Family: Wife, MacKenzie; son, Preston, 11 months; yellow labrador retriever; english sheepdog
Resume highlight: High school valedictorian
Online pioneer credentials: First used the Internet in 1985 in an astrophysics class at Princeton University
Seattle-transplant credentials: "Single, short, nonfat latte."
There is a certain mythology that surrounds Amazon.com's founder, Jeff Bezos — mostly relating to how he and his wife left New York and lit out for Seattle to start the world's pathbreaking e-commerce company. She drove; he typed the business plan on a laptop. It all sounds so rustic, so wide-eyed, as if the Bezoses were pioneers who crossed the Rockies in a Conestoga and founded Amazon to avoid starvation. (Actually, they flew to Dallas and then drove the rest of the way.) What is often overlooked is that before Bezos headed west, he reportedly earned over $1 million a year as a young star at a hedge fund and that he graduated summa cum laude in computer science and electrical engineering from Princeton.
In person, Bezos is as gracious as his reputation suggests — modest, antic, irrepressible. And his laugh, which has been described as sounding like "a jackass gargling bumblebees" and "a rapid honk that sounds like a flock of Canadian geese on nitrous oxide," lives up to its reputation as well.
We talked to Bezos — 43 belly laughs in just 40 minutes — at Amazon.com's Seattle headquarters.
Explain your habit of whipping out a camera and taking pictures as you go through the day.
I do it because keeping a written diary takes too much energy. This way, 50 years from now, I may have some hope of reconstructing my life. (laughing)
What happens to the pictures?
They go into a big box. In my closet. I have boxes and boxes of pictures.
One summer when you were in high school, you worked at a McDonald's in Miami. What did you learn about customer service?
I learned that it's really hard. I was a cook. They wouldn't let me anywhere near the customers. This was my acned-teenager stage. They were like, "Hmm, why don't you work in the back?" (laughing)
One of the great gifts I got from that job is that I can crack eggs with one hand. My favorite shift was Saturday morning. The first thing I would do is get a big bowl and crack 300 eggs into it. One of the things that's really fun about working at McDonald's is to get really fast at all of this stuff. See how many eggs you can crack in a period of time and still not get any shell in them. (laughing)
You preside over the largest bookstore in history. What do you spend on books these days?
I buy about 10 books a month.
And how many books per month do you read?
What are your three favorite books?
My favorite novel is The Remains of the Day. My favorite business book is Built to Last. Let's see ... three books.
Well, my favorite movie is Dr. Strangelove. I'm a huge Peter Sellers fan. And I think Mike Myers is the new Peter Sellers. I think he's fantastic.
How about nonfiction narrative? Or biography?
Nonfiction narrative, let's see. Hmm. I'm a big science-fiction fan. I love Dune. That's not a nonfiction narrative, of course, but it would be cool if it was! (laughing)
How often do you check the numbers on your sales — your comparable sales from last year, that kind of thing?
I get an email message every day with that. On a daily basis, it's mostly entertainment, I would say. (laughing) That is unless something really strange happens. You may see a day where sales in one store spike way up. I'll call the general manager of that store and say, "Gosh, what'd you do? Do more of that!" (laughing) They'll be like, "Thanks for that great advice, boss. I hadn't noticed that myself!" (laughing)
So, have you ever been to the Amazon?
No, I haven't.
Have you been invited there? Has anyone from the Amazon region contacted you?
No. But that is the right metaphor. People wonder, Is it the jungle, the female warriors, or the river? It's the river. Earth's biggest river, Earth's biggest selection.
I'm sorry we're not in your office, because I'd love to see what Jeff Bezos recommends that Jeff Bezos buy from Amazon...
I did that once for an audience of 500 people. My top recommendation, from the DVD store, was Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity. (laughing) It was a little embarrassing.
It actually was a very good recommendation, because the week before, I'd bought Barbarella, with Jane Fonda. So that had a high correlation with "Beyond Infinity." I was like, "Okay, moving right along..."
What's your favorite brick-and-mortar store?
I'm a hardware guy. I love to walk the aisles of Home Depot. I love Elliott Bay, a bookstore in Seattle. I like Powell's in Portland, Oregon — an unbelievably great bookstore. One of the cool things they do is mix new and used books on the shelf right next to each other. The same title.
What do you like about those places that isn't available online?
I'm an extrovert. I like seeing other people. I like seeing what they're buying. I like touching things. I like smelling things.
The physical world is still the best medium ever invented. It's a great way to do things. (laughing) It does have a few unfortunate limitations. (laughing)
We're a gregarious species. The Internet changes a lot of stuff. But one very important thing it does not change is human nature.
Contact Jeff Bezos by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the February 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.