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Book Review: The Everything Store

By (November 15, 2013) No Comment

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazonthe everything store
By Brad Stone
Little, Brown, 2013

Long-time Silicon Valley reporter Brad Stone turns in his new book The Everything Store to the story of one of the biggest Internet success stories of them all: Amazon.com, which Jeff Bezos began in 1995 as an online bookstore but which has gradually grown into a vendor of everything from cat food to shoes to wine. Stone sets out to tell the story of Amazon from its struggling beginnings to its present state of near-omnipotence, and before even so simple an assertion can come to its period, one of the enormous besetting problems of the enterprise presents itself. Stone has written a book, and in 2013, it’s virtually impossible for a book to sell well without being sold on Amazon.com.

The very universality of that fact makes any book about Amazon suspect right out of the gate, because there are two different narratives possible on the subject, and they’re separated by the very human divisor of whether or not an author wants his book to sell. In one narrative, Amazon is an evil, soulless locust-storm of a company, a rule-rigging carpetbagger that will cut any corner, bend or break any law, in order to crush its competitors. In the other narrative, Amazon is a scrappy up-and-comer, its story a digital Horatio Alger yarn about a little company that grew big through its commitment to its customers. No one author can tell both stories, so anybody setting out to tell the story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com must pick his Epilogue before he writes his Introduction.

The reason why such a choice must be made derives from the first narrative: Amazon has a long history of pulling books from its electronic shelves for reasons of professional and personal pique. For an author, that would be catastrophic; as great as sites like Alibris of The Book Depository (or BN.com, the site of Amazon’s chief bookselling competitor, Barnes & Noble, as we’ll see in a moment) might be, the vast majority of book consumers on Earth shop at Amazon.com. An author writing a hatchet-job account of Amazon’s rise to global domination runs a much higher risk of annoying Amazon than an author writing a Horatio Alger account, and that simple fact alone warps the very idea of professional accountability. You might protest, “But I had every intention of being ruthlessly honest regardless of Amazon’s reaction,” but Grand Central Station commuters who obediently avoid the dropped purse bulging with cash because an enormous cop is standing ten feet away would all protest the same thing – “I wouldn’t have taken that money regardless” – but it’s possible that some of them are lying. The consequences of the unguarded choice are too brutal to warrant the risk.

Brad Stone doesn’t risk it. He does an evident amount of background research, and he has a gamesome journalistic light touch on the narrative cogs and wheels, and he employs those things to tell the story of a scrappy up-and-coming Horatio Alger company planting its flag on behalf of its customers in a landscape dominated by monstrous, rampaging corporations. There isn’t much Stone can do to prevent the Jeff Bezos who leads that company from coming across as a preening, ranting, bullying tin-pot tyrant, a miserable, griping nightmare to work for, but in the aftermath of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the bestiary of American entrepreneurs now happily welcomes assholes. This need not scupper a polite book – in fact, it enhances the fundamentally silly narrative Stone pursues: the young Bezos is wide-eyed and innocent at the beginning, and if he coarsens over time into a more cynical figure, well, who wouldn’t when faced with sharks like, for instance, the Riggio brothers, owners of the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain. Stone sets the scene so carefully that the only things missing are sunglasses worn indoors and a hulking driver named Rocko:

Now Barnes & Noble was faced with what must have seemed like a pipsqueak upstart. Amazon had a measly $16 million in sales in 1996; Barnes & Noble notched $2 billion in sales that same year. Still, after the Wall Street Journal article in 1996, [Len] Riggio called Bezos and told him he wanted to come to Seattle with his brother Stephen to talk about a deal. Inexperienced at the time in these kinds of discussions, Bezos called investor and board member Tom Alberg and asked him to accompany him to dinner with the Riggios. Beforehand, they decided on a strategy of caution and flattery.

Caution and flattery doesn’t work: the Riggios swagger and threaten and then leave sneering. They can’t imagine a future in which their brick-and-mortar stores will be shuttering at a rate of three or four a year and Amazon will be ascendant, making several hundred sales in every minute of every day. The Riggios can’t imagine that future, but Stone’s hero sees it as clearly as any hero could:

Bezos had predicted that the chain retailer would have trouble seriously competing online, and, in the end, he was right. The Riggios were reluctant to lose money on a relatively small part of their business and didn’t want to put their most resourceful employees behind an effort that would siphon sales away from the more profitable stores. On top of that, their company’s distribution operation was well entrenched and geared toward servicing physical stores by sending out large shipments of books to a set number of locations. The shift from that to mailing small orders to individual customers was long, painful, and full of customer-service errors. For Amazon, that was just daily business.

The Everything Store paints a vivid picture of that daily business, and the other Amazon – the rapacious, tax-dodging, copyright-violating, legislature-bribing, worker-exploiting Amazon – hardly features in that picture at all. Occasionally Stone dallies with the journalistic objectivity that should have dictated his every word (or else dictated that he cravenly avoid the project altogether); occasionally he makes mention of an Amazon that wields its market power “neither lightly nor gracefully, employing every bit of leverage to improve its own margins,” but inevitably he links the venal with the virtuous and tacks on a “in order to pass along savings to its customers.”

At one point in his serial public monologue, Bezos was fond of referring to his company as an “unstore,” and it’s under such terminology that Stone regurgitates a little more Amazon PR material:

Being an unstore meant, in Bezos’s view, that Amazon was not bound by the traditional rules of retail. It had limitless shelf space and personalized itself for every customer. It allowed negative reviews in addition to positive ones, and it placed used products directly next to new ones so that customers could make informed choices. In Bezos’s eyes, Amazon offered everyday low prices and great customer service. It was Walmart and Nordstrom’s.

Bezos himself didn’t cooperate with Stone’s book, and Bezos’ wife has famously panned it – on Amazon – but these are the nitpickings of megalomaniacs accustomed to getting every last detail their way; you’d practically have to be a member of the Bezos family to consider this anything but an early Valentine, right down to the cover of the US edition, in which Bezos’ eyes peer out over the facsimile of an Amazon shipping box. The company’s arrow sigil is curving right where the man’s smile would be, and he’s not the only one: The Everything Store is currently around #330 in the Amazon sales ranks.