The Deserted Bookshop: Books-A-Million in Selinsgrove
A trip to the Susquehanna Valley Mall is a far cry from the scenes you might conjure up from movies like Clueless or Mallrats. The mall, which contains very little of interest besides an FYE and an Auntie Anne’s, is dead. In any given store you might run into one other shopper going about their day, or no one at all. The day that I arrived at Books-A-Million in the mall before it opened, hoping to get my hands on a signed book on it’s publishing day, the clerk told me that they hadn’t bothered putting the book out yet– they hadn’t expected to see anyone in the store for a few hours.
The other companies inhabiting the Susquehanna Valley Mall include a large Boscov’s, a Zales and a Kay Jewelers, two children’s clothing stores, a handful of hair salons, two discount shoe stores, a few teen fashion stores, seven different cell phone and cell phone repair places, and an AMC movie theater. An armed forces career center takes over the entirety of one hallway and there are closed and closing stores everywhere you look.
As is, a quick survey of an outdated mall map suggests that more than 25 storefronts are currently unoccupied, as well as three department-store-sized spaces that have been empty for more than a year. This is the neighborhood of Books-A-Million.
As a more visual representation of the place in which our BAM resides, I have created this interactive map. The Books-A-Million on which we are focused is marked in maroon. Competing bookstores in libraries are in purple, entertainment stores are in light blue, art galleries and institutions are in magenta, big box and chain stores are in blue, our local restaurants are in yellow, adventure/outdoor opportunities are in teal, hotels and inns are in green, and schools are in gray.
This Books-A-Million has a larger neighborhood too– Selinsgrove is a small town with some small businesses and a strip of highway littered with chain restaurants. The town is white and middle class by a huge majority, with more than 2,000 of its estimated 6,000 residents attending or working at Susquehanna University. The online database Claritas splits Selinsgrove into two major groups: downscale with kids or midscale retired without kids. It’s certainly a college town, but only 25% of residents over the age of 25 hold a bachelor’s degree, according to the 2017 census, and the median per capita income is just under $20,000. Though there are many well-to-do college students not represented here, low wages and low education levels could put a strain on book buying.
In thinking about place, Tim Cresswell explained that “it helps to think of place in distinction to two other familiar concepts in human geography – ‘space’ and ‘landscape.’” (Cresswell, 8) Space, as the “realm without meaning” that Cresswell describes, is a hard concept to place (no pun intended) in a mall. The space of the mall is beige, with tiled floors and tiled ceilings. The space is open and wide but with no windows or natural light, it seems timeless and a bit haunted, considering the gated stores and lack of people. The landscape, on the other hand, seems a bit more welcoming. Outside the Books-A-Million is a collection of benches where you can relax and watch the people (or lack thereof). There are usual bargain carts and sometimes even a table with books outside the store to entice people to come inside, and the light from the store spills into the hallway through its open archway and glass display windows. Currently, the windows display an assortment of Harry Potter Merchandise, some Valentine’s Day themed books (ranging from erotica to Alex and Eliza), and a collection of blue stuffed dinosaurs. The landscape as you look away from the bookstore from your chosen vantage point is a bit more stark– the hallway leads off past empty storefronts and harsh fluorescent lighting. It’s best to focus on the bookstore.
Whether commercial or independent, big or small, “the identity of the bookstore and its specific relationship to commerce and cultural value is always under construction, or destruction.” (Highland, 243) Though this was meant as a more broad statement, this particular bookstore does have commercial value in Selinsgrove, if not cultural value. It is the only bookstore in the nearby vicinity that sells new books, and the only commercial bookstore around. While DJ Earnst, our lovely independent used bookstore, has an amazing selection to peruse, they usually don’t have much that was published in the last five years. Other nearby bookstores might sell new books, but many of them are focused on a genre or specific area, or else they’re quite a ways away. So BAM has the niche cornered on “place you can go to get that new book you wanted without having to wait for Amazon.” Or at the very least, “place to go browse while your friend is at one of the cell phone stores or buying a new pair of shoes.” The bookstore has a lot of books that might appeal to a small town audience, such as your classics and Dan Brown-esque fiction, as well as draws for the college kids like tabletop gaming books and accessories and everything Harry Potter. They’ve even branched out and included an LGBT+ endcap that you might not be able to find in other bookstores in the area (I’m looking at you, Bible Depot). And, at least in my case, sometimes you can go there to find the only signed copy of a book that came to Selinsgrove. That being said, while I have purchased books from our local Books-A-Million, my signed book example is the only time I can remember going to the mall with the specific intent of visiting the bookstore. I can only imagine how the locals feel, but with the invasion of Amazon, the place that our Books-A-Million has inhabited may soon be just another empty storefront.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
Highland, Kristen Doyle. “In the Bookstore: The Houses of Appleton and Book Cultures in Antebellum New York City.” Book History, vol. 19, no. 1, 2016, pp.214-255., doi:10.1353/bh.2016.0006.
“PRIZM® PREMIER Psycographic Zip Code Lookup.” Claritas, claritas360.claritas.com/mybestsegments/#zipLookup.
RandomRetail. “BAM!.” Flickr, Selinsgrove, PA, 2014.
“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Selinsgrove Borough, Pennsylvania.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, www.census.gov/quickfacts/selinsgroveboroughpennsylvania.