Prime Mover: How Amazon Wove Itself Into the Life of an American City

“It’s the invisible infrastructure that powers our everyday lives,” said Ms. Webb, who examines Amazon in her book on the tech giants, “The Big Nine.” “Most of us don’t know 95 percent of what Amazon is doing.”

She called the contest for Amazon’s second headquarters a “ridiculous parade, a beauty contest” in which communities nationwide offered up inducements while failing to make a cleareyed assessment of costs and benefits. With its capabilities, market sway and long-term strategy, she said, Amazon now conducts itself like a “nation-state.”

None of this was imaginable in 1994, when Jeff Bezos paged through a dictionary in search of a name for an online bookseller and stopped at “Amazon.” Not only was it the largest river in the world by volume — it was four times bigger than the runner-up, which appealed to Mr. Bezos’ outsize ambitions. Books were just the start.

Some 25 years later, fueled by customers’ addiction to click-and-done convenience and speedy delivery, Amazon has quietly flowed into many areas of life, bringing to more and more arenas its tireless innovation, relentless focus on data, unforgiving employment practices and omnivorous competition. In many homes here, as across the country, it is the ultimate labor-saving device: supplier of electronics, clothes, groceries, books, movies, music, information and security. More than half of American households now have an Amazon Prime membership, and most shopping searches begin on Amazon, not Google. Globally, Amazon, whose critics call it the “apex predator” of digital business, delivered 10 billion packages last year — more than the number of people on the planet.

Greater Baltimore accounts for one percent of Amazon’s sales nationwide — just about its share of the population, according to data prepared for The New York Times by Rakuten Intelligence, which tracks e-commerce.

But as a transportation hub, with Interstate 95 and major rail lines converging near a busy port and airport, Baltimore punches above its weight — originating 2.38 percent of Amazon’s shipments in the United States, Rakuten said.

Even with all that shipping and logistics, Amazon ranks just 14th among local employers, according to The Baltimore Business Journal. Yet like an online shopper who realizes one day that half his possessions came from Amazon, a Baltimorean who looks for the company’s footprints can find them everywhere.