Books: Dispatch

Browsing and Buying in New York

Priya Khanchandani is a curator, writer and former lawyer based in London
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From the connoisseur to the casual visitor, everyone is welcome

BOOKSHOPS ARE deeply woven into the fabric of New York, despite their notorious decline. You might find yourself deep in a treasure trove of second-hand books, encounter a staff of booksellers who are all volunteers, or discover a store that stocks only cookery, French or Japanese books. On a recent visit to the city, I decide to explore the two extremes of the bookshop spectrum—the Amazon Books shop that opened in May this year and the venerable Strand, which turned 90 in June and is the only bookshop left on Fourth Avenue, which was once known as Book Row.

I go to Amazon’s new Manhattan bookstore first, its only one in the city so far. It wouldn’t have been easy to stumble upon it, since it sits in a corner, up on the second floor of the Time Warner Centre Mall in Columbus Circle, although the location is a bustling intersection between Central Park and the Museum of Art and Design in Midtown.

On entering the shop, the seventh in the country, it so closely resembles the Amazon website that you could have stepped into the internet, if there were advanced enough virtual reality software. (Amazon, which is now a sprawling conglomerate, is developing 3D experiences among its many ventures, so perhaps one day we will.) The books are front rather than spine facing like online books and each is displayed alongside a customer review taken from the web page. The 3,000 titles in the store, far less than the website, which carries a few million, have been selected based on customer ratings and online pre-orders.

Unlike any shop I’ve been to before, this one is cashless. The only way you can find out the price of a book is either by looking it up on Amazon.com, by scanning it using one of the computers in the shop, or by reading the bar code with your smart phone (which would mean downloading the brand’s app). Amazon Prime members can shop with the same prices as the website whereas others must foot a higher list price, which incentivises you to take membership.

Apart from categories of genre, there is an abundance of bestseller groupings based on online sales. They range from ‘Most-Wished-For Books’ and ‘Nonfiction Top Sellers in New York’ to ‘Highly Rated 4 Stars & Above’ and even ‘Highly Rated Children’s Books 4.8 Stars & Above’. Doesn’t this take the fun out of the process of discovering a book, leafing through its crisp pages, pondering over the text on the back wondering if it’s worth reading? If it were possible to turn a digital shopping space into a tangible showroom, then that’s what Amazon has achieved, knowingly or not.

One hopes that Amazon bookstores don't have an adverse impact on the gems of bookshops that have so far fought to withstand the competition

The issue is that with less books and difficult-to-access pricing—which is not competitive unless you are a Prime member—there doesn’t seem to be a real reason to shop here as opposed to ordering a book from home, clutching a mug of tea in one hand and pressing a one- click order button with the other. There isn’t even anywhere to sit and browse.

Like Amazon.com, the shop is not exclusively about selling books. About a third of the store’s area is dedicated to other merchandise, from Amazon Echo to Amazon Kindle. You will also find Pikachu soft toys, hiking bags, Fuji instant cameras and a whole host of other items unrelated to reading. Is this the way in which the reader of the future will be lured into a bookshop or are books simply a way for Amazon to advertise and sell other products?

When I am approached by a friendly attendant, it dawns on me that personal service must be the advantage of going to the shop rather than having the shop come to you. I decide to ask her whether they stock any fiction on South Asia. She courteously says that she can’t tell me, unless I am able to specify a name for her to search for digitally. I then request books by Salman Rushdie, for the sake of experiment, and she tells me that she has never heard of him.

At that point, I give up. I soon find Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Gregory David Roberts’ best-selling Shantaram and The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, on prominent display in the fiction section, only a few shelf rows from the entrance.

Empty-handed, I head downtown to the Strand bookstore. For 90 years they have been selling mainly second-hand and rare books to New Yorkers who flock there each day. If there was such a thing as a shrine to books, then Strand could be it. The bookshelves appear endless and are shelved wide and high—there are even ladders to get to the top. Wandering among them is to a book lover what a Michelin-starred tasting menu is to a foodie. The throng of people at the till suggests that promoting bestsellers isn’t the only way to run a book business.

The entrance is an area for milling around. There is a series of tables of categorised books including popular books and Strand merchandise, although these are confined to this area. There are some quirky categories that I can’t help but Instagram, such as ‘Banned Books’ which includes Nabokov’s Lolita and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Beyond that is shelf after shelf of books seemingly displayed to the very limits of the four copious floors, with the top floor dedicated to rare books and signed editions.

As well as selling books, the Strand has developed a reputed programme of events and also consults on book acquisitions. This includes a service whereby customers can purchase, or even rent, books by the metre and according to colour. It serves clientele such as the less literary minded who wish to furnish their Manhattan apartments with books, as well as theatres and TV shows in need of striking rows of books with spines in co-ordinated shades for their stages and sets.

When I ask the attendant where South Asian fiction is kept, I am swiftly taken to works by Mohsin Hamid. The books are in alphabetical order by category and I get a little lost as I browse. I end up at the poetry section, which is far bigger than that of any independent bookshop I have been to before. I end up with a handful of new collections by contemporary authors I didn’t know about, whose gems of poems play with form and push it in new directions. (They are also light enough to carry back to London in my already brimming suitcase.)

When Amazon started selling books online, it put many independent bookshops out of business. It now seems to be replenishing America’s malls with its own. Although these shops appear mainly to advertise Amazon’s online business, one hopes that they don’t have an adverse impact on the gems of bookshops that have so far fought to withstand the competition, like the Strand. I can’t see an Amazon bookstore coming anywhere close in terms of enjoyment, and in a digital age, that’s going to matter more than what you can buy.

Amazon Books is for the pragmatic customer; while the Strand is for the lover of literature who ventures in to explore and discover new titles. The beauty of our consumer world is that you can take your pick. If you aren’t going to a bookshop to leaf through books, to find something new, to feel lost and surprised, then you may as well stay at home and have them delivered to your doorstep.

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