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Opinion Here’s the difference between Jeff Bezos and me

An Amazon Books retail store in New York City on Feb. 14, 2019. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
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Bradley Graham is a co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and a former reporter and editor for The Post.

“What’s the difference between Jeff Bezos and me?”

For some time now, I’ve asked people that question when discussing the book business, which Bezos and I are both in. Of course, he’s in a lot of other businesses as well (he owns The Post), while I just run an independent bookstore. But he and I both decided to expand our book operations around the same time several years ago. We took very different tacks.

As head of Amazon, Bezos moved from selling books just online to launching a string of physical bookstores around the country, including two in the Washington metro area. As co-owner of Politics and Prose, whose original location is in Northwest D.C., I opened a couple of branch stores in the city.

For his preferred sites, Bezos chose Georgetown and Bethesda, two of the most established — and expensive — retail neighborhoods. They were also where Barnes & Noble once operated, until it found the locations too challenging and unprofitable for a bookstore chain.

P&P’s branches opened in Union Market in Northeast D.C. and the Wharf in Southwest, two historically underserved communities undergoing transformation and renewed growth. Committed as P&P remains to its roots in Northwest, where the store was founded in 1984, we’ve sought to extend our bookselling and community-building efforts into other, diverse, dynamic parts of the city.

From the outset, the purpose of the Amazon bookstores was never clear. Various accounts indicated their aim was less to sell books than to promote Prime membership and perhaps some nonbook products.

In style and concept, Amazon’s stores differed markedly from the independent bookstores that dot the D.C. landscape. They conveyed the parent company’s homogenized corporate identity rather than the distinctive character of their communities. They lacked the quirky personality and warmth of indies. And their book offerings were based not on the choices of individual buyers familiar with the interests of local customers but on data generated from Amazon’s online shoppers. Walk into an Amazon bookstore and you’d see what everyone else was reading, not a thoughtfully curated selection of books worth discovering.

So, it was hardly surprising to me when Amazon confirmed on Wednesday that it was closing its 24 bookstores. It is also terminating its pop-up kiosks and 4-Star stores, which carried electronics, toys and home goods.

But Amazon isn’t getting out of brick-and-mortar entirely. The company now intends to focus its physical retail efforts on Amazon Fresh, Whole Foods, Amazon Go and a new fashion venture, Amazon Style. In the process, Amazon is also likely to keep pursuing its “Just Walk Out” technology, which dispenses with checkout stations.

Amazon’s retreat from the physical bookstore business underscores what those of us in it know all too well: It isn’t easy. It requires superb customer service, dedicated staff who provide knowledgeable advice about what to read, an inviting environment in which to browse and shop, and literary activities that connect patrons directly to authors through book talks and other programming. Most of all, it demands a deep commitment to the local communities that sustain us.

Even through the pandemic of the past two years, most independent bookstores have managed to survive. Doing so has meant doing what indies do best, which is adapting, innovating and staying focused on community. At P&P, we started offering curbside pickup and local delivery services, moved our author talks and literary classes online, and expanded our Web order capabilities, all while keeping staff employed and protected from covid-19.

But Amazon remains a major threat to us and to independent bookstores everywhere. Though it’s now shuttering its physical book outlets, the company persists as a dominant presence online, choking competition and engaging in unfair practices.

A national conversation about the costs and consequences of Amazon’s enormous power is already underway, with attention being paid to how the company adversely affects neighborhoods through the erosion of jobs, a loss of character for our hometowns and less money in sales taxes for local economies. Hopefully, this attention will lead to some sort of breakup or regulation.

In the meantime, it will be up to customers to make the critical choice between shopping indie and shopping Amazon. As Allison Hill, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, stated, “As the pandemic subsides and we return to the social spaces that bring us together, we will decide whether we want to be commoditized or recognized as individuals. Independent businesses all across the country add diversity, character and humanity to our communities and they need our support.”

I’m not going to spend much time gloating over the end of Amazon’s bookstores. Not given the challenges Amazon still poses. But now there’s a new answer to the question about the difference between Jeff Bezos and me: I’m in the physical bookstore business, and he’s not.

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