I’m always sad when a bookstore dies. But I’m not sure if that’s what happened there? Was it even a bookstore? I can’t offer my condolences for a data collection site.”
Said Erika VanDam of RoscoeBooks: “They were a mile and a half away, so I was scared at first. I hope whoever worked there finds employment, but truth is, we’ve only grown since they showed up. While bookstores do sell books, they are also places of community. We exist because we are more. What they did, what we do — it’s different.”
Coincidentally, next month, Princeton University Press will publish “In Praise of Good Bookstores” by Jeff Deutsch of Seminary Co-Op and 57th Street Books in Hyde Park; Seminary was founded in 1961, and both stores became a not-for-profit in 2019. He asks why we need bookstores in an age of same-day Amazon delivery, then writes, “the best argument on behalf of bookstores is the bookstores themselves, carefully built by booksellers who ... created an improbable place whose sheer existence provided a value.” To put that another way, the appeal of a good bookstore transcends even books.
It’s a notoriously hard business, closer to public service than sales.
Amazon Books came across as if it had been created by data miners who once visited a mall bookstore like Waldenbooks. Once, years ago. As I wrote when it opened, if a bookstore reflects a community, Amazon Books felt right for slick, gentrified Southport. What’s more obvious now is how much the store also reflected Amazon’s approach to books themselves. To grow his nascent web business in the 1990s, Bezos needed a loss leader. Books had a mostly uniform size (making them easier to package and ship) and upscale customers (drawing a demographically-attractive base who might stick around for toasters and socks). But when it came time to occupy real-world real estate and mine real-time data from physical locations, books were an odd choice. Amazon was so successful online with books, a strange hybrid evolved: the Amazon book customer who feels guilty buying books from Amazon. (Perhaps, um, you know one or two of these creatures?) And so, occasionally they go out of their way to browse and buy books from warm, local bookstores. But why leave home to shop for books at Amazon?
To use business parlance, where is the added value? As if to underline the nonsensical existence of Amazon Books, on the day I visited, I counted two Amazon Prime trucks running deliveries to the Lakeview streets behind the store — maybe delivering books.
Physical Amazon stores are not vanishing; Amazon Fresh is expanding (it recently opened a second Naperville location ). But Amazon bookstores, as well as its 4-Star stores and Pop Up stores, which were dotted around the Chicago suburbs, are closing.
Before leaving Amazon Books, though, I did notice a hint of life.
On one of those “If you like/then you’ll love” recommendation shelves, modeled on the ubiquitous Amazon feature, someone had arranged its books so: If you like “Talking to Strangers,” then you’ll love “Surrounded by Id--ts.” Nearby, someone had also juxtaposed “The Art of Insubordination” with a copy of “How to Host a Viking Funeral.”
Maybe it was a customer.
Or an employee shouting at Bezos in the only way available.
Either way: Don’t let the algorithms hit you on the way out the door.