Behind Amazon's Bookstore Play

Move has local independent sellers scratching their heads.


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What is Jeff Bezos thinking?

Bookstore owners were surprised when it was announced yesterday that Amazon was going to open from 300 to 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores that sell the old-fashioned way.

This is the same firm that completely upended the publishing business through massive digital sales, did in Borders and has taken a big chunk out of Barnes & Noble, another national big-box book retailer.

At the independent Chop Suey Books Carytown, owner Ward Tefft is scratching his head. “Don’t feel good about it,” he says, “but I don’t understand how they are going to make it work financially.”

He notes that many books are sold at prices set by the publishing company. Amazon’s model has been to discount books by 30 to 40 percent of the publishers’ price, hoping that sheer volume and the efficiencies of huge warehouse and fulfillment systems will make it pay off. It has so far.

Tefft notes that when Amazon gets into real bookstores -- at least beyond its first store in Seattle, which opened in November -- it will have to make payroll and pay for electricity, rent and other things. That’s what Richmond’s handful of independent bookstores have had to do and one reason why a new one hasn’t opened in the area in years.

Indeed, pressure from digital sales and big-box retailers helped shutter 1,000 independent bookstores around the country from 2000 to 2007.

Yet there may be a method to Bezos’ madness. Analysts note that independent bookstores have been staging something of a modest turnaround by offering the experience of browsing books, having a real human curate the selections, offering wider offerings and providing a community focal point.

While there haven’t been any new independents in the area, new stores are going up in larger markets such as Chicago and New York.

Another factor is that electronic books haven’t taken off as some predicted several years ago.

Amazon has a bookstore in Seattle and may use more of them to showcase other products for sale.

Tefft says one advantage is that an Amazon store in the Richmond area would remove people “who showroom us.” He means people who browse book selections in person and then buy the books online at a discount.

“The stores will be run by drones,” quips one Chop Suey employee.


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