Shopping for a Father’s Day gift in Amazon’s terrible new bookstore

This weekend is Father’s Day. A fake holiday, some might say, but an opportunity to do something nice for your dad, nonetheless. So long as he is a dad who deserves anything nice, I think you should take this opportunity.

My dad Jim deserves it because he raised me to pursue my dreams and paid for basically every item I owned before age 21. We live in different cities, and the “nice” thing I can do for my dad on Father’s Day is “buying a thing and mailing it to him.” So, I went to the just-opened Amazon bookstore in New York City’s Columbus Circle to look for a book to send via the reduced-price media mail rate. (No hardcovers; I’m not a Rockefeller! Love you, dad.)

Understanding that Amazon, in all its incarnations, recommends books based on quantifiable data that can be pushed through an algorithm, I prepared by writing down some basic facts about my dad:

Books I know for a fact my dad has read: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Show Me a Hero, 700 Sundays, My Comeback, The Circle

Arriving at the Amazon bookstore, I noticed that the “Shops at Columbus Circle” are super fancy and smell amazing. However, the selection in Amazon Books is only wider than that of a Target or an airport Hudson News by a very slim margin, and the selection is also much stupider (more on that in a second) than either.

Selfishly, I forgot about my dad and spent at least 45 minutes taking note of the bizarre realities of stocking a bookstore solely based on 22 years of crowdsourced opinions and three months of preorder data. I don’t think my dad would have a problem with the detour, as I am his child, and he has spent the last 23 years deferring to my whims in situations where it isn’t going to hurt anyone. That’s his job; he’s the parent!

I saw a YouTube personality’s memoir next to a book called How to Talk to Your Cat About Gun Control. I saw dozens of expensive-looking coffee-table books about Alexander McQueen, Calvin and Hobbes, and Burning Man. I saw Elon Musk everywhere I turned! I saw the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates sitting directly between the Pantsuit Nation book and a volume of David Brooks essays, three works that could loosely be described as popular, and pertaining to politics or social science, but could not possibly be more different in substance or intent.

The classics that Amazon Books keeps in stock were chosen by an algorithm, but sorted by some indecipherable logic that looks utterly random: the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner A Confederacy of Dunces and 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner The Color Purple were labeled as such, and they sat in a tiny “Fiction” corner next to both of J.D Salinger’s published works and a single copy of Children of a Lesser God. Pardon me for saying so, but nearly every book available for purchase at Amazon Books is also available for purchase in my mom’s basement, or my hometown church’s annual rummage sale. Amazon’s popularity algorithm causes Amazon Books to display, prominently, books that were blockbuster best-sellers five to 10 years ago, but don’t feel like something you would go to a bookstore in search of in 2017: The Fault in Our Stars, Team of Rivals, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Devil in the White City, etc.

Who else was in the store, and why? Well, I assume a few of the 20 or so people were tourists, as we were in midtown Manhattan at a luxury mall. I saw one man in a suit stride into the center of the store and loudly demand to know where he could find a copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood — perhaps a book he should have already owned if he was going to be so high and mighty about his own existence, but obviously something he needed urgently. Maybe you would go to Amazon Books if your book situation was urgent? Though, I’ll add that there are other bookstores in the immediate area. I saw a woman plop down in the single available armchair and flip through The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which could be an okay way to relax after work. As I said, it smelled nice. I saw all I could see and then I remembered I have a dad, and he needs a gift from me.

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