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Long Live the Unoptimized Bookstore

What Amazon will never replicate.

To some fanfare, Amazon is opening its latest brick and mortar bookstore this week in Manhattan. It's safe to say that it's the highest-profile opening of the Amazon Books chain, of which there are a half dozen currently open, mostly in low-profile places. My local store is in a suburban mall, for example. These are locales very likely to be served or to have been served in the past by a Barnes and Noble and/or Borders.


The new Amazon stores carry a similar vibe as well—very clean, warmly neutral, and with a not-quite-oppressive digital presence. If you've been to a suburban mall bookstore in America, you know the vibe. And, hey, there are worse places to be in a mall.

These aren't bad places to browse either. In spite of the recommendation engines and customers-also-viewed panes offered by a digital storefront, I'd argue you're still more likely to walk out with something unexpected in even the lamest brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Nonetheless, the mall bookstore elicits a data-age cynicism. In the neat stacks of new arrivals and tables of featured selections, there's a method, a meatspace echo of the recommendation-engine targeting that follows us continuously online. We're rarely disappointed or frustrated, but also rarely surprised.

I'm also pretty spoiled. I've been to John King Books in Detroit, Michigan. It used to be my local bookstore even. John King is retail anarchy so much in opposition to the contemporary hyper-targeted, sterile norm that it might as well exist in another dimension. In terms of IT, John King could operate in a power outage without much of a hitch (given enough candles).

John King is four stories on a lonely block at the edge of downtown Detroit. The building was once a glove factory and clearly hasn't been upgraded a whole lot since. The store's sense of scale is ecstatic—at once an overstuffed closet and a cavern. There are aisles and then aisles within aisles. Side rooms offer special collections and rare books. Everything is used. Some parts of the store feel conspicuously tidy, while others are madness. An almost-anarchy of piles and piles of stacks and boxes of more stacks and stacks of boxes piled onto tables made from more stacks and boxes of stacks. Usually there is a walkway to get through them.


Last December, a staff member looked on apologetically as I methodically iterated through boxes of long-untouched sheet music, pulling scores I'd mostly never heard of but seemed promising. A booklet of waltzes would later prove to have no digital presence whatsoever. A composer and publisher that never existed, according to modern standards. The songs themselves are less alien, carrying the distorted echoes of other songs that makes folk music folk music.

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John King is full of death. It's not hard to see. Much of the store is as organized as any other bookstore, but the piles, the to-be-organized stock, seem to multiply faster. Shuffling through the piles, you can feel people. In one box, an abrupt transition from violin etudes to Tin Pan Alley pop songs—Gershwin and Berlin. Often, it's less subtle. Some authors and/or eras and/or subgenres start repeating, belying the substructure that is the taste of an individual human. Many of these are the books of your grandparents and great-grandparents. This is where they go—the books, and, to some extent, the people.

You don't look things up here. John King even advertises itself as uncomputerized. Different staff members take ownership of separate sections of the store and are there to guide you. They are very good at this. They know their domains intimately. Getting lost is part of the point, in any case.

I'm terribly allergic of John King. The dust. I have to limit my intake. It's hard to do, there's no in-and-out here. Not everywhere should be like John King. It's not an idyll. It's just different and special, a reminder that books mark history as much as they mark the present.

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