Birth of a behemoth

Who would have thought a book called Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought” would have been the beginning of an online revolution. Yet 18 years ago today that was the first item sold on a website called Amazon. Today is a behemoth, not only in the world of books but in the world of online retail sales. In fact, it may be an excellent reflection on how online shopping evolved.

The sale came a year after Jeff Bezos incorporated the company. Originally, the website “was little more than a Web page of text separated by headlines, underlined and bolded in blue.” The business consisted of a few people packing and shipping boxes of books from a two-car garage in Bellevue, Wash. Within five years, it had gone public, gone international and branched into music, DVDs and consumer electronics. This year it had a market capitalization of $140 billion and its gross revenue last year was $61 billion (yes, both with a “b”). Its gross profit, $15 billion last year (again with a “b”), has doubled since 2010 and nearly tripled since 2009.

I use Amazon a lot. I buy books, ebooks, music, movies, Christmas gifts and computer hardware and software from it. I’m an Amazon Prime member. And all my purchases at the store are on my Amazon branded Visa card (the points from which have allowed me to “buy” a variety of electronic gadgets for little or nothing, including an ASUS tablet for less than $7). But behemoths of any kind can cause fear and loathing or, for someone like me, twinges of guilt and unease.

As much as what happened nearly two decades ago started something groundbreaking for readers and shoppers, what it led to has been heartbreaking, and often backbreaking, for independent bookstores. So the next time you price a book on Amazon remember that if you forego the discount once in a while and buy from your local bookseller, you’re contributing to the survival of brick and mortar bookstores.

The terrible thing about the internet and Amazon is that they take the magic and happy chaos out of book shopping. The internet might give you what you want, but it won’t give you what you need.

Tom Hodgkinson, Jan. 5, 2007

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