Let’s not pretend otherwise.
This week, Amazon unveiled a brick and mortar bookstore in Seattle's University Village. It was covered widely across the press, and the Atlantic was even inspired to wonder: "Did Amazon just replace the public library?"
"Amazon is aiming to create… spaces that are premised on books, but realized by community," the author wrote. "The books here may be bought rather than borrowed, certainly, but in terms of the space created, the goal [of Amazon Books] is the same [as a public library]."
But the difference between the two institutions should be obvious. The goal of a public library is to lend books to citizens free of charge, and to provide spaces that serve all people in society equally. The goal of a bookstore—and Amazon Books is indisputably a bookstore—is to sell books to customers at a profit, and to provide spaces for those who are able and willing to purchase its products. Those are two different kinds of institutions and they inevitably produce two different kinds of communities.
How then to account for this creeping argument? It's worth addressing, as Amazon is increasingly drawing comparisons to libraries, especially through its Kindle Unlimited service. In 2014, Amazon rolled out that subscription service for ebooks, it was repeatedly said to be "like a library." (Except, of course, it wasn't. Instead, it was a fee-for-service product similar to Netflix.) And last year, Forbes went so far as to argue that we should "Close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle."
The reason we're seeing such confusion over what a library is may have more to do with political ideology than cultural analysis. The prevailing neoliberal values of the governing class hold that whatever government does, private business can do better. So the post office is inefficient; public schools have been hamstrung by teacher's unions; libraries are archaic. Only through the privatization of public space, the argument goes, will society produce superior systems.
Beneath this valorization of markets, though, a profound loneliness must lurk. How else to explain this rhapsodizing about Amazon Books? It is, after all, just another bookstore. Another bookstore like Barnes and Noble, which used to have a location in University Village—precisely the same neighborhood that Amazon Books now occupies—before closing down a few years ago.
Like Magus Books, a used bookstore located less than a mile away in Seattle's University District. Like Elliot Bay Book Company, one of the premier independent bookstores in the country, located a few miles south on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Amazon may have leather chairs, but so did Barnes and Noble. Amazon may encourage people to "hang out," but so does Magus. Amazon Books may want to foster a sense of community, but Elliot Bay already does that. That doesn't make them libraries. It makes them bookstores.
Tech evangelists and neoliberals want to have it both ways. They want to commoditize public space, but retain a strong sense of community. When citizens enter retail spaces, however, they are converted into consumers—not a bad thing, per se, and arguably necessary to keep the wheels of commerce going. But these sorts of spaces don't bring people together; they pry them apart. The most common effect is not communion or collective feeling, as The Atlantic suggests, but atomization and anxiety.
Meanwhile, a purely digital marketplace like the Kindle Lending Library, offers no public space at all—cheap, even free, books are one thing, but nobody's going to mistake a Netflix-like download menu for a public community.
Libraries, on the other hand, are different kinds of places altogether. They are built collectively through the allocation of public funds, and their mission, much like post offices or public schools, is to serve everyone equally regardless of one's purchasing power. Though rarely sexy, slick, or technologically cutting edge, they provide something else—namely a rare and welcome respite from the relentless assaults of the market. In an increasingly venal, self-interested, and privatizedAmerican culture, libraries offer a glimpse of a more civil, humane, and social democratic impulse—the better angels of our nature.
If you do find yourself in northeast Seattle hungering for community, do yourself a favor and avoidAmazon Books. Instead, continue north on 25th, make a right on 65th, a left on 35th, and take a look to the left. There, on the side of the road, you will find a true monument to Americancollectivity, an institution that has been built and maintained using public funds whose missionis to serve all people equally regardless of how much money they have: the Northeast branch of The Seattle Public Library.