A People’s History of the Selinsgrove Books-A-Million
Despite the incessant apocalyptic proclamations about the future of bookselling, all the reports are saying that book sales were up 2.5% in 2018 from the previous year. This is good news for bookstores, but seems unlikely that a tiny Books-A-Million in Selinsgrove, PA would be making its sales quota.
However, bookstores, especially BAMs, aren’t what they once were. When Books-A-Million was founded in 1917, it was a street corner newsstand in Florence, Alabama. Bookselling was an ever-growing business. Now, as Jack Perry would say, Books-A-Million chain shops are “Up-to-date, efficient bookselling stores. […] But oh, how cold it is! How unconducive to browsing! ” (Perry 109) And these bookselling stores are making less and less revenue each year as online retailers expand further and further into their territory.
Perry’s concern with chain bookstores like BAM, Barnes & Noble, and Borders’ before them, is that they homogenize the books available to the public. “We may go into the same book-marketing establishments, in millions of malls, and find the same sections, the same computer cards, the same crazy logic, the same best-seller-list counter, the same books–the same absence of individuality.” (Perry 110) And that is, to some extent, what you feel when you walk into our Selinsgrove Books-A-Million. You could be in a BAM anywhere in the country.
However, BAM isn’t the only one to blame for this. Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon Bookstores, and college book stores like Follett are also guilty. All these chain bookstores use similar tactics that Laura Miller describes in Reluctant Capitalists “Small stores in shopping centers or malls that emphasized popular titles, minimal service, and heavily advertised discounts.” (Miller 49) I tend to agree more with Perry when he says that “somehow the little yellow stickers, noting that this Shakespeare is ‘15% off list price,’ or that this Emily Dickinson is on ‘double discount,’ offend me.” (Perry 109) Still, offence or no, this bookstore model has been working in the US, and working well. The first branded “Books-A-Million” was opened in 1988, which marked its expansion into the superstore format, the beginning of that absence of individuality.
Our Books-A-Million here in Selinsgrove is special, or at least we would like to think. It moved into the mall in November of 2011 with a wave of nine other BAM locations in former Borders stores. Before Books-A-Million took over, space A12 in the mall belonged to a Waldenbooks, a subsect of the Borders corporation. At that time, the Susquehanna Valley Mall was bustling with shops like J.C. Penney, Gap, Sears, Bon-Ton, and RadioShack, all of which have closed in the last four years (Wikipedia, 2018). The mall, which was opened in 1978, has been on a decline in recent years and has a hard time keeping stores open.
Why, then, does our Books-A-Million persist? It’s hard to say. Despite competition from Amazon and other online retailers, there is still a portion of the population that likes to look for books in person, and Books-A-Million is the only chain bookstore in the area, and it’s one of the only stores that sells new books in this part of the Valley. The very tactics that Perry and Miller eschew might be what is saving it. Nearby bookstores like DJ Earnst, founded even before the Mall in 1975, sell only used books, so despite the chain appearance, the Selinsgrove BAM has carved itself out a niche.
Our timeline here shows the progression of Books-A-Million as a company and of space A12 in the Susquehanna Valley Mall as they converge upon each other. BAM events are in blue, SVM events are in green, and events of competing bookstores are in purple.
Today, Books-A-Million operates more than 260 stores throughout the country. Our little BAM is one of the smallest in the country at 4,528 square feet. Those feet are packed with books, though, and even if they’re organized by the “crazy logic” that Perry described in his first run-in with commercial bookstores, they seem to sell pretty well. Or maybe it’s simply that other BAM locations are doing so well. Books-A-Million’s website sales make up 8% of the online book market (that is, buying physical books online) compared to Amazon’s 81% and Barnes & Noble’s 28%, but 8% of a $3.1 billion industry is nothing to be scoffed at, and that’s just the online sales. (Author Earnings, 2017)
I don’t know if the national success of the Books-A-Million company is what is keeping our little outpost afloat or if this tiny store is somehow running a profit as rent for mall space plummets, but either way, I hope we continue to have it for a while yet. After bankruptcy, replacement, struggles, and victories, the bookstore that still stands in our failing mall is a sign of hope for the future.
Gale, Thompson. “Books-A-Million, Inc.” The Columbia Encyclopedia,6th Ed, Encyclopedia.com, 2006,
“January 2018 Report: US Online Book Sales, Q2-Q4 2017.” Author Earnings, 22 Jan. 2017,
Statista Survey. “Where Do You Purchase Print Books While Shopping Online?.” Statista – The
Statistics Portal, Statista, Apr. 2017, www.statista.com/statistics/706105/online-shopping-for-print-books/
“Susquehanna Valley Mall.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Dec. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susquehanna_Valley_Mall.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. University of Chicago Press, 2014
Perry, Jack, “Bibliophilia: Bookstores, Communist and Capitalist.” The American Scholar, vol. 55, no. 1, 1986, pp.107-111.,