My visit to an Amazon bookstore

My commentary here is late to the party, but I had not visited a branch before.  Here are my impressions, derived from the Columbus Circle outlet in Manhattan:

1. It is a poorly designed store for me, most of all because it does not emphasize new releases.  I feel I am familiar with a lot of older titles, or I went through a more or less rational process of deciding not to become familiar with them.  Their current popularity, as measured say by Amazon rankings, does not cause me to reassess those judgments.  For me, aggregate Amazon popularity has no real predictive power, except perhaps I don’t want to buy books everyone liked.  “A really smart person says to consider this again,” however, would revise my prior estimates.

2. For me, the very best bookstore and bookstore layout is Daunt, in London, Marylebone High St.  You are hit by a blast of what is new, but also selected according to intellectual seriousness rather than popularity.  You can view many titles at the same time, because they use the “facing out” function just right for their new arrivals tables.  Some of the rest of the store is arranged “by country,” much preferable to having say China books in separate sections of history, travel, biography, and so on.

3. I am pleased that fiction is given so much space toward the front of the store.  I do not see this as good for me, but it is a worthwhile counterweight to the ongoing tendency of American book markets to reward non-fiction, or at least what is supposed to be non-fiction.

4. I have mixed feelings about the idea of all books facing outward.  On the positive side, books not facing outward tend to be ignored.  On the downside, this also limits the potential for hierarchicalization through visual display.  All books facing outwards is perhaps a bit too much like no books facing outwards.

Overall I am struck by how internet commerce is affecting Christie’s and Sotheby’s in a broadly similar fashion.  The auction houses used to put out different genres, such as Contemporary, European Painting, 20th Century, and so on, for 3-4 day windows, and then they would display virtually everything up for auction.  Now they have a single big display, with highlights from each area, and the rest viewable on-line.  That display then shows for about three weeks.  Like Amazon, they are opting to emphasize what is popular and to let on-line displays pick up the tails and niches.  In all cases, that means less turnover in the displays.  That is information-rich for infrequent visitors, who can take in more at once, but information-poor in relative terms for frequent visitors.  As a somewhat infrequent visitor to auction houses, I gain, but for bookstores I would prefer they cater to the relatively frequent patrons.

5. I am most worried by the prominent center table at the entrance, which presents “Books with 4.8 Amazon stars or higher.”  I saw a book on mixology, a picture book of Los Angeles, a Marvel comics encyclopedia, a book connected to the musical Hamilton, and a series of technique-oriented cookbooks, such as Harold McGee, a very good manual by the way.  Isabel Wilkerson was the closest they had to “my kind of intelligent non-fiction.”  Neil Hilbon represented poetry, of course his best-known book does have a five-star average, fortunately “…these poems are anything but saccharine.”

Unfortunately, the final message is that Amazon will work hard so that controversial books do not receive Amazon’s highest in-store promotions.  Why not use software to measure the quality of writing or maybe even thought in a book’s reviews, and thereby assign it a new grade?: “Here are the books the smart people chose to write about”?

6. I consider myself quite pro-Amazon, still to me it feels dystopic when an attractive young saleswoman says so cheerily to (some) customers: “Thank you for being Prime!”

7. I suspect the entire store is a front to display and sell gadgets, at least I hope it is.

8. I didn’t buy anything.


Only some customers are greeted as "prime"? Prime what?

Is it a coincidence that one of the books in the window is "How To Serve Humans?"

best cookbook ever?

Maybe Tyler didn't recognize Prime Ministers Trudeau and Turnbull, also giving the Amazon store a look that same day.

Optimus Prime, obviously.

'Why not use software to measure the quality of writing'

What a sublime updating of the old saw that economists know the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

And the arrogance comes for free with “Here are the books the smart people chose to write about.”

This is the goal of literary magazines: review and write about books for smart people.

Perhaps Tyler's word choice is not compliant with political correctness, but anyway true.

Actually, Prof. Cowen seems unaware that there are plenty of smart people who simply do not share his tastes, never will, and whose recommendations he would have no interest in.

Or is that not compliant with political correctness in some fashion?

I'm new to this blog but don't think I'll be sticking around, the condescending arrogant assumption that book stores should be tailored to the intellectual elite is a bit too snobby for me.

PS A Marvel comics encyclopedia sounds kind of fun to me, I'd be happy to see that on the center table.

PSPS Your virtue signalling is transparent, "I've been to bookstores in London", "I am familiar with art categories", "I know about Christies and Sotheby's"

Wow, you will be missed, I can assure you!!!

> "A Marvel comics encyclopedia sounds kind of fun to me"

Comic books, like video games, are for children. Does your mother know you are on the internet after bedtime?

What's the name for that story where a young hero of superhuman strength (accompanied by a loyal sidekick), fights a variety of super-powered or supernatural foes in order to protect their family and uphold social and moral order?

Yes, it's Beowulf. And don't get me started on the Odyssey, where a wealthy martial artist defeats his enemies with advanced gadgets and guile before facing a series of escalating supernatural challenges to be re-united with his loved ones.

Comics are mythopoeia for moderns.

Edward, by his signalling as you call it, Tyler is establishing his credentials to talk knowledgeably about bookstores and about books, and for that reason one can take his views seriously ( which of course does not mean endorse them) . Unless a person signals his or her credentials how are we to know if it is worth spending time reading their pieces on any topic?

Hi (notso)freethinker,

I would disagree - what is it about Tyler's credentials (presumably degrees and university appointments) that qualifies him to be an expert on either bookstores or books? I can make my point simply, Amazon stores are doing fine without his custom, and comic books are read by Elon Musk who is hugely successful by any measure. Books are subjective and not restricted to topics enjoyed by the intellectual elite, but what Tyler has done is elevate his subjective opinion into some kind of authoritative objective statement of fact which is probably untrue in any event.

1) "what is it about Tyler’s credentials (presumably degrees and university appointments) that qualifies him to be an expert on either bookstores or books?"
Tyler is a bibliophile who reads more books in a week than you do in an year. he is also a polymath and reads on a wide range of subjects. I clearly said one need not endorse whatever he says but given his vast experience with books, his views are worth reading rather than the views of someone like, say you
2) " Amazon stores are doing fine without his custom,"
An irrelevant point. Tyler never claimed his custom is needed for the store to thrive. He is just expressing his views on a bookshop. Just as when you wrote "I’m new to this blog but don’t think I’ll be sticking around" you are not claiming that blog will collapse just because you are going to leave it ; you are just expressing your (uninformed) opinion about the blog

3) "comic books are read by Elon Musk who is hugely successful by any measure"
I know very successful people who do not read any books at all. I have met poor people who read a lot. What does that prove?
4) "what Tyler has done is elevate his subjective opinion into some kind of authoritative objective statement ..."
Don't all book reviews do that? We read book reviews because we expect to read something written with some implied authority. Who would like to read a review which says " this is my subjective opinion you need not take seriously"? One shudders to imagine how book reviews will look like if the likes of you write them.

Wow Freethinker, Edward seems to have touched a nerve. You seem quite upset that someone would criticize Tyler. For what its worth I agree with much of what Edward has to say.

Has anyone ever seen freethinker and TC in the same room together?

It's also worth noting that Tyler peppers the commentary with the disclaimer "for me", and his "signalling" gives you plenty of color on what "for me" means. There's nothing wrong with taking a point of view, especially when the reader understands where that point of view is coming from and where it might diverge from his own.

From Tyler's review, there's enough in the review to infer that this store might be "for you". Namely a store that promotes uncontroversial and popular works, regardless of things like intellectual rigor. Edward seems to have figured out from the review that the Amazon bookstore might appeal to him, and that says something about a "critical" review.

I enjoy this Amazon bookstore, primarily because I take my small kids there to browse and read, and it's well suited for that purpose. If I was looking for wonky intellectual gems, I'd probably steer clear.

There is a very obvious transition from "for me" to "dystopic."

At that point one is not talking about a personal experience, but a future society.

FWIW, I (the Anonymous with with the Harbor Freight revealed preference) would not be surprised that any store at the mall was not really for me, but if it is dystopic .. that probably started back when Victoria's Secret moved in next door to Banana Republic.

Or when the secret world government decided every town in America needed a Petsmart, a Target, a Starbucks, and a Kohls in that order.

For example: "...except perhaps I don’t want to buy books everyone liked." Grow up Tyler and stop trying to feel smarter than the cool kids.

>>I’m new to this blog but don’t think I’ll be sticking around

Okay. The door is over there, and have a great afternoon!

How is this virtue signalling? It's signalling how cultured he is, not the same thing.

Is being cultured not virtuous? (not counting bacteria etc.)

Ed (can I call you Ed?), you are doing MR wrong. I can agree with at least half of your complaints but see those characteristics of Tyler's post as a features rather than bugs. Dark chocolate is an acquired taste if you were raised on milk (or worse: Nutella!). So too are Tyler's blogging proclivities.

'Dark chocolate is an acquired taste if you were raised on milk (or worse: Nutella!)'

Several generations of Italians, Germans, and French are wondering where you got that idea from.

I'm writing in the context of American norms. I realize some Europeans eat maggoty cheese, or whatever. Though there seems to be a universal innate human tendency to naturally prefer sweet over bitter (weren't studies done on babies demonstrating this?)

'eat maggoty cheese'

Really - have any examples?

One of the reasons I visit this blog, is to read the occasional post on books by Tyler - and I love his intellectual and varied taste. There is a hierarchy of books - and that is why being a reader is so engaging - because one gets better at it. As one gets to be a better reader, more books that had seemed outside one's ambits - history, philosophy, poetry, experimental novels - yields their pleasure quotient steadily.

Frankly, in New York I prefer The Strand, but then it does not emphasize what is new. In San Francisco I like City Lights, which is still owned by 98 year old Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and his press still puts out cool stuff. Phooey on Amazon, which I try to avoid buying anything from at all, being an old paranoid. In Charlottesville, Deadalus does a not bad imitation of The Strand, although not as much selection, but closer by to me.

Oh, Edward, your virtue signaling was pretty transparent there, especially when you labeled Tyler as engaging in same. Pretty funny.

You're right, and perhaps I should be honest and declare what I'm signalling (

In my first post, I attempted to signal that: I am sympathetic to the plight of the everyday man, that I am a bit alternative by enjoying comic books, and that I am a rationalist who sees through virtue signalling. In this post I have attempted to convey that I am capable of recognising my own irrational behaviour.

Now perhaps Tyler can reflect similarly?


>>Now perhaps Tyler can reflect similarly?

It's his blog, he can do as he pleases. He probably didn't post hoping that some random guy going by "Edward" would like it.

If you don't, then find some other blog to follow. I'm sure Dr. Cowen will not be overly alarmed, it isn't as though he doesn't get enough followers as it is.

"that I am a bit alternative by enjoying comic books"

How is this alternative?

Tyler has reflected similarly on multiple occasions.

"I am sympathetic to the plight of the everyday man."

Give it a rest Edward. Your attempt to paint Tyler as a virtue signaling elitist are only making you look foolish to readers of this blog. If anything, you're the one who sounds pompous with your high-minded defense of the "common man". Tyler frequently plumbs culture both high and low for meaning. Lest you think he's some sort of comic book hater, he frequently reviews comic book movies (see his positive review of Thor a few days ago).

Tyler has preferences with respect to what kind of books he likes to be exposed to. That usually means often off-the-beaten-path works by interesting, controversial, or surprising thinkers. That preference doesn't mesh well with Amazon Books' MO, which is to present popular and uncontroversial works. He makes all that completely transparent, with no hidden agenda. He also explains who Amazon Books might appeal to. So what's the problem?

If he was writing for the readers of US Weekly or something, he might take a different tone and emphasize the virtues of Amazon Books, but because he's writing for the readers of his blog, most of whom will be familiar with Tylers world view and preferences, he can take a more personalized approach. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

You're trolling is getting desperate.

I see. As much desperate as was the boy who said the king was naked.

To be fair Tyler, if you'd liked the store it would mean that they had missed their target market completely. They are probably targeting the market of folks who buy 0-2 books a year and trying to get them to buy 4.

"Person displeased that shop is tailored to masses, not him"

In other news, I dislike my local supermarket because it sells chocolate chip, vanilla and strawberry ice cream but I only like strawberry.

Pretty sure Tyler's point is that he likes strawberry and they don't sell strawberry. See the last line.

I hesitate to use the word on an Econ Blog, but #8 is priceless (of course, only when preceded by 1-7).

On an econ blog, 8 renders 1-7 irrelevant, right? Unless we think 0 to 1 is a really small margin now, but Daddy Peter doesn't agree.

I'm fairly certain that most loyal commenters have no idea just how many free books Prof. Cowen is likely sent a year, if only based on his influence on sales. Amazon sales as an affiliate are directly quantifiable, and such sales potential is something publishers like to reward with as many opportunities to provide such mention as possible. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but any university professor with a major web presence involving recommending what books to buy to read knows there are free books - for themselves, at least. He has little reason to buy anything from a bookstore, at least for much of his reading.

(It is very hard for anyone who has never been involved in publishing to realize just how little actual value books possess as an object. For example, the typical way for a bookseller to be credited for 'returning' unsold paperbacks is to rip off the covers, and send only the covers to the publisher. Along with guaranteeing that all the books no longer having covers have been destroyed, of course. This explains the boilerplate found in British/Commonwealth editions saying that if a paperback book was acquired without a cover, it was stolen - such a blanket assertion is not legally possible in the U.S., which is why the American boilerplate uses the words to the effect of 'may have been stolen' instead).

"If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”"


Well, you have dated my experience to the last time I was buying books on a regular basis in the U.S. (think more than a quarter of century ago). Why am I not surprised that a book published in 2015 in the U.S. now claims that if you bought it without a cover, it was stolen.

Better not buy that stolen property at a public library book sale of damaged books from its collection then, to ensure that Simon and Schuster won't pursue you as a thief.

The other thing that was interesting, though was to see the term 'stripped' - it has been a few decades since last seeing that term in connection with a paperback. Well, technically, just paper trash, as it is no longer an actual book in the eyes of the publisher.

Scrounging around, a late 80s/early 90s Warner paperback says 'If you purchase this book without a cover you should be aware that this book may have been stolen property and reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher. In such case, neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book." I guess these days, no need for a corporation to be worrying about the tender feelings of anyone who owns a book without a cover that was not actually stripped.

The other thing that was always interesting was how reselling a book with a different cover was illegal everywhere except the U.S., as noted in my mid-80s Penguin edition of East of Eden. Maybe that has changed in the last three decades too, as the doctrine of first sale continues to be regularly challenged.

“Thank you for being Prime!”


truth seeker, what is the relevance of your post to the amazon bookstore, the topic Tyler is writing about?

I think it is clear Amazon's so-called store is a symptom of the disaggregation of the American system. Meanwhile, no one is minding America's store and the red bandits advance unchecked. Q.E.D.

The auction house we frequent has a successful cafe. Whoever does the buying uses a very good butcher.

As for books I like second-hand shops. Most of the good books available were published some time ago.

Does Cowen shop for anything other than books? How often does Cowen visit the grocery store? Or the clothing store? Or the hardware store? Or the department store? My point isn't that Cowen leads a sheltered life, rather his limited experience in retail stores. How stores arrange merchandise may be a mystery to me, but it's not random. When my favorite grocery stores changes the arrangement/location of their goods (which isn't often), I'm flustered for weeks until I "learn" the new arrangement. If I ask one of the employees why the store moved canned tomatoes from one location to another, she is as flustered as I am. Same goes for the arrangement of merchandise on my computer screen. One day an item is on the right side, then at the top, then at the bottom. Did the arrangement change because I didn't buy the item when it was on the right side of the screen? Amazon is ever helpful. If I select an item, Amazon will let me know that customers who purchased that item also purchased certain other items. If the item is a book, Amazon is more subtle, suggesting that I might be interested in some other book or books on what seem to Amazon are books on the same or similar subjects. Amazon makes my shopping experience personal and easy. If only my favorite grocery store could do the same, and put the canned tomatoes back where they belong.

"I feel I am familiar with a lot of older titles...."


" least what is supposed to be non-fiction."

Haha, burn!

I'm glad I'm not the only one who caught that.

I have never really wanted to go out of my way for an Amazon store. I'm more a Harbor Freight kinda guy.

I love Harbor Freight. Their quality has really gone up in the past 5 yrs too. A store manager told me their engines are now designed by someone they picked off from Honda. Other Items seems to be better as well.

Not top quality, but my Sawzall knockoff has done a lot of destruction for $29.99

So the quality at Harbour Freight has gotten better? I haven’t been there for ten years but while the prices were good the quality of merchandise was a bit dubious. I always shopped there with the “you get what you pay for” theory.

#7 definitely looks like the idea here. Amazon does not make money on its books. Honestly, I don't even think they make a ton of money on their electronics, but the forthcoming smart home craze might change that...but only if they can get more people to buy into an Amazon ecosystem.

No mention of Foyles or Dillions (now a Waterstones)? They may both be pale shadows of their previous selves (Foyles in particular), but Daunt the very best bookshop in London? Ha.

Anybody wanting to signal obscure elitism would cite one of the dusty shops along the charring cross road.

Apart from the McGraw-Hill bookshop in New York, the US does not really have any really good book shops. Ok, if you are into computer books, then Computer literacy in California (I have not been in a while, so things may have changed).

This whole conversation strikes me as an anecdote from the "The Great Stagnation". I went from a regular book store visitor (at least once a week) to rarely if ever going. My wife and I went to a book store a few weeks back and it had been the first time we'd been this year.

I've transitioned nearly all of my buying and reading to digital books via Kindle. Going to the book store is some what reminiscent of going to the video store.

Physical bookstores are worthwhile only for:

- browsing and purchasing the types of books that are best evaluated in their physical form i.e. children's books, cookbooks and the like.

- reading serious books without purchasing them

A bookstore succeeds by being not-Amazon. If you already know what you want, online Amazon is going to beat any physical bookstore. A good physical bookstore, therefore, is one that can help you find something of value to you that you wouldn't have found online.

And therefore "4.8 stars or above" fails, as it's all too easy to find that online. As for what earns such high stars, one way to get them is to write a book that appeals strongly to a narrowly-defined hobby. If you do it well, enthusiasts will 5-star it and others will ignore it.

And when it comes to books published a few years ago, online Amazon often offers used copies for less than half the price of a Kindle download, and far, far less than the cost of a (discounted) new copy.

Well, I'm vaguely horrified by the thought of what Amazon would look like if it ONLY produced books which Professor Cowen liked....

Cooking Section:
Empty. A small sign reads "Given your marginal productivity, you should hire a Mexican instead".

Crime section:
A series of pamphlets from the Cato institute explain that offshore tax accounts and dodgy banking practises are actually necessary for the economy to get vital liquidity.

Economics section.
25,000 copies of "The Complacent Class".

Religion and Spirituality
The Bible; containing only Apocrypha chapters that do NOT appear in KJ version. Detailed hedging strategies for Pascal's wager.

10,000 NBOR papers are squeezed in between Physics and Chemistry. Biology covered in post-it reviews by "Sailor, S" disparaging the entire discipline for being hopelessly compromised by George Soros.

Fiction section:
Sociology. Bipartisan tax plans.

Travel section:
Detailed reports on the top 10 global megacities for best signalling status and disposable income.

Children's section
A note explains that the manufacture of children should be outsourced to other, more dynamic populations with relative advantage in that industry. Reader "Sailor, S" has extensively reviewed this too.

Plato's Republic.

Mostly empty, except for economic history which is comprised of books showing how economic development is inevitable so long as the ratio of economists to general population is greater than 1 in 1,000.

Empty, as institutions and funding actually explain all useful social phenomena.

Health and Wellbeing section:
An infinitely long corridor containing ACA reform proposals.

Philosophy and Mind
The Complete Strauss, comprising 1,000 blank pages for the reader to impute any reading they want.

Science Fiction
Empty. Most of the envisioned technology turns out to be protected by patents which must be respected.

Excellent. I really enjoyed that. (It reminded me of some old Russell Baker columns.)

I would rather see praise for the public library, but I suppose that is a bit much to ask of libertarians.

It is a poorly designed store for me, most of all because it does not emphasize new releases. I feel I am familiar with a lot of older titles, or I went through a more or less rational process of deciding not to become familiar with them.

Amazon's problems with recommendations is a useful counterweight against all the claims people make about big data:

-- The "greatest books" approach tends to put worthy books in front of people who have either read them already or else repeatedly rejected them in the past.

-- The "best sellers" approach puts mass market titles in front of ideosyncratic readers who, again, have either read it or decided not to read it.

-- The "best for you" approach tends to take the most unusual thing you've ever bought and give you a hundred variants. It was years before they stopped pushing GRE practice tests at me.

The only things I've found that work are to download the Kindle samples of books that knowledgeable people recommend (works, but is not a big data approach), or to check the "people who bought this book also bought" lists (works, but is not tremendously different from going to a public library and checking out other books on the same shelf).

“people who bought this book also bought”

Yes. That's the only useful one I find.

Currently this seems to work at only 1 remove (i.e. you and agent 2 both have x1 and x2). I wonder why not use some algorithm which can find books at greater removes (i.e. you have x1 and x2, agent 2 has x1 and x3, agent 3 has x2 and x4 and agent 4 has x3 and x4). Hence recommend x4 to you. I suspect there is much to understand about clustering and network analysis in book buying.

I've been to the Amazon bookstore at U Village in Seattle, and I wasn't impressed. To be honest, I've been ordering books online for so long - I live out in the sticks - that I feel a certain disorientation in an offline bookstore. The offline bookstores I remember particularly liking always had at least one, and often several, well curated, well stocked niches. I remember a great mathematics section at one, historical travel books at another, vintage murder mysteries at yet another. Amazon meets the well stocked criterion, but lacks the curation, especially since they dropped their playlist analog for readers.

I'm not sure of what Amazon is doing with their offline bookstores. Maybe we'll find out when OLEDs get cheaper and gaze detection improves so the books on the shelves can change as you walk around reflecting your tastes and the tastes of your Bayesian eigenstate cohort. Since so many books are available digitally, you could even flip through the pages a bit giving you a better idea of what is in the book and Amazon a better idea of what is in your head. More likely, it was just Amazon trying to understand what it would take to run a store, a useful bit of corporate knowledge for a corporation that has recently bought a chain of supermarkets.

Comments for this post are closed