Amazon warehouse in Madrid, Spain. Photograph by Álvaro Ibáñez
In The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, author Brad Stone claims that although Amazon founder Jeff Bezos ultimately supported the book, “he judged that it was ‘too early’ for a reflective look at Amazon.” By some measures, Bezos is right: Amazon is less than 20 years old, but its history contains so many rapid changes that books published about it never manage to be quite current. The Everything Store, for instance, was released soon after Bezos purchased the Washington Post, but before Amazon it hired the US Postal Service to deliver its packages on Sunday, and before Bezos announced on 60 Minutes, that Amazon is exploring the use of drone technology to assist its deliveries. The book also predates the highly publicized deaths of two workers at Amazon facilities in Nevada and New Jersey, as well as an ongoing strike by warehouse workers in Germany. But Stone has reported on Amazon since the late 1990s for Newsweek, the New York Times, and Bloomberg Businessweek; he knows the company. The Everything Store is a thorough and readable portrait both of Amazon and its founder.
Jeff Bezos was born Jeffrey Preston Jorgenson in 1964 to teenage parents Jackie (née Gise) and Ted Jorgenson in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Early on, he was raised by his mother with the help of her parents. When Jeff was four years old, his mother divorced Jorgenson and married Miguel Bezos. She and her parents cut off contact between young Jeff and his biological father—Jorgenson had been negligent—and Miguel adopted Jeff, who would develop into a precocious and ambitious child in Jorgenson’s absence. As a young child, Bezos was featured in a book about gifted and talented students in Texas, and one of his elementary school teachers said that “there is probably no limit to what he can do, given a little guidance.” Bezos continued to excel academically, later becoming valedictorian of his high school in Florida and winning the state’s prestigious Silver Knight award for high school seniors. At Princeton, he studied computers, graduating in 1986. As Bezos brought his ambition into the work world he also carried with him a self-conscious appreciation for its public display. When he was working at the Wall Street quantitative hedge fund D. E. Shaw in the early 1990s, Bezos “kept a rolled-up sleeping bag in his office in case he needed to bunk down for the night”—the sleeping bag serving, one colleague surmises, “as much a prop as it was actually useful.”
Bezos’s time on Wall Street left its mark. He flourished in the company’s exacting and unabashedly elitist culture, and discovered a mentor in the hedge fund’s founder, David Shaw. While at D. E. Shaw, Bezos began to conduct job interviews using questions that searched for reasoning skills rather than an actual answer (“How many gas stations are in the United States?”). And it was at the hedge fund that Bezos first imagined “the everything store,” a new online mass retailer that would take advantage of the powerful growth of the emergent World Wide Web. When Bezos told Shaw he was leaving the hedge fund to build an online bookstore, Shaw threatened that D. E. Shaw might compete with Bezos’s project in the future. Undeterred, Bezos moved forward and created the online retailer anyway, wagering that he would be successful with or without Shaw’s support. One of the original URLs registered by Bezos for Amazon was Relentless.com.