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Thoughts on Amazon

Amazon bookstore in Bethesda MD.

Dear Friend of Frank,


Amazon is closing its bookstores. Every single one.

 

Failed experiment.

 

Doesn't happen often.

 

Maybe they were just too different. Maybe they were just too Amazon.

 

I don't know whether you've ever visited an Amazon bookstore but I have. The one in downtown Bethesda MD is within walking distance (a long walk). I've also been at the one in midtown Manhattan. The Manhattan one is bigger but otherwise they're pretty much the same.

 

Odd.

 

They're not much like ordinary bookstores. Hot-off-the-press bestsellers are up front but similarities end there. On the shelves you'll find … Amazon bestsellers. During the Trump years, for example, 1984 by George Orwell was an Amazon bestseller even though it was first published in 1949.

 

And books are shelved along Amazon lines: 'if you liked this then you'll like that'. For example, other dystopian science fiction classics would be shelved near 1984, with a helpful sign along the lines of 'if you liked 1984 then you'll like X'.

 

Amazon bookstores shelve lots of Amazon stuff too. Kindle readers in every flavor. Book paraphernalia, reading paraphernalia, etc. Not an awful lot of books, however. And definitely missing are cozy chairs in which to plop down and page through a discovery. The staff, while young, eager and smiling, don't really seem to be book people. I'd be disinclined to ask one for recommendations. Compared to a corner bookshop, Amazon bookstores feel cold and sterile to me. They aren't places for browsing.

 

The public seems to see it that way too. I never see many shoppers in my local Amazon bookstore. And in any case, Jeff Bezos has pulled the plug, which I take to mean I'm probably correct.

 

It's still surprising though. Amazon rarely missteps.

 

I'm not a disinterested party. While I don't currently own Amazon stock, I've done so in the past. Having been in the direct-marketing business myself as a publisher and consultant, I understood the brilliance of Amazon's gobble-'em-all-up strategy. I put moral and ethical reservations aside, held my nose and invested. Made out like a bandit.

 

Say what you like about Jeff Bezos, he did the world a great service by buying The Washington Post. The Post was in a lot of trouble when Bezos and his millions came along. To Bezos' credit, he opened his checkbook while keeping his nose out of their business. The paper started coming back almost immediately, and today it is one of our three great national newspapers. (I include the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which – as an ex-newspaperman – I view as the best-edited newspaper in America.)

 

But while Bezos has admirably kept strict hands-off regarding Post editorial policy, he doesn't hesitate to stick his nose elsewhere. Another of his retail endeavors, Whole Foods, is getting a real Big Brother vibe. Read this New York Times story [https://www.nytimes.com/.../whole-foods-amazon-automation...] about the latest experiment at Whole Foods.

 

And such things are the mere tip of a corporate iceberg. Take Amazon Web Services, the data processing subsidiary. Created as an in-house service bureau, AWS has burgeoned into perhaps the biggest and most profitable arm of the Amazon octopus. Amazon is so big, and does so many things (outer space anyone?), that it's really hard for ordinary mortals to grasp what Amazon actually is.

 

So: break it up?

 

OK by me.

 

Moves are afoot in Congress to do so. As I understand it, breakup could be difficult under current antitrust law. The Sherman Act, the fundamental antitrust law, was enacted in 1890. The other pillars of antitrust, the Sherman and Robinson-Patman Acts, are similarly old (1914 and 1936 respectively). Back then our economy was coal and steel. Now it's bits and bytes.

 

There's precedent for breaking up industrial giants. Think about Ma Bell. The government broke mighty AT&T into pieces with names like Bell South, Bell Atlantic, etc., giant companies in their own right but way smaller than the parent. That parent, AT&T, survives today. So do those others, and one, Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), may itself have become as large as Ma Bell once was.

 

Something like this might happen with a broken-up Amazon, I'm guessing. Jeff Bezos built an empire based on integration, each piece enmeshed with the others, but each piece could do fine on its own. I wouldn't be surprised if one or the other of these pieces – Amazon Web Services? – grew as big as present-day Amazon by and bye.

 

With the Bells though, "by and bye" took generations to happen. It might take generations with Amazon too. In the meantime, the octopus would be shorn of its tentacles. Cozy independent bookstores might get a new lease on life. Even flailing Barnes & Noble might stumble off the ropes.

 

Bring it on, I say. Let the chips fall where they may. However things shake out, Jeff Bezos still will be sitting pretty as – depending which day you look (watch out, Elon Musk!) – the world's richest man.

 

Frank S Joseph Author
https://frankjoseph.com / frank@frankjoseph.com

 

P.S. Publication of the Chicago Trilogy is on course. I renew my offer of a free copy of the previous (2006) edition of To Love Mercy, the first Trilogy novel. All I ask is that you post a review if you like it. Send your request for a free book to frank@frankjoseph.com.

 

P.P.S. And if you haven't already done so, I invite you to join my e-mail list. You'll receive these occasional posts quicker, and there may be the occasional goody too. You can opt off any time, of course, no harm no foul, and I promise never to share your email or other personal information without your express permission.

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