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Amazon doesn’t understand why you don’t understand why Amazon is opening bookstores

It’s about the books. Really.

Amazon Opens Bookstore In New York City Spencer Platt / Getty
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

Ever since Amazon opened its first physical bookstore in late 2015, there’s been a question burning through industry circles: This retail initiative can’t really be about selling good old-fashioned books. In a store. In 2017. Can it? Alexa, tell me this is a joke.

Instead, one common guess from analysts and reporters — myself included — was that these stores must really be about selling Amazon gadgets like Alexa-powered Echo devices, since those are the future (and since they are, in fact, on display in these shops).

Another hypothesis has been that the stores serve as a slick on-ramp to sign people up for Prime memberships, since Prime is the center of the Amazon business flywheel, and members pay lower prices for books in these stores than non-Prime members do.

But Amazon Books chief Jennifer Cast insisted in an interview with Recode on Thursday that, while the above-mentioned aspects play some role in the new initiative, they are not the focus at all.

“Books are our heart,” she said during a launch event for Amazon’s first New York City store. “Jeff [Bezos] loves books. Most of our company loves books and so the mission of, the purpose was to help customers find, discover and buy books online. And what we realized was that we had 20 years of data — about why customers buy, how they buy, what they read, how they read and why they’re reading it — that could make a physical bookstore just a different and better place to discover books. So that’s what we wanted to do.”

What about all those gadgets at the front of the store? Those aren’t the real focus?

“It’s called Amazon Books, and so books are the reason that we opened this store: To be a great bookstore for our customers,” Cast replied.

But you must also like that this is a way to convert shoppers into new Prime members?

“That is not the mission of our store, to be a Prime feeder,” she added.

Cast did allow that the stores are indeed a good place to show off Amazon gadgets, even if it’s not the main attraction. She also acknowledged that the store will help with Prime sign-ups, though not at any significant scale (“We are so little; we only have seven stores”).

Still, the Amazon Books initiative, she insisted, is mainly about creating a new — and old — way for people to discover great books.

That’s still hard to believe, coming from the same company that wants to patent warehouses that float in the sky. I’ll admit, my skeptical eyebrow doesn’t want to come back down. But Amazon is full of surprises and — maybe, just maybe — selling books on dead trees inside a mall is the latest one.

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