Notes from Amazon’s Occupation of Soho

Published December 7, 2018

Illustration by Jack Vhay

For the month of December, one writer will reflect on the big questions of life and commerce at the Amazon 4-star store in New York City.

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Thursday, Dec. 6, 5:35 PM

“I’m more of a physical purchaser myself,” explains a greeter adorned in a necklace of slow-flashing Christmas lights. His audience, two middle-aged tourists in generic down vests, nod along confusedly. I don’t know what kind of consumer I am, I think, as I stare at a Pet Hop Hop carrier by the entrance of Amazon’s 4-star store in Soho. I’ve tallied just one purchase from the retailer for the year (a used Denis Johnson book, lol). Elsewhere, the collected data on my spending is erratic and irregular, every transaction in my name more like a rare collision of mood and disposable fortune. The type of purchaser I am, you could say, is accidental.

The store itself feels accidental, a makeshift ward for addicted shoppers, hoarders looking for a quick fix. Mounds, piles, towers, bins, stacks, and rows are dimensions that the algorithms of the world’s retailer have generated. Despite big data’s attempt to exert an errorless grip on every facet of the modern world, everything in the store is askew. My nieces organize their toys like this—better than this, I think, passing by a wobbling tower of (Cheater’s Edition) Monopoly Boards. On the “Trending in New York City” table, I come across a book with just one customer review. 

In the deep corners of the store, as I stand under a sign that reads “Middle School,” two women in faux fur pet a row of stuffed animals under another sign that reads “Grade School.” “This is such a good idea!” one exclaims to the other without acknowledgement. As they discuss the palace intrigue of co-workers at an e-commerce platform for luxury fashion, I feel the buzz of smug primacy at this perfect image of banality. They knock a massive box of Legos onto the floor as I move out of earshot. Nearby, a businessman clutches an audiobook as he tells his Bluetooth headset to “circle back once they budge on the number.” A trio of women ogle an instant pot. Each smiles as they share their reviews on the models they own. I’m struck by the ease with which they glide around the store. Looking down at a table of kitchenware, I catch Anthony Bourdain’s cool gaze, his memoirs stacked between a microwave and a bundle of rubber-coated whisks. Serendipity has been stripped from the space, and what’s left—my lazy judgment, incoherent groupings of product, the verbal runoff of customer reviews, sheer volume—is a spectacle of the uninhibited. I’m in awe of how little space this entire system allows for anything other than action—or calls to it. Why would we ask for anything else of a retail space?

On my way out, I stop to ask the unbearably kind greeter how long 4-star has been open. “Since September 25th,” he tells me, naming two other locations unprompted (Boulder, CO and Berkley, CA). When I ask how long Amazon plans to occupy Soho, he doesn’t hesitate. “Forever, actually.”