Embracing Amazon

Photo by Myles RobinsonAmazon.com's new headquarters loom on a hill overlooking Seattle's clogged freeways like an orange Deco nightmare. The hulking building—a former hospital—is all curved angles and gaping windows: bricks meet neatly, floors are firm, and whatever walks there, walks alone.

The online megabookstore began moving into the building in May. Before that, the company's 800-odd employees were scattered around several office buildings in downtown Seattle, having grown too numerous for its original location. Now they can all pack into one mammoth building looking down on the city, a benevolent despot surveying his kingdom.

It's a fitting metaphor for a company that's rapidly becoming the great white whale of the online-bookselling world. When Amazon was founded in 1995, it was a scrappy little start-up run out of CEO Jeff Bezos' garage. With a mere handful of employees, Amazon began challenging huge chain stores like Barnes & Noble (Amazon's deadliest rival) and Borders for a slice of the retail book market. When Bezos proved his virtual bookstore could work, he became the darling of e-commerce fans, who anointed him the poster child of online business and showered the company with capital. Today, Amazon shares trade in the triple digits.

But in a measly four years, Amazon has gone from Game Little Underdog to Evil Behemoth in many people's eyes. Independent booksellers blame Amazon, along with brick-and-mortar chain stores, for driving them out of business. Consumers slammed the company in February after the New York Times revealed that the "recommended" reads prominently featured on its site were often bought and paid for by publishers. Amazon had become the digital Goliath, poised to crush any Davids that might dare try selling books online themselves.

Except that sometimes, David and Goliath can shake hands and do business.

Patti Hamilton owns the Old Book House in Lake Forest. The former RN opened her 3,000-square-foot store in 1995, the same year Amazon began peddling books over the Web. Hamilton's store sells mostly used books with a smattering of new sprinkled in. She also does a thriving business in bookends, which are scattered like chaff throughout the store.

She's been selling books online just as long. When she first opened her store, Hamilton registered with several online search services such as Bibliofind and Advanced Book Exchange. With these services, a customer types in a book they're looking for, and the search service digs through all its registered bookstores' inventories until it finds a copy.

Then, in 1997, Hamilton launched her own site, the Old Book House (www.oldbookhouse.com). Through it, Hamilton sells more of her trademark bookends, signed books and first editions, used books on everything from acupuncture to yoga, and such miscellaneous items as pencil holders and note pads. The site holds a monthly drawing giving away books and bookends.

"When we started, we were doing maybe 10 percent to 20 percent of our business online," Hamilton said. "Now we're getting close to 50 percent. The bookends in particular do really well. There's not a big audience for them, but people who do want them will look everywhere."

Hamilton's Web site may account for a significant chunk of her business, and it may be well-designed and convenient to use, but how can she hope to compete with Amazon's huge, slick site? Doesn't the prospect of going up against Amazon scare her?

"You know what's funny?" Hamilton said. "I'm not in competition with Amazon. They're my best customer. They order from me every day. When people go to Amazon and want an out-of-print book, Amazon comes to me to buy it. So the bigger Amazon gets, the more book orders I get. They buy anywhere from 12 to 20 books a day from me."

Since Amazon doesn't exist in the real world, it has no retail space stuffed with first editions in neat dust jackets. So when one of its customers wants, say, a signed first edition of an Elizabeth George novel, it turns to independent booksellers like Hamilton, who's happy to pocket $30 or so of Amazon's cash.

"They just order it from us and mark the price up for their customer," Hamilton said. "I still sell the books at the same price. Some customers do come directly to us and say, 'Wow—the books are so much cheaper here.'"

Not all independent booksellers are as sanguine as Hamilton. The American Booksellers Association (of which Hamilton is a member) announced in May it was launching a new Book Sense branding program to help indie bookstores compete with the giants both online and off. In the real world, the Book Sense logo—prominently displayed in store windows, etc.—gives independent bookstores a national brand to raise their exposure among consumers. On the Internet, the association is helping its members build individual Web sites to sell online, using their individualistic images to counter Amazon's corporate monolith. The online portion of the Book Sense program is scheduled to launch in September.

"Our members see e-commerce as both a threat and an opportunity," said the American Booksellers Association's Len Vlahos. "We're trying to focus on the opportunity side."

Hamilton, although aware of the Book Sense program, says she's not certain whether she'll participate. "I'm not sure it's something that would help me," she said. "From what I've read, it's mostly for new-book sellers, independents trying to get a force together to battle Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It's also mostly for people who don't have a Web site; I already have one."

But while Hamilton has had nothing but good from her dealings with Amazon, she acknowledges it may be a bigger problem for other independent booksellers.

"I don't want them to go away, but they're definitely hurting other people," she said. "Especially new independent booksellers. I just hope that someday they don't try to acquire their own out-of-print books. I really hope they don't do that."

Chat about books with Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net.


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