By JENNY ODELL
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: A Business With No End
Part I: Zooming Out
Recently, one of my students at Stanford told me a strange story. His parents, who live in Palo Alto, Calif., had been receiving mysterious packages at their house. The packages were all different shapes and sizes but each was addressed to “Returns Department, Valley Fountain LLC.” I looked into it and found that a company called Valley Fountain LLC was indeed listed at his parents’ address. But it also appeared to be listed at 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 350, in downtown San Francisco. So were 140 other LLCs, most of which were registered in 2015. The names of many of these other companies were baffling and surreal. They included Bropastures, Dreamlish and Your Friend Bart LLC. And on further inspection, each one was associated with an Amazon seller (usually based in a European country) with an equally bizarre but unrelated name, like Ipple Store, DeepOceanStoreuk and GiGling EyE.
There was little pattern or theme to what these Amazon shops sold. They had everything from hemorrhoid cream to desk lamps, and there were varying levels of inventory. On sale at DeepOceanStoreuk (a storefront on Amazon.uk associated with Bropastures LLC), I found a book on industrial electricity, a set of fake facial wounds and a “No Stress Tech Guide to Microsoft Works 8 & 8.5.” Another storefront called Kingdom Kber, this one on Amazon.de and associated with Agapao LLC, advertised a miniature whale, nail gel and a copy of “Undocumented Immigrants and Higher Education.” When I clicked on these items, though, none of them were currently available. A good number of the storefronts were completely empty. One thing these LLCs had in common was that their registered agent was named Jonathan Park. Even though the packages being sent to my student’s parents’ home were addressed to Valley Fountain LLC, one of the packages had a return label taped to it that indicated it came from an Amazon store called Sendai Book Store. I looked it up and found that it was on several cautionary lists of unauthorized resellers, and had more than 400,000 things for sale. But once again, the offerings seemed chosen at random. A seemingly random assortment of items for sale on an Amazon storefront called Sendai BookstoreThey were also strangely expensive. You might be hard pressed to imagine someone paying $42.66 for 6 ounces of Ulcer Ease Anesthetic Mouth Rinse, $52.00 for three boxes of Queasy Pops, or $127.09 for beige compression stockings in medium. But perhaps not having done their research, some people do. These prices — like all prices in this story — tended to fluctuate. And on at least one occasion, all the items in the store disappeared en masse, only to reappear days later.