If you’re at a bookstore and not looking for a unique brand of shade, you’re probably looking for a book. That’s where Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com, faceless corporations that nonetheless have the books you want, come in. In particular, this is what Amazon.com has excelled at, even more so than chain bookstores: Getting you the books you want, cheap and hassle-free.

But, strangely, the new Amazon Books in New York City doesn’t do this, either. It has a slim fiction section, clearly chosen based on what people buy in print, not what people like to read more generally. I counted just 13 titles in the romance section, for example, even though romance is the best-selling fiction genre in the US. That’s likely because Amazon knows how people behave: Romance buyers, while voracious, tend to buy ebooks. So the fiction section has books the human curators, based on analytics, know will sell well in the store. As a result the children’s fiction section is noticeably massive. Given limited real estate, this is smart. But it also gives one the sense that when you visit Amazon Books, you only see what an algorithm has sloppily decided for you.

When asked about a bestselling gag book mocking the US Democratic party, a store associate told me the store doesn’t carry it. He didn’t offer to order it to the store, either.

I asked him what would be the best way to get the book. “You can order it on Amazon,” he said. Oh.

“We talk about ourselves as a physical extension of Amazon.com,” said Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, on a tour for press. Indeed: Amazon Books heavily promotes its data-driven approach all around the store, just like the site does with its many recommendations—and makes Amazon’s Prime service feel irresistible, just like the site does. But by making the store an extension of Amazon.com, rather than a place in which people really want to spend time and forget their screens in lieu of something quieter, Amazon Books takes away one of the greatest pleasures of a bookstore: escapism. With the entire store blinking like a banner ad for Amazon Prime above your head, you lose the ability to fade away into the printed word.

Image for article titled Amazon’s first bookstore in New York City sucks the joy out of buying books
Image: Quartz/Johnny Simon

To find out how much a book costs, you need to check it with a device—the Amazon app on your phone, or an in-store scanner.  Those unlucky customers who don’t have Amazon Prime have the privilege of paying the full list price. This can be double the price you can get on Amazon.com, even without Prime—so there’s actually a cost to buying a book in the store if you aren’t a Prime member. (Don’t worry, you can remedy that quickly by joining in the store.)

The store doesn’t let you escape the noise of shopping online: One section is for books with more than 10,000 reviews; another display is for “page-turners,” based on ebooks that customers have read in three or fewer days; with a few exceptions, books need a 4-star review to be in the store; to enter, you have to walk around a table showing books 4.8 star-rated or higher.

Image for article titled Amazon’s first bookstore in New York City sucks the joy out of buying books

The store seems to miss the point of buying books in a physical location. Holding out her phone, Cast says, “I call it my ‘mission control’ when I’m in the store.” She clarifies later: “I control how I want to buy [the book], and in the format that I want to buy it, and if I want more information.”

Of course using data to make decisions alone is not a bad thing. What is interesting about Amazon Books is that it is seemingly quick to adapt once it learns what doesn’t work—a challenge for traditional bookstores. Store locations that opened earlier in other cities, for example, placed self-help books near religion, says Cast, but customers said they thought they would be better suited near business books. After consulting its sales data, Amazon decided to change.

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