The storefront on Southport, in what used to be an Irish pub Credit: Aimee Levitt

The day Chicago’s independent booksellers have been dreading for the past six months has finally come to pass: Amazon Books is here.

The store, the fifth Amazon Books location, opened its doors for the first time yesterday morning. It’s located in what used to be an Irish pub on the Southport corridor, not far from the Brown Line station. The shop is about 6,000 square feet, which is pretty large for a bookstore, but it stocks just 3,800 books, small for a bookstore that size. All the books are shelved face out, each with a shelf talker with customer comments. This takes up a lot more space and would normally be a sign of a failing bookstore, but since this is Amazon, it’s probably intended to have more of a showroom effect. The stock has been selected based on Amazon customer ratings. (At the front door, you’re greeted by The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines, Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, and The Big Book of Kombucha by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory.)

The front displayCredit: Aimee Levitt

There is also a large section devoted to Amazon’s proprietary technology—the Kindle, the Fire, and the Echo—and a small cafe. There are reading chairs to encourage browsing, but no seating in the cafe, probably to discourage coffee spilling.

You’re welcome to sit and read.Credit: Aimee Levitt

When the first Amazon Books opened in Seattle in 2015, there were lines out the door. This was not the case in Chicago. By the time I got there at around 3:30 PM, the PR team had departed, but there was a group of enthusiastic and bright-eyed salespeople eager to show the smattering of customers how the store worked.

Unlike the traditional store model where every item has a sticker or tag on it that indicates how much you’ll be expected to pay at checkout, at the Amazon Store you fire up the Amazon app on your smartphone, link it to your camera, and aim the lens at the cover of the book you’re looking at. The price appears on your phone. Or, rather, prices: one for regular customers and one for customers who pay $10.99 a month for their Amazon Prime memberships. When you go up front to pay, you can either use cash or a credit card, or you can pay through your Amazon account by scanning a couple of QR codes. I have to admit the part of me that’s still 12 years old was delighted by this, though I’m not sure if I’d love it so much if I had to do it every single time I went into a store and wanted to buy something.

The scanner for those not lucky enough to have a smartphone or too lazy to use itCredit: Aimee Levitt

(If you don’t have a smartphone, you can take your book to one of the price scanners located around the store. The technology is very similar to what you find at Target.)

Forbes writer Rob Salkowitz speculated that the Amazon app would be able to keep track of the books you’ve browsed both online and in person and offer special store discounts on the spot. Amazon Books, he wrote, would provide a model for brick-and-mortar retailers to collect customer data the way e-businesses do. It’s not clear if this process is already under way at Amazon Books. Two of the books I scanned yesterday afternoon appeared in my online browsing history (two more didn’t), but they didn’t seem to have been incorporated into Amazon’s “personalized” recommendations for me.

The Chicago bookstore community is not pleased by the Amazon  invasion. Within days of Amazon’s announcement last summer that it would be setting up shop in Chicago, 17 independent bookstores issued a joint statement listing reasons why they were better for the community. In October, 23 stores formed the Chicagoland Independent Bookstore Alliance to promote authors and literary events. This week, they’ve been encouraging their customers to shop local. The Chicago Review of Books published a list by author Rebecca Makkai: “12 Chicago Bookstores to Visit Instead of Amazon Today”.
Amazon spokeswoman Deborah Bass declined to comment on whether Amazon is aware of the hostility of its fellow booksellers. “We are excited to be a part of the Southport community, and making great books available to the people who live nearby,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, Amazon has announced that it’s opening five more Amazon Books locations for a grand total of ten, and Bloomberg Businessweek reports that preparations are under way for the first three Amazon Go grocery stores in Seattle in advance of a national rollout next year. The groceries are likely to be more of a money-earning proposition than the bookstores. The future is coming. Whether anyone wants it remains an open question.