Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S. Its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns a major newspaper, the Washington Post. All these streams and tributaries make Amazon something radically new in the history of American business. Sam Walton wanted merely to be the world’s biggest retailer. After Apple launched the iPod, Steve Jobs didn’t sign up pop stars for recording contracts. A.T. & T. doesn’t build transmission towers and rent them to smaller phone companies, the way Amazon Web Services provides server infrastructure for startups (not to mention the C.I.A.). Amazon’s identity and goals are never clear and always fluid, which makes the company destabilizing and intimidating.
Bezos originally thought of calling his company Relentless.com—that U.R.L. still takes you to Amazon’s site—before adopting the name of the world’s largest river by volume. (If Bezos were a reader of classic American fiction, he might have hit upon Octopus.com.) Amazon’s shape-shifting, engulfing quality, its tentacles extending in all directions, makes it unusual even in the tech industry, where rapid growth, not profitability, is the measure of success. Amazon is not just the “Everything Store,” to quote the title of Brad Stone’s rich chronicle of Bezos and his company; it’s more like the Everything. What remains constant is ambition, and the search for new things to be ambitious about.
It seems preposterous now, but Amazon began as a bookstore. In 1994, at the age of thirty, Bezos, a Princeton graduate, quit his job at a Manhattan hedge fund and moved to Seattle to found a company that could ride the exponential growth of the early commercial Internet. (Bezos calculated that, in 1993, usage climbed by two hundred and thirty thousand per cent.) His wife, MacKenzie, is a novelist who studied under Toni Morrison at Princeton; according to Stone, Bezos’s favorite novel is Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day,” which is on the suggested reading list for Amazon executives. All the other titles, including “Sam Walton, Made in America: My Story,” are business books, and even Ishiguro’s novel—about a self-erasing English butler who realizes that he has missed his chance at happiness in love—offers what Bezos calls a “regret-minimization framework”: how not to end up like the butler. Bezos is, above all things, pragmatic. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)
It wasn’t a love of books that led him to start an online bookstore. “It was totally based on the property of books as a product,” Shel Kaphan, Bezos’s former deputy, says. Books are easy to ship and hard to break, and there was a major distribution warehouse in Oregon. Crucially, there are far too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. The vast selection made possible by the Internet gave Amazon its initial advantage, and a wedge into selling everything else. For Bezos to have seen a bookstore as a means to world domination at the beginning of the Internet age, when there was already a crisis of confidence in the publishing world, in a country not known for its book-crazy public, was a stroke of business genius.
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