While Barnes & Noble's stores are more inviting than Amazon Books', the latter's minimalist philosophy is probably closer to the future of chain retail.
That model isn't ideal for bookstores, which are best when they can offer specialized curation and enough inventory to encourage random discoveries.
It's hard to think of two businesses with more different trajectories than Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The former is one of the most valuable companies in the world, while the latter has struggled for years and just announced it would be firing employees after a disappointing holiday season.
It's also strange to imagine the two as direct competitors. Before opening its first Amazon Books store in 2015, Amazon didn't have a physical retail footprint. Now, it has 13 bookstores that represent yet another obstacle to Barnes & Noble's attempts to turn around its fortunes. Three more Amazon Books stores will open soon, according to its website.
I visited one of each brand's stores in New York City and discovered a depressing truth about the future of retail.
I started at Amazon Books on 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan. It's the larger of Amazon's two bookstores in NYC, covering a total of 5,200 square feet.
It resembles a cross between an Apple store and a traditional, local bookstore.
The store is hyper-organized, but that isn't always a good thing.
Its inventory is largely determined by recommendations from Amazon and its customers.
The selection is a mixed bag.
It doesn't help that it's more difficult to find a book's price in the store than online.
But the store might not be focused on selling books at all. In the middle of the store are interactive displays for tech products like the Echo ...
... and the Kindle.
The store resembles a physical version of Amazon's online store.
Amazon Books feels like it was created by an algorithm, right down to the coffee shop that sits next to the main retail space. It's so spare and minimal that it's a better environment for taking Instagram photos than reading or chatting with a friend.
I went to Barnes & Noble's 5th Avenue location next.
The first floor illustrated both the store's strengths and weaknesses.
It knows how to display books, but it sells far too many unrelated products.
The checkout line looks like a dollar store.
The grab-bag inventory strategy makes the store seem confused and desperate.
The store would be better served in a smaller location.
But Barnes & Noble is still very good at one thing: selling books.
Barnes & Noble's display strategy is more traditional and effective.
Overall, it's a more inviting environment than Amazon Books.
Despite its flaws, I'd rather shop in a Barnes & Noble. But Amazon Books more likely resembles the future of chain retail.