The perfect bookstore.

I confess I’m puzzled by one reported outcome of the recent two-day session in New York aimed at defining, and maybe even laying the groundwork for a perfect, dream bookstore. Organizer (and friend) Chris Kubica set out with a strong agenda and the group included true luminaries, and so hopes were high and the initiative got great attention in the industry press. But Chris’s Publishers Weekly articlesummarizing the event, and Laura Dawson’s followup post seem to suggest that Amazon/Kindle just may be the perfect bookstore after all.

For example, Chris reports:

Day two of the e-book store dream-team exercise was supposed to be devoted to clarifying our idea and further developing the key features our dream store would have, as well as the features that would set it apart from other startups. Then a strange thing happened: we pulled back. We second-guessed. We found ourselves in a dark wood. How can we compete with the Amazons of the world? The challenge seemed insurmountable.

I’d hoped that by the end of the day, we’d be able to draw up an actionable specification that we could fund and build. But instead, we found ourselves focused on finding one thing — just one — that Amazon’s walled garden doesn’t do really, really well.

This is where I get puzzled. Taking nothing away from Amazon’s accomplishments (obligatory acknowledgment here, which we can all hopefully stipulate to streamline further discussion) or the great experience and creativity of the group that gathered in New York, people I genuinely admire, Amazon hardly seems like something anyone could describe as a dream bookstore, as implied by the “does everything really, really well” statement.

Amazon is the dream fulfillment service, maybe. You order books you discovered elsewhere from a database with a somewhat retro UI tied into highly optimized delivery, and at rock bottom prices. That may be someone’s definition of a great/perfect/dream bookstore, but that definition would be, to my mind, pretty bloodless.

When I (and I believe a lot of other people) think of “bookstore,” I think of browsing, riffling through pages, serendipity, readings, unexpected recommendations or discoveries, staff picks, shared purpose and experience. A bookstore can be, as at last week’s LeakyCon fandom conference in Orlando, simply a set of tables stacked with books interesting to a very particular community (and at LeakyCon, these were all print books, sold at full list and nearly sold out). Or it can be Strand Books, or the more modest Browser Books in San Francisco, or bookstores in any of a number of cities. Or as Bob Stein of if:book has suggested, a selection of books keyed to a particular museum exhibit (and every museum is also a bookstore, for that matter).

Yes, all brick and mortar examples, but by no means are the important, defining aspects of these bookstore experiences unimplementable online. It’s the relentless aim of networked technologies and apps to replicate all human activity and experience on the web. “Software will eat the world,” as Marc Andreessen memorably put it, and it is true that a growing range of human activity and relationships has moved to the web. Lives in all their complexity are in part lived on the web, because intentionally designed, networked software has made that possible.

In this light, consider Wink Books (“remarkable books that belong on paper”), selected and described by Mark Frauenfelder, to me a wonderfully browsable online bookstore built atop Tumblr. You might also fairly describe Brain Pickings as a kind of bookstore. Tumblr itself, as well as networks of special interest blogs, or Reddit, Pinterest, Twitter, or any other place where people point things out to one another invariably point out books. “Look at this book,” they say. “You might find it interesting.”

What these sort-of bookstores lack, though, is transaction capabilities and product fulfillment. Wink and Brain Pickings, for example, use the Amazon affiliate link: Wink is the front end, Amazon is the back end. But in other respects, they’re like specialty bookstores run by quirky, knowledgeable proprietors. Step back a bit, and you can see that the front end experience that many associate with a great bookstore has been detached from the back end and become wildly distributed into the fabric of the web. In some cases overtly, as with these two examples. In other cases implicitly, as people point at books in a million daily posts across a variety of networks.

With the inevitable advent of a distributed transaction and fulfillment network that rises to the level of “ambient,” that supports reasonable pricing, reliable delivery, and economics that free up meaningful margin for venues like Wink et al, it may one day become apparent that the world itself is a perfect, albeit latent bookstore.

Though more a feeling than a product plan, there was some suggestion of this in Chris Kubica’s PW report (in a passage also called out byPorter Anderson on FutureBook):

We set out with a desire to design and build something that could compete with Amazon’s massive scale. But, ultimately, we found that perhaps the best way to get traction against a dominant player like Amazon is not to build something equally titanic, but to build something wee, something human. Grassroots. Peer-to-peer. Something simple. Distributed. Democratic. Something that will turn the focus back to art and away from commerce and shareholders. Connection. Emotion. Humanity. Maybe each one of us should be a bookstore?

If the outcome to the admirable #altbookstore endeavor, the takeaway, is “Amazon already does everything people want from a perfect bookstore,” then it’s plain that two days is just not enough time to explode the premises that somewhat forlorn conclusion is rooted in, and the world is too eager for instant results.

I don’t believe Chris and the assembled brain trust intend to leave it there. And it will take a lot more than a single focused session to make things happen.

At Aerbook we’re well down the path toward a ubiquitous “ambient bookstore.” We’ve been at it for years, and we can put a bookstore pretty much anywhere online, from a website or Flipboard magazine to a Pinterest wall, or Twitter or Facebook stream. There’s a bit more to be done (always more to be done) but we’re pretty close to making this available to anyone, for an enormous number of books.

Then you’ll be able to look at your own bookshelves and think, yes, there’s the perfect bookstore. And make that happen.

— Ron Martinez