Jeff Bezos loves being on the move. He sits in the back of a white van, beaming as usual, surrounded by an entourage of lanky young lieutenants from Amazon.com the Web's biggest retail store and, someday, if Bezos gets it right, Earth's Biggest Store. The early-morning landscape of southeast Kansas hustles by: wood-frame houses, trailers, motels with lots of pickup trucks in their parking lots, a Kum & Go convenience store, cow pastures and the dull, forever flatness of the prairie. You've heard of places described as cow towns? Coffeyville was actually labeled Cow Town on maps on account of the stockyards here. In the 1860s the name was changed to honor Colonel James A. Coffey, who set up a grand trading post on the frontier, selling stuff to Native Americans.
Today's frontier is hidden from the physical world, burbling and buzzing along the interconnected wires, routers and computers of the Net. But the possibilities for trade are far more fabulous than could ever have been imagined 100--or even 10--years ago. That's where Bezos comes in. His van rounds a corner, passes an airfield, heads down a two-lane road and pulls into a long driveway that leads to the biggest warehouse you've ever seen. The place is known as the Coffeyville Distribution Center, and Bezos (pronounced Bay-zos), who's never been here before, is giggling with excitement. He tells the driver to stop so he can snap a picture of a workman pounding a HELP WANTED sign into the turf. Bezos, 35, a meticulous documentarian, is worried that his life is scrolling by too fast to remember, a life that is so fantastic as to verge on the unbelievable. So he takes plenty of pictures and awful, jittery amateur videos. At the very least, they'll help tell his story to the Bezoses' first child, a boy due in March.
Here in Coffeyville is another piece of the proof that Bezos' early and fervent belief in the Internet--that it would rock retailing, that it would change the way we live--stands as one of the more prescient assumptions ever made by a businessperson. "We're trying to build something lasting," Bezos says, looking at this 850,000-sq.-ft. monument to free trade. The warehouse is stocked with books, CDs, TVs, stereos, video games, software, toys. And yet only 10% of the area is being used. The rest is stretch space, here for the ongoing e-commerce revolution.
If all goes according to his daring--some might say outlandish--plan, this warehouse will be at capacity within the next few years and will handle everything: washing machines, cars, rubber gaskets, Prozac, exercise machines, marmalade, model airplanes, everything but firearms and certain live animals. You name it, Amazon will sell it. "Anything," says Bezos, "with a capital A." And that's the point: Jeffrey Preston Bezos is trying to assemble nothing less than Earth's biggest selection of goods, then put them on his website for people to find and buy. Not just physical things that you can touch, but services too, such as banking, insurance, travel.