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.