“Earth’s Biggest Bookstore”? Pshaw. Cheaper, faster, and more convenient? Pshaw again. calls itself “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore,” and the media, online and off, have accepted that claim uncritically. “The toast of cyberspace” is the Economist’s accurate characterization of this Internet book-ordering service, which was founded in 1995. Time rated Amazon one of the 10 best Web sites of 1996. The Washington Post called Amazon a “megawarehouse.” The New Yorker pointedly compared Amazon’s claimed inventory of 1.1 million books with the mere 170,000 titles available at a Barnes & Noble superstore.

In fact, Amazon’s “megawarehouse” in downtown Seattle contains just 200 or so titles. Any other book must be obtained from a wholesale distributor or the publisher. This is exactly what any traditional bookstore does when it doesn’t have a book in stock. The difference is that traditional bookstores start out with a lot more than 200 titles in stock. “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore”? More like “Earth’s Smallest.”

ow does Amazon get the books it doesn’t have in its warehouse? According to Jennifer Cast, vice president for marketing, it uses several big distributors–including the Ingram Book Co., one of the largest–and sometimes, it calls the book’s publisher directly. She says that in certain cases, it has even called the authors. And how do less advanced booksellers do it? At Politics and Prose, a small local bookstore in northwest Washington, D.C., one employee told us, “We try Ingram first, … and then call the publishers.” At a northern Virginia outlet of Borders Books, the superstore chain, an employee said: “It’s no secret we try Ingram. … If all that fails, I guess we go to the publishers.”

So why shop at Amazon? Cast gives four reasons: “One, we have a lower price. Two, we have a better selection. Three, we’re probably much faster. And we’re definitely more convenient.” We conducted an experiment to test these claims. On Dec. 16 we ordered the same two books from Amazon, Politics and Prose, and Borders. All three were told to gift-wrap and ship each book as soon as possible. One book was Scott Turow’s newest novel, The Laws of Our Fathers, the kind of best seller that even Amazon actually has in stock. The other was an obscure psychology text even Borders wouldn’t carry, chosen from the catalog of the State University of New York Press, called The Ego and the Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Human Development (second edition), by Michael Washburn.

How did the three booksellers compare by Amazon’s own standards?

We’ve covered that. If you define “inventory” as any book a store can special-order for you, as Amazon does, then the selection is identical at almost every halfway-decent bookstore in America. At Amazon, you can browse through all the titles and authors–and through some descriptive material–by computer. At a conventional bookstore, you can pick up and leaf through actual books, but fewer of them.

Convenience? For ordering, Politics and Prose was by far the easiest. Heidi answered the phone on the first ring. She was chatty, but professional. The store had “many, many, many” copies of the Turow on hand, and she promised to send one out “right away, tomorrow morning at the very, very latest.” When asked about the psych text, Heidi apologized (“sorry, sorry”) for not carrying it, and offered to order it. Estimated time of arrival: four weeks. She took a name, address, credit-card number. The entire phone call took 2 minutes and 38 seconds.

Borders was slightly less helpful. When asked to send the Turow, Drew groaned at our lowbrow taste, but quickly said he’d send it the next day. The second selection’s obscurity didn’t cheer him up: “Ugh, can’t do you the Washburn book.” When pressed, he said it could be ordered, but would probably take two weeks. Borders’ system is that when the book arrives, you are sent a postcard asking you to come to the store and pick it up. Can’t they just send the book? “We prefer people do it this way,” Drew said, but then he gave in and agreed to send it. Total phone time: 9 minutes and 32 seconds.

After calling the stores, we connected to Amazon using Netscape Navigator 3.0 and a 28,800-baud modem. Amazon has a special page dedicated to the Turow book, complete with a picture of the cover and some unenlightening amateur commentaries from other Amazon users. The psychology text, not surprisingly, was listed with no description and no commentaries. Amazon said it would take one to two weeks to order.

After clicking your purchases into a “shopping cart,” you are directed to a “secure Netscape server” that will encrypt your credit-card information. After this is done, you are told: “Finalizing Your Order Is Easy.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Lower down in the verbiage, Amazon concedes, “Though we have tried hard to make this form easy to use, we know that it can be quite confusing the first time.” Amazon users have to page through screen after screen of details about shipping charges, refund rules, and disclaimers about availability and pricing. Then you are told to allow between three and seven days for delivery after your book leaves Amazon’s warehouse. “Upgrading to Next Day Air does NOT [their emphasis] mean you’ll get your order the next day.”

Total online time from when we accessed Amazon’s home page to when we completed the book order: 37 minutes and 12 seconds. It would be shorter once you got the hang of it.

Speed? Turow’s book arrived in three days from both Borders and Politics and Prose, in plenty of time before Christmas. Politics and Prose wrapped the book perfectly. Borders wrapped it attractively, but left the receipt inside. The Turow didn’t arrive from Amazon until Dec. 27–more than a week after the conventional stores. Furthermore, the wrapping looked as if it had been done by a fourth grader. However, it came bundled with the obscure psych book (which still hadn’t arrived from the conventional stores as of New Year’s Day). Eleven days for that one is pretty good. As for the Turow, we had checked a box asking that each book be sent separately, as soon as possible–so, either Amazon ignored these instructions or it really needed the full 11 days to get the Turow to us.

By the way, let’s not forget that in a conventional bookstore, you can also–if you choose–acquire books in zero days, by “going to” the store in the pre-Internet sense of actually going there.

Price? Amazon and Borders both offered the Turow for 30 percent off the list price. Politics and Prose offered 20 percent off. All three wanted full price for the psych book. Amazon charges $3 plus 95 cents per book for standard shipping. Borders charged $4 to ship the Turow, and Politics and Prose, $3.50. Amazon charges $2 a book for gift-wrapping, which is free at the other two stores, but Amazon accidentally charged only $2 for wrapping both books. Finally, stores with local outlets must charge sales tax on shipped items; Amazon does not (unless you live in Washington state). In all, the Turow cost $23.72 from Borders and $26.30 from Politics and Prose. If Amazon had sent it separately as we had instructed, it would have cost $24.82. Gift-wrapped and sent separately, the psych text would cost more at Amazon than at the other two; unwrapped and bundled, about the same.

There is a third category of books (besides those that everyone has in stock and those that no one has in stock). These are books that Amazon doesn’t have in stock, but a normal bookstore does. (Barnes & Noble’s 170,000-strong inventory, sniffed at by The New Yorker, is a good example.)

This category is Amazon’s greatest weakness. It includes hardly obscure current books that aren’t best sellers, like The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, produced by the Boston Women’s Heath Book Collective. Borders’ had three copies on the premises. Amazon needs two to three days to obtain this one, plus between three and seven days to send it to you. Likewise for a classic like the Penguin paperback of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which any Borders or Barnes & Noble will have on hand.

Then there’s a semiobscure book such as Robert Marr Wright’s Dodge City: The Cowboy Capital and the Great Southwest. This hardcover book about cowboys is on Borders’ shelves. At Amazon it is listed as a “special order,” which means it might be available to be shipped in four to six weeks, but, our computer informs us: “PLEASE NOTE that it might not be available at all. Publishers do not always notify the book community about changes in the availability of their titles.” Not available? So much for the pretense that Amazon’s list of 1.1 million books makes it “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” in even a metaphorical sense.