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I’ll lead with my credentials: I was a library rat, in my youth. Yes, advanced reader and all that; I hated having a youth library card and went into the adults stacks as soon as I could. I willingly chose to spend time in the library. I collected library cards (using the home addresses of my various relatives). As I grew older, that love transferred to book stores. I will always have a soft spot for Barnes & Noble and Borders (R.I.P.). I loved living down the street from a used bookstore (McIntyre Booksellers), and fairly close to another (Lorem Ipsum). Yes, I did purchase books, but that was tempered by a lack of space (yes, my wife Maria Kondo’ed me before that was a thing: “Well, do you really need that? Do we have space? What would we get rid of to make space?”) When my wife went to Harvard Square, I loved bouncing between Harvard Booksellers and The Coop (who am I kidding, I still do). When I realized there is such a thing as the MIT Press bookstore, it really was akin to finding Shangri-La. Not to mention I would also browse the stacks in the Boston Public Library and then head over to Trident Booksellers. Now, it’s de rigeur to attach a cafe and a wine bar to a bookstore, but I like to think BPL and Trident was fairly ahead of the game. Nothing beats sipping a coffee, browsing a book, in the Italianate courtyard in the McKim Building of the BPL. And Trident! You can still have the joy of being alone, but with other people, and then browsing the stacks. And joy: another bookstore had sprung up in the next town over, in Belmont, with a founder who learned the trade at Porter Square Bookstore (whose bookstore I actually supply buy links to). I also had a book purchasing problem (despite my wife’s best efforts), probably spending ~$50 / mo., for several years. Not much, but it does add up. Now, I just channel my hoarding to ebooks (purchased from either B&N or Kobobooks.)

I’m sure the reader knows what’s coming: I wouldn’t say all that, unless I was about to utter some words that will make me sound like a Philistine: I actually liked the Amazon Bookstore.

What comes next will also be obvious: the qualifications as to why I like Amazon.

Believe it or not, my book reason is that it has fewer books than in a normal bookstore. Or rather, the face out approach is nice. Having fewer books actually encouraged me  to pick up books I other wise wouldn’t. I guess it makes some weird sense: I probably respond to a large search space by keying in on my main interests first (science, history, art, scifi, and graphic novels). Then I make my way things outside my sweet spot. I do like looking at the recommendations table, because serendipity. Because most bookstores do stock a reasonable amount of books, I can eat up a chunk of my time just looking at that narrow set of books. What struck me about the Amazon store is that it caters entirely to their sales analytics. I am guessing whatever is in there will move. And whatever surprises are in store, are all likely algorithmically determined to be the most popular “off-target” choices. And I bet that will get more precise over time. I’m sure that Amazon already knows how well products move online versus brick-and-mortar retail.  They will exploit those differences.

But, surprisingly, I find the book store part of it, compelling. I did feel that I got to crack open every book there, engaging with words that I normally would pass over. And I read prefaces, first chapters, prologues… all of which I probably wouldn’t have done. I think I do the same, with a smaller bookstore (like at an airport, or at a tourist town with high retail rents).  Basically, I spend the same amount of time, but I read more pages (and it felt like I made a dent in the surplus of everything that I could read!)

I doubt that was the goal of Amazon; my guess is that, they realized most people who go into a bookstore will not find what they are looking for. Sales are likely dominated by popularity. The long tail won’t matter, since a heavy reader will have specific needs, and it’s likely she will be deeply read within that tranche. There isn’t a IRL store large enough to hold everything, so, ironically, for a deep reader, she will likely not find what she’s looking for. So Amazon’s answer makes sense, and it’s a brutally efficient logic: stock the top 20 or so books in various genres. Assume the buyer will go online for everything else (and trust that they are well trained enough to go to Amazon.com).

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Some interesting essays from around the web:

On the graying of photography. Not literal aging (well, somewhat), but more like a generational clash. But nothing we haven’t read about before about progress or changes in cultural viewpoints, especially vis-à-vis ebook vs paper book debates.

Success in science is dominated by finding statistically significant differences, and the need for positive results – coupled with the metric of publications – makes us all put on rose colored glasses. In this case, it might mean using weak statistics (original paper in PNAS) without regard as to whether it makes sense.

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