A few years ago, Jeff Bezos was a whiz-kid executive on Wall Street when he heard a figure that amazed him: use of the Internet's World Wide Web was growing by 2,300 per cent a year. He started to dream a little about this. He made a list of 20 possible products that could be sold on the Web and dreamed a bit more. He narrowed it down to two: music or books. He chose books and stopped dreaming.
He quit his job, contacted Moishe's Moving and Storage and said he was heading out West, though he didn't know where. His wife MacKenzie began driving cross-country while he wrote up a business plan on his laptop and pondered their final destination. The hi-tech, high-energy city of Seattle was an obvious choice and he called a lawyer to help him set up. Before long he had rented a house and set to work in his garage to create a virtual bookstore that he named after the world's greatest river. It was 1994. Jeff Bezos was 30 years old and he had no idea what was about to happen next.
"We were optimistic when we wrote our business plan for amazon.com but we didn't expect to have as many customers and as much success as we have had," he says with a chuckle. "Anybody who had predicted what has happened would have been committed to an institution immediately! It is rather fun to think that two years ago I would put all the packages in the back of my Chevy Blazer and drive them to the post office myself. Now the post office brings 18-wheel trucks and big 40ft containers and parks them at the warehouse to be filled up over one day."
He laughs again - a rolling, infectious outburst that ends with a big grin. He does this about once a minute, but really you cannot blame him for being so upbeat. Amazon.com - you always pronounce the dot in-house because Bezos always does - is on a roll. It has 2.5 million titles, calls itself the earth's biggest bookstore and was floated on the New York Stock Exchange last year in a deal valuing it at pounds 187m. There are no profits yet - not unusual in such a young company - but there is a buzz. In Seattle- speak, its growth has been "awesome" and its customers "cool". Even Bill Gates buys his books at amazon.com.
To shop at amazon is still a cult sort of thing but word travels fast on the Net: nine months ago it had 180,000 customers, now it has 610,000 from around the world. It also has lots of new competition but so far no one can touch its appeal. When it announced that John Updike was going to write the first paragraph in a summer short story contest, calls came in from around the world. Updike wrote the first 289 words to the whodunit called "Murder Makes The Magazine" on 29 July. Every day since, tens of thousands of wannabe co-authors have submitted follow-up paragraphs. Six selectors have worked full-time and flat-out to pick one a day. Updike himself communicates with amazon by postcard (he is not even remotely on-line) and it is probable that someone may have to collect this Friday's last instalment personally. No one thinks the tale that began with Miss Tasso Polk feeling something nasty in the office elevator is great literature but it has been great publicity and a lot of fun.
Fun is a big word for Jeff Bezos. "Well, one of the things you find out pretty quickly in bookselling is that people don't just buy books because they need them. They buy them because shopping for them is fun. Many will spend two hours in an afternoon in a bookstore. I do that! I've done that for all my adult life and even for part of my pre-adult life!" He laughs. "Of course in the on-line world you can't do the same kinds of things that you do in the physical world to make bookstores fun. We cannot have the lattes and the capuccinos and the soft sofas and the chocolate chip cookies but we can do other things that are completely different. This Updike contest is one of those. We've had hundreds of thousands of entries and it's just fun."
I ask a question referring to a "normal" bookstore and Bezos pauses. "Well, I call them physical bookstores instead of normal." We are sitting in his physical office on the fourth floor of an older building in downtown Seattle. It is tiny, like all the other hundreds of cubby-holes here, and his desk is made out of an old door. Clearly amazon is not too keen on the trappings of the physical world. "We have the best software and the best people but we don't spend money on things that don't matter much," says a spokeswoman.
The place is buzzing with Generation X-ers who work like maniacs so they can play like maniacs in the great outdoors that surrounds Seattle. The motto "Work Hard, Play Hard" is tacked up on a wall. The lavatories are mauve and there are crayons and construction paper placed along the corridors in case artistic inspiration strikes. This is amazon's fifth location (not counting the garage) since it went on-line in July 1995 and the number of staff has rocketed from five to 480. Its Web site is full of job openings and the lobby has its share of applicants (and a rather weird assortment of art that the receptionist says came with the building and no one has really bothered to sort out).
I suspect Jeff Bezos could not care less about a co-ordinated decor. He is obsessed with the future, not furnishing. "Today we probably know as much as any other company, maybe even more than any other company, about electronic commerce but I can guarantee you that we only know 2 per cent of what we will know 10 years from now. This really is something that is going to change the world. This is the Kitty Hawk stage of electronic commerce."
It doesn't seem like that on the Website, though. Customers can post their own reviews of any book as well as read others. They can pull up Oprah Winfrey's favourites, read interviews with authors and blurbs and extracts from books. They can search for books by author, subject, title, keyword, ISBN or publication date. Prices are discounted and books usually arrive within a week. You can ask to be e-mailed when certain books come out or consult the experts about what is the best read in certain subject areas.
So what about the future? Bezos lights up at this question: "Right now we have on our Website just the tip of the iceberg but what is going to be a big deal is this notion of redecorating the store for each and every customer who walks in the door. So your version of amazon.com should be completely different from anyone else's. I tell people that instead of having 2.5 million titles, what if we just had one title but it was the title that you wanted. Every time you came it was different and every time it blew you away. Picture a 40,000sq ft superstore with just one holy shrine in the centre with one book on it. You walk into this cavernous space and say, `My God, that is a great book and that is the one I want.' Now that is a successful selling proposition. It works on-line but not in a physical store."
Jeff Bezos's personal shrine is a pretty busy place. "Well, I'm reading Engines of Creation which is a book about nano-technology. I just finished a science fiction fantasy classic - perhaps it is a little more fantasy than science fiction - called Nine Princes in Amber. I am a real science fiction fan. I spent all my summers when I was growing up in a small Texas town which had a tiny library and about one-fifth of it was dedicated to science fiction ... I read the entire collection! Let me see, what else? There's another science fiction book called Wyrm that is about hackers. Yes, I guess there is a hi-tech bias. Yeah, there is."
He laughs, again. "But my favourite book of all time is Remains of the Day which for me is the perfect novel." Kazuo Ishiguro should probably expect a call from amazon.com any day now about a new writing contest. As Jeff would say, it's a fun idea
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