Amazon has come a long way from its early headquarters near a heroin-needle exchange

Remember when?
Remember when?
Image: AP Photo/Andy Rogers
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When Amazon announced it was seeking a home for its second headquarters, 238 cities in North America responded, with proposals including billions of dollars in tax breaks and a variety of amenities.

The pioneering online bookseller has come a long way. The blog GeekWire recently resurfaced a 1999 clip of a 60 Minutes feature on Amazon, then a five-year-old enterprise. Today, with founder Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth surpassing $100 billion and the company on track for a $1 trillion valuation, the description of its decidedly humble early offices stands out.

“And where are Amazon’s headquarters? The public relations people told us to come to 1516 Second Avenue between Pike and Pine in Seattle,” the late CBS correspondent Bob Simon tells the camera, in a clip recently highlighted by CNBC.

“But when we passed the pawn shop and the porno parlor, the wig store and the downmarket teriyaki joint, we didn’t see anything vaguely cutting-edge. No corporate drives or office towers. Just a heroin-needle exchange and an old building called Columbia, but it had the number 1516 so we walked inside—and there it was.”

Inside, Simon found a stained carpet and employees working at the company’s famed “door desks”: work surfaces hacked together from two-by-fours and old doors.

“It’s a symbol of spending money on things that matter to customers and not spending money on things that don’t,” Bezos told Simon.

A lot has changed since that report. Amazon now collects just a tad more data per day than the “350 floppy disks worth” cited in the piece, and two-bedroom condos on that formerly derelict Second Avenue block now sell for up to $4.5 million. But the door desk continues to occupy a central place in Amazon’s internal mythology, with the company handing out an internal “Door Desk Award” for cost-saving ideas.

The door desks suggested a Spartan disregard for image, but they were probably more about savvy marketing than saving money. The desks were ergonomic nightmares, difficult to move, and—because they were built on-site—probably more expensive than mass-purchased cheap desks, as one former employee noted in a 2011 blog post. While the first door desks may have been built out of necessity, the latter ones were more about PR—much like Amazon’s much-hyped search for a second headquarters.