In a book that Ian Frazier has called “a fascinating and sometimes hair-raising morality tale from deep inside the Internet boom,” James Marcus, hired by Amazon.com in 1996—when the company was so small his e-mail address could be email@example.com—looks back at the ecstatic rise, dramatic fall, and remarkable comeback of the consummate symbol of late 1990s America.
Observing “how it was to be in the right place (Seattle) at the right time (the ’90s)” (Chicago Reader), Marcus offers a ringside seat on everything from his first interview with Jeff Bezos to the company’s bizarre Nordic-style retreats, in “a clear-eyed, first-person account, rife with digressions on the larger cultural meaning throughout” (Henry Alford, Newsday).
“Marcus tells his story with wit and candor.” —Booklist, starred review
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About the Author
James Marcus was employed as Senior Editor at Amazon from 1996 to 2001. The executive editor of Harper’s and an award-winning translator, he has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the Village Voice, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, the New York Review of Books, Lingua Franca, and many other publications. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
ONE FINE SPRING DAY IN 1996, I took off from Portland, Oregon, in a prop plane the size of a toy, which seemed to touch down in Seattle only minutes later. At the airport I rented a car. Then I drove to a low, inauspicious building south of the downtown, next to a barbecue joint whose vinegar-scented fumes I could smell the moment I hit the sidewalk, and made my way inside.
Since I was there for a job interview, I had donned a jacket and tie before entering. At once I had the sensation of being the most formally dressed guy in the building, not to mention the oldest, and let's recall that I was only 37 — sufficiently elderly, that is, to play Father Time in Amazon.com's winter pageant. To my right sat a half-dozen employees, answering phones and papering their computers and crude wooden desks with yellow Post-it notes. Directly in front of me was a receptionist seated at another crude wooden desk. Yet the atmosphere of the place was so anticorporate that she seemed merely decorative, and it struck me that a toddler could have breached the security cordon.
"Are you James?" a woman said, approaching me. I recognized Susan Benson's voice from our telephone conversation: an East Coast accent with a slight Californian deceleration at the end of her sentences. She shook my hand warmly and ushered me into what looked like the only bonafide office in the place. Jeff, she explained, would be interviewing me first.
And here he was. At this point Jeff Bezos hadn't yet become a figure out of American folklore, hadn't yet been celebrated as the only begetter of e-commerce or vilified as a purveyor of virtual snake oil. His explosive laugh, which first erupted about sixty seconds into our conversation, was still an unknown quantity. He was a small, sandy-haired man seated at a messy desk, reading my clips.
"I like these," he said, brandishing the manila folder. "I like your first sentences."
I thanked him. Although I had flown, we spoke for a moment about the surprising dullness of the drive between Portland and Seattle, which tended to peak around the time you crossed the Nisqually mud flats. I was in the rare and enviable position of not caring if I got the job, which made me relaxed, tie or no tie. Jeff was wearing baggy khakis and a blue Oxford shirt, and his demeanor was so low-key that he seemed at some moments to be moving in a kind of affable slow motion. He asked me how I would feel about working sixty hours a week.
"I'm not wild about the idea," I said, wondering if this was the good or bad kind of honesty. "But if I love the work I'm doing, I don't think I'd mind as much."
"What I'd like you to do," he said, putting these nuts-and-bolts matters firmly behind us, "is explain a complicated process in as simple a manner as possible."
Later I discovered this was the Bezonian curveball, which in some shape or form was lobbed at every job candidate. In many cases the trembling applicant was asked how many gas stations were in the state of Texas, or how many windows there were in New York City. Nobody was expected to cough up the right answer. You were expected to demonstrate some conceptual shrewdness in how you arrived at the number, though, and I suppose my own answer supplied a similar window into my mental processes.
It was easier, of course, since Jeff had let me select my own brainteaser. I chose to explain how I had translated the florid Italian cursing in Oriana Fallaci's novel Inshallah into florid American cursing.
"How was that complicated?" he asked.
"Usually a word-for-word translation of an idiomatic expression doesn't work. What sounds blasphemous in one language sounds dopey in another. But it's simple, too, in the sense that you just sit down with a dictionary and a pad and some sharpened pencils and get it done. One sentence after another."
I gave Jeff some examples, and he seemed satisfied with the way I juggled simplicity and complication, laughing at my potty-mouthed equivalents for cazzo d'un cazzo stracazzato. Then, looking embarrassed, he asked me what my SAT scores had been. "I know it's been a while since you took them," he said, "but if you could remember at least your approximate scores ..."
I took a guess, and here too he seemed satisfied, noting the numbers on a piece of paper. In retrospect this would be my first taste of the company's mania for quantification, for its immersion in what was grandly called the Culture of Metrics. It was obvious that my performance on those tests, which had taken place a generation ago, had little bearing on my current abilities. Still, Jeff jotted down my scores with evident relish.
"Would it bother you to be working for a store rather than a newspaper or magazine?" he said.
"That depends," I replied. "I understand that you're not running a philanthropic service here: you're selling stuff. But is the idea that I pretend to like everything?"
"Not at all. We'd be hiring you for your abilities as a book critic. The idea is to seem smart and authoritative — to become not just a store but a destination." He gave this last word an almost theological stress.
We batted around favorite books for a moment. It turned out that we both had a weak spot for Frank Herbert's Dune trilogy, and we spent a minute or so dissecting the desert ecology of Arakis and the sublimely evil Baron Harkonnen — the sort of villain who chuckles a lot. Then Jeff turned the tables.
"What about you?" he said. "Is there something you'd like to know?" He leaned back in his chair and seemed to be girding himself for an assault. He needn't have bothered. I had already succumbed to his brand of anticharismatic charisma, which would have mortified a Great Man of a century ago but seemed just right for our nerd-driven meritocracy. Jeff, it should be stressed, was a likeable and normal person. He had none of Bill Gates's pasty paranoia, nor would he be likely to build a floating Xanadu in the manner of Larry Ellison. No doubt he was, and is, as ambitious as either of these empire builders. Yet the habit of humorous self-effacement kept his Napoleonic side under wraps.
"Yes, there is. What's a hedge fund?" According to a Wall Street Journal article I had read, this had been Jeff's bread and butter at D.E. Shaw, and the term meant nothing to me.
"Good question," he said. Sketching a graph on a piece of scrap paper, he explained that it was possible to track the diverging and converging fortunes of certain industries — airlines and oil, for example — and, once you understood their peculiar rules of attraction, to make scads of money. Here he hit the Bezonian curveball out of the park. He made the mind-bending complexity of running a hedge fund seem so simple that I thought I could run out and start my own. But now Jeff escorted me back downstairs to Susan. "We had a great conversation!" he told her, and then asked her to show me the warehouse.
Although Amazon had been selling books for less than a year, it had long since outgrown its original quarters in Jeff's Bellevue garage, and the current location was basically a warehouse with (very) ad-hoc offices. Susan led me down a short corridor and into a large room with row upon row of metal shelves. On each shelf was a pile of books. The place might have resembled a library, except that each pile represented an individual order. And if the high chilly room with its Home Depot hardware was an impersonal space, the books themselves were all too personal. Indeed, the more you trawled up and down the aisles and examined the rubber-banded merchandise, the more you felt yourself surrounded by Rorschach blots. In one pile Stendhal cohabited with Pat the Bunny. Another included Tolkien, a vegan cookbook, and a guide to field-stripping and cleaning your .22 rifle. It was dispiriting to find a shrinkwrapped copy of Mein Kampf, but at least somebody one aisle down was investing heavily in Wallace Stevens.
This being an Internet bookstore, there were plenty of geekish tech manuals: Perl and HTML and C++ seemed to be the flavors of the month, although here and there you saw an antediluvian primer on COBOL or (heaven forbid) BASIC. Clearly many customers were prepping for the MCSE exam. And clearly many, encouraged by the blessed anonymity of the online experience, were indulging their private pastimes. Forget heterosexual, plain-vanilla porn (of which there was a great deal). Trotting up and down the rows with Susan, I came across tutorials on spanking, fisting, flogging, and shagging, not to mention a saucy bit of Victoriana called Furtling: The Rediscovered Art of Erotic Hand Manipulation. There were books for the Man from NAMBLA. There were stashes of lesbian erotica, much of it involving vampires or motorcycles or both. In cyberspace, I could see, there was no love that dare not speak its name — instead there was a refreshing sexual cacophony, which suggested neither Sodom nor Gomorrah but fin-desiècle America, where the pursuit of happiness was a matter of individual taste. Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Yes, Emerson would be spinning in his grave. Yet perhaps the world-spanning, mind-melding Web would itself offer the best escape from what he called "the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical."
Up and down the aisles we went. Warehouse workers circulated around us, snatching from the shelves Dover paperbacks at a dollar a pop, The Cat in the Hat, Hölderlin, a history of duct tape, and (I noticed as Susan led me out) many, many copies of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The author had died not long before, which might have contributed to a momentary boost in sales. But surely Kuhn's sermon on the New Paradigm — the process by which one conception of the universe supplants, and swiftly eradicates, another — had a very Amazonian ring to it. Call it wacky, call it hubristic, but the employees of what was then essentially an online catalogue-and-fulfillment operation were intent on changing the world. Their sense of having grabbed history by the horns was almost palpable. It made them slightly giddy and enormously tired.
Or so it seemed as we adjourned to the Starbucks world headquarters across the street, where there was a shiny new cafeteria. I had put on my jacket as we crossed First Avenue and once again resembled an Evil Businessman sent over from Central Casting. My future colleagues, on the other hand, looked like they were about to attend a clambake.
There was Jonathan, a rumpled guy in a fez who had studied genetics, sociobiology, and programming, and had written one of the first books on the Internet — a kind of Mensa poster boy. There was Barrie, quite literally a rocket scientist, who used to work at the Jet Propulsion Lab down in San Diego and seemed the most unruffled of the entire crew. Compared to these two I felt like a seedy little humanist. But Tod, with his shock of bleached hair and elaborately shabby clothes, was more of a kindred spirit. Like me, he had gotten a graduate degree in writing and kept himself just above or just below the poverty line by dint of freelance journalism.
"Not that I've been doing much writing of any kind," he said as we carried our trays to the table. "Ever since the Wall Street Journal article came out, we've all been swamped with customer service. Jeff's supposed to be hiring a ton of CS people. Until then we have to hold down the fort."
Jonathan daintily rearranged his fez: as I would later learn, he never exposed his scalp in public. "What I'm interested in right now is collaborative filtering," he told me, taking a sip of soda. "I've not seen anybody really using the technology we have, let alone what we'll have in six months."
We chatted, the five of us, and sized each other up. Barrie said little, although it did come out that she'd been a National Spelling Bee Champion as a girl. Jonathan delivered a measured, Pepsi-fueled critique of Stephen Jay Gould, whose views of evolutionary history he found archaic. Here I was out of my league. But Tod asked me what I thought of the latest Richard Ford, then moved on to what would prove to be an eminently practical question.
"How long does it take you to write a book review?" he asked.
"Depends on the length. A short one, maybe two hours," I said, shaving off the odd minute. "A longer piece, like the Albert Murray thing I sent Jeff, could take a day or so."
"How fast could you review one hundred books?" Tod said.
I paused. I already understood from my talk with Jeff that literary criticism at Amazon would be a wholesale rather than a retail business. Still, the number was daunting. It sounded less like reviewing and more like a pie-eating contest. But there were precedents, weren't there? Samuel Johnson dictating the Rambler essays directly to the printer. Balzac with his coffee, Kerouac with his speed. I chuckled like the incipient hack I was and said, "How long would you like it to take?"
"An afternoon," he replied, and although we all laughed, it wasn't clear exactly how hyperbolic his answer was.
After an obligatory dose of the Brew of the Day, we headed back across the street. The breeze had shifted and the barbecue fumes were again in evidence. We shook hands, Susan assured me that she would be in touch soon, and I found myself on another flight to Portland. To the east, across the aisle, I could see the tops of the Cascades. To the west the sun was setting, and for another fifteen minutes, until its fiery disappearance behind the Olympics, we were in the midst of a temporary golden age, which made us squint.
I ate the pretzel nuggets I'd found in the seat pouch. I mulled over the day's events. I flipped through the book in my briefcase, whose pages appeared to be gilded by the pyrotechnic display outside. At the time I was interested in writing an essay on being Jewish — a relatively rare condition in the Pacific Northwest, with its heftier complement of black bears and white supremacists — and was looking for material. As we approached the Columbia River I read the following bit from Martin Buber: The life-story of a people is, after all, basically nothing more than the life-story of any member of that people, in large projection. This was either a killer insight or an eerie anticipation of the Me Generation, I wasn't sure which. In any case, it made me wonder whether my lunch companions would be making history on the scale they imagined, and whether I should join the party, if invited. I still hadn't decided when the plane made its final descent.CHAPTER 2
"EVERYBODY WAS SO EXCITED," I said, for the second time. I was sitting on the edge of the bed with my wife. The window was open, because our cat was on the roof and we were waiting for him to come back inside.
"I think you should consider it," she said. "You keep dismissing it, but I can tell you're interested. The minute you came in the door you said it was a pity we couldn't move up there. Why couldn't we?"
"It's not just moving to Seattle. It seems like an admission of defeat to me. I couldn't make it as a writer, so I'm becoming a clerk in an electronic bookstore. I'm pimping for literature via the Internet."
"That's not what Jeff told you." Already we were on a first-name basis with the guy, whose high-impact laugh I had tried and failed to imitate for Iris. "He said they wanted to hire you for your talent."
I got up and poked my head out into the cool air. "Dinner time, Al," I called. A lie: he remained where he was, a black-and-white shape curled up next to somebody's TV antenna. I sat down again and sighed. "Look, there's no guarantee they want to hire me for anything. Maybe it'll just be a freelance gig, where they pay me a nickel a word and I get to keep the books. We'll see. Susan said she would get back to me."
Despite my reservations — which kicked in the moment my plane hit the tarmac in Portland — the interview at Amazon had occurred in the nick of time. Two years earlier, in 1994, I had fled New York City with my wife and infant son. The idea was to live cheap in the Pacific Northwest, where I would pursue my career as a writer, and Iris, as soon as she leaped the hurdle of the Oregon Bar Exam, would practice law. We found a tiny apartment in a nice part of town. We developed a tolerance for rain and semi-perpetual cloud cover. Buckling our son into his stroller, we wheeled him over to charming neighborhood playgrounds, where the absence of used condoms and empty crack vials signified a kind of anti-Manhattan, and where half the toddlers in the sandbox seemed to be named Cody.
The problem was that we were broke. No matter how rapidly I wrote — and if you were juggling not only book reviews but also articles on jealousy, dental malocclusion, writer's block, hypnosis, and aluminum smelting, you wrote fast — I couldn't make enough money to keep us above water. As for Iris, she had snagged a job with the family law unit at Multnomah County Legal Aid. This was admirable and necessary work, and the level of human misery she encountered each day had a chastening effect on us: when it came to happiness, at least, we turned out to be not paupers but princes. Yet the job paid next to nothing, which meant that in all other respects we were paupers. We had no savings, a twelve-year-old car my parents had sold us for a dollar, and an assortment of yard-sale furniture. Yes, ours was a middle-class sort of poverty, but it was taking on a feeling of dreary permanence, especially as our Mephistophelian bargains with Visa and American Express began to catch up with us.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Amazonia"
Copyright © 2004 James Marcus.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An interesting account of the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Amazon from a small company to a huge juggernaut of a store, the triumph of accountants over the book people and the triumph of Jeff Bezos' vision of an online book marketplace that has moved away from books and diversified.James Marcus spent five years, starting quite early in the company's story, with amazon and he details a lot of what happened from his point of view. It's interesting and you can see some of the pangs of regret as his job takes over his life and his life suffers.I was an early adopter of amazon and remember early days of shopping there but some of what he is proud of and remembers from then really didn't filter through all that well to my level. A shame really, but then again it was an interesting thing to watch from the outside then and interesting for me to watch from the inside now, looking back. Where amazon is going to go is anyone's guess but it has certainly carved a niche for itself in the world of books.