Marketing Your Collection: Journeys through Books-A-Million
The bookshelves on the sales floor of our Books-A-Million are short and low, running back toward the end of the store and giving the perception of rows upon rows of books.
We know, of course, from our research, that this is one of the smallest Books-A-Million stores in the country, (about 85 x 42 feet) but that doesn’t stop them from creating the illusion of space, with five-foot tall shelves that seem to stretch much further than the shop would allow. Laura Miller, in Reluctant Capitalists, describes this movement in bookstore architecture, discussing the “bright colors, contemporary materials for shelving and counters, bold, signage, and good lighting.” (92) She goes on to explain that “aisles were wide and shelves were low to create an open, uncluttered feel.” (92) So maybe there’s a method to this odd arrangement, but it still feels a little magical, even in a chain store. Bookstores always seem to look bigger on the inside.
The short shelves serve another purpose as well. Along with allowing me to find my boyfriend when he’s fully engulfed by the shelves around the corner, the short shelves Let you see the rest of the store from any standing spot, as long as you are tall enough. There should be a “You Must Be This Tall For Our Psychological Marketing Techniques To Work On You” sign at the door. At 5’6” I can stand in the Science Fiction section and read the signs lining the top of every other bookcase in the store, as well as turning to see the section markers on the taller shelves that line the perimeter of the room. This means that while I may be sidetracked by the board games in the store window or a brand new cookbook by my favorite chef, I can always see every genre the store has to offer, enticing me over to new sections where a face-out book might catch my eye. This was purposeful in the design, allowing customers to avoid asking for help.
The placement of the genres is purposeful too, handed down a corporate ladder by someone who has probably never seen this particular store.
It is an odd kind of collection, the corporate bookstore. In his essay “On Collecting Art and Culture,” James Clifford asks “What criteria validate an authentic cultural or artistic product? What are the differential values placed on old and new creations? What moral and political criteria justify ‘good,’ responsible, systematic collecting practices?” (221) In the case of Books-A-Million, it’s an algorithm. Sure, if a customer wants a particular book they can order it to the store or to their house, so there is some influencing the algorithm, but that is all it is. The algorithm has a little help from the ideals of the people in charge, hence the oddly large number of shelves dedicated to bibles and Christian living in every Books-A-Million branch, but generally the collection of books at BAM is a collection of what sells. And it is a collection of what sells, expertly manipulated for optimal marketing. Kids have to go all the way to the back of the store for children’s books, past every conceivable endcap and stack of toys or books right at eye level. Sci-Fi and Fantasy are holed up in the back near the Children’s books with a romance buffer between the lesser genres and the highbrow fiction that no literary purist would dare cross. In “Unpacking My Bookstore,” Walter Benjamin asserts that “there is no living library that does not harbor a number of booklike creations from fringe areas.” (66) However, I think even Benjamin would be shocked at how little of the bookstore real estate is taken up by books. The shelves in the store, which has 12- or 14-foot ceilings, cover less than half of the vertical space, and the main selling point seems to be anything other than the books. At last years BookExpo America in New York, the entire back of the showroom floor was dedicated to things you could sell in your bookstore other than books. The theory is that those things bring in more money. After all, who goes into a bookstore for books anymore?
Follow the shopping carts from the back of the store for a glimpse at what this fascinating power of algorithmic collecting and marketing can do.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Mariner Books, 2018.
Clifford, James. “On Collecting Art and Culture.” The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth- Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, pp. 215-251. Harvard University Press, 1988.
Miller, Laura. Reluctant Capitalists. University of Chicago Press, 2007.