The Right Fit: Books-A-Million Thrives in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania
With the ever changing market of the capitalistic society we have today, it can sometimes be hard to appeal to the right crowd and to maintain that attraction as time goes on and trends change. Books-A-Million, however, seems to have found the ideal place, and the right use of their products to keep up a consistent crowd, whether it’s new customers or those returning. How then, does a smaller BAM store in a failing mall along a major highway manage this?
Books-A-Million started as a newspaper stand in 1917, and has been growing ever since. Just that tidbit of information about their humble beginnings tells you something about the company and the people who run it– it has never been about the books. The founder of that newspaper stand expanded to magazines and then books, following the money at the time, and then they found their place among national book retailers.
Since BAM rebranded as a major chain store in 1964, their main focus has been to find the right merchandise to sell to the right crowd (like any other corporate company). However, each store has been given the freedom to alter their cookie cutter stock and layout in minor ways that appeal more to wherever they are located. This goes against what Jack Perry says about corporate book stores, stating that chain stores has a sameness about them in both appearance and stock, but it does agree with his idea that corporate stores have a much broader stock than independent stores.(109) Having this bookstore in the mall seems almost intimidating, as it has outlived several other stores and is now one of the major staples of the Susquehanna Valley Mall (SVM).
The store moved to the SVM in 2011, after Books-A-Million bought store space from the bankrupted Waldenbooks. At the time, the mall was more of a bustling hub, someplace to go after school or if you needed to go shopping. Since then, many of those stores have closed, leaving only the original Boscov’s anchor and a few other stores, which are closing at an alarming rate. And yet, Books-A-Million seems to be doing just fine, holding its place in the mall like the Waldenbooks before it.
According to Tim Cresswell, a place that is only interested in making money can affect the areas sense of ‘self’, or the areas identity as a whole (59). So why does this BAM store seem to be the pride of the mall and the go-to store if it should be seen as negative and identity altering? It is because they are allowed that little freedom of changing layouts and stocks to appeal to the crowd they deem the best to appeal to. How can a corporate store be scary if it is carrying some of the best sellers for high school students and some of the most engaging stories for college students that actually have free time?
Selinsgrove has been a college town since Susquehanna University was established in 1858, so a good portion of the population has been young people for more than a hundred years. Along with college students, the town is home to many young families (Claritas). Between these two demographics, the identity of Selinsgrove has become one of children and young adults. Books-A-Million has noticed this formation of identity and in the last ten years has altered their stock, floorplan, and display to draw people in from the large customer base of people aged one to twenty-five.
Psychographic statistics also show that the Susquehanna Valley has historically been home to a lot of lower middle class to lower income families (Claritas). These families are full of people working multiple jobs, picking kids up from after school activities, and rushing home to get dinner ready, so they want a speedy and inexpensive shopping trip, or else something to keep their children occupied while they pick up a pair of shoes or an item of clothing from elsewhere in the mall. In both cases, BAM has spent the past few years engineering their store to optimize appeal to the families that frequent the SVM and who might be in need of a new bedtime book or the latest Rick Riordan book.
Books-A-Million has found the perfect medium for bringing in as much profit as they can, they adhere to trends and offer titles and other products that are appealing to the locals, and they found a location that has the most traffic for the best chance of attracting customers (the only mall for quite a while). The history of BAM growing as a store, to eventually becoming a chain bookstore and turning corporate has influenced how it views literature and how literature influences the store. The changing economy and trends has shaped it into what it is today, a store that seeks the most money possible by presenting itself as a very warm, friendly, and up to date kind of store where there is something for everyone. It may not be as sincere or friendly as independent bookstores, but to many in the area, it just works.
Established in 1978, the Susquehanna Valley Mall in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania offers over 50 stores and services to areas within a 45-mile radius. Located on along the side of the North Susquehanna Trail and across from a Walmart Supercenter, the mall is in a prime spot for business. The neighborhood thrums with nearly 5,500 Selinsgrove residents, and that number grows by roughly 2,266 Susquehanna University undergraduate students and any parents or relatives that may visit during the school year. With the additional bonus of a highway location, the mall gets traffic from towns including Sunbury, Lewisburg, and as far as Harrisburg.
According to the Population Demographics for Selinsgrove Borough, in 2018 and 2019 the Selinsgrove population consisted of mainly white residence of 50 years or older and college students (18-25). 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. So, you may be asking yourself, how is it that Books-A-Million is still able to draw in customers and make enough sales to stay afloat?
In Reluctant Capitalists, Laura Miller discusses how convenient it is to have a bookstore in the mall. She goes on to state that corporate chain bookstores want everyone to feel welcomed and have shifted the image of the bookstore to one that is more entertainment-based (90). Books-A-Million is in a prime location for the Selinsgrove area; the Susquehanna Valley Mall is down the road from multiple strip malls, is less than fifteen minutes away from Susquehanna University and the Selinsgrove middle and high schools, and is surrounded by a handful of restaurants (see Google Map). If this Books-A-Million were anywhere else in Selinsgrove in their own building, they would not have as many customers because people would not be simply passing by. Rather, the bulk of the customers would have to plan to make a trip into the store. Time will tell for BAM as the stores in the Susquehanna Valley keep dwindling. It seems like Books-A-Million chose the right location to appease the area.
The customers for the surrounding shopping centers are the same audience that Books-A-Million receives as well. Compared to local independent bookstores like DJ Ernst, Mondragon, Bible Depot, and Comics Metropolis, Books-A-Million offers the individual consumer experience. While browsing around independent bookstores, customers are generally surrounded by numerous books that fall into categories they might be interested in, as many local bookstores are quite niche. A customer also may get the chance to talk to the shop owner and get insight and suggestions that are meaningful and part of the reason they love to shop for books so much. When shopping around BAM, you are browsing around a store that may only have a shelf or two of your favorite genre, and you are essentially shopping on your own. BAM provides modern shoppers with a quick, painless shopping experience akin to online retailing with stock the consumer needs and no pointless chitchat.
When you walk around BAM, you are surrounded by titles pertaining to every imaginable subject. In other words, is seems BAM does not have an identified genre. Rather, it carries titles of all subjects to draw in a wide variety of customers. After all, BAM is a corporate chain, and ultimately strives to make as many sales as possible. The sales are one of the ways that helps keep BAM afloat. The bookstore adjusted its prices to fit those of the Selinsgrove area, which is that of a middle- to lower-class income. The sales racks are near the entrance to catch the eye of a passerby and red stickers showing price cuts can be seen peeking out from shelves all around the store.
After seeing the changes that Selinsgrove has undergone over the past twenty years, I can remember when BAM moved into the mall. Prior to Books-A-Million, the store occupying that space was another bookstore called Waldenbooks. The Waldenbooks was also a corporate chain bookstore that was very similar to Books-A-Million. It seemed that not much changed when the ownership changed hands except for the sign out front. BAM brought in more trinket items, a slightly different layout to the same genres, and a new name. Other than that, it seemed as though there was no real changes to the space that is still standing. The culture surrounding the bookstore has not changed. The population of Selinsgrove remains around the same number and is still primarily white. Susquehanna University still plays a huge role in making the general age of the population 18-25. So, even though the culture of Selinsgrove plays a role in the fate of the bookstore, it had remained the same over the years. So, we are left with a question that can only be answered through time, will BAM withstand the test of time?
Based on Laura Miller’s study on book selling, BAM has simply found the right environment to sell books in (40). Books-A-Million also has the advantage of appealing to younger shoppers due to being up to date on the latest fads and trends. As seen on our Google Map, the Selinsgrove area Middle school and High school are less than twenty minutes away. Parents and friends bring in these young shoppers, whom may be drawn in by the decorative display of the new Harry Potter books and trinkets. This is something you probably will not find in the independent bookstores.
Considering the state of the Susquehanna Valley Mall in which Books-A-Million resides, with vendors shutting down left and right due to economic struggles, it’s a wonder that BAM still thrives under such unideal circumstances. There are plenty of other options for readers to find what they’re looking for. Selinsgrove sports Super Stores like Target and Walmart and aesthetic independents like DJ Ernst on Market Street; for the Susquehanna University students of the area, it may be easier to order a book online or visit the library rather than go to this little corporate book vendor. However, Books-A-Million has continued to thrive since its opening in 2011 and shows no signs of shutting down despite the nature of its surroundings. What makes Books-A-Million such an ideal bookstore for Selinsgrove’s readers?
Books-A-Million’s success comes down to its unique market of readers. Let’s refer back to the demographics of Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Susquehanna University and the Selinsgrove Area School District make for quite a large population of young adults (18-30 years old) and budding families. These young students and parents are exactly who Books-A-Million and the corporate bookstore are built to accommodate. Corporate bookstores run with convenience, entertainment, and bargains in mind with mass merchandise, marked-down prices, and an array of flashy displays arranged in every chain (Miller 92). For families and students, Books-A-Million is the place to go for the books and entertainment they need cheap and fast. Not only that, but Books-A-Million easily makes the bookstore experience a family friendly event. While children immerse themselves in toys and merchandise that represent their favorite stories, teens and adults have a wide selection of best sellers, fantasy novels, and sci-fi trilogies to choose from.
Walking around the Books-A-Million of Selinsgrove, these characteristics are absolutely apparent. This store’s stock and layout are catered to the young demographic, with young adult novels, fan merch, and children’s books brought right to the front. The store windows are filled with literature and merchandise meant for young ones while everything that doesn’t fall into these categories is pushed toward the back of the store. Even the Newstand is built to draw in young people; magazines such as Seventeen and Tiger Beat are displayed before any sort of newspapers and editorials. Take a look at this interactive floorplan to see how Books-A-Million strategically brings in Selinsgrove’s young readers and their families.
As long as Selinsgrove’s young readers have a need for literature, Books-A-Million will live on in the Susquehanna Valley Mall. Because Books-A-Million is a corporate bookstore, it can easily adjust its stock to meet the wants and needs of the population it serves, lower its prices without much consequence to their business, and use marketing tactics to attract book consumers in the area. For example, Susquehanna University college students are often in need of specific novels and textbooks for their classes. If a student isn’t able to get a needed book from their campus bookstore, the next place to look would be this Books-A-Million store. They are likely to have the exact book in store for cheaper than the original sticker price or on their website to be shipped the next day. This is an instance where going to an independent bookstore or superstore would risk not having the right book in stock or being outside of the student’s budget.
It’s no surprise Books-A-Million has outlasted the other stores in the mall. The bookstore continues to appease to their target audience through convenience, deals, and overall merchandise. There is little to no doubt that the Books-A-Million in Selinsgrove is around to stay. However, there is much to debate on if they will remain in the Susquehanna Valley Mall. According to the Daily Item in 2018, a Women’s Health Care Center was rumored to take the former Sears building.
In their most recent article, the Daily Item stated, “The mall will be placed on the sheriff’s sale listing for Aug. 9.” Although August is still a few months away, there are still plenty of questions to ponder. What will happen to Books-A-Million? The chain bookstore may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s stability throughout the years proved that some people prefer coffee instead. We are left with two future outcomes: Will Books-A-Million suffer the same fate as the mall? Or would the bookstore branch off into its own building and continue to thrive in Selinsgrove?
- Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Web Sources and Periodicals:
- Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
- firstname.lastname@example.org, Marcia Moore. “Fall Start for Health Center Conversion at Former Sears Building.” The Daily Item, 29 Aug. 2018, www.dailyitem.com/news/local_news/fall-start-for-health-center-conversion-at-former-sears-building/article_ddaddc41-bfca-5b40-aba9-1c7f788a6f79.html.
- Moore, Marcia. “UPDATE Boscov’s CEO: ‘We’re Not Going Anywhere’.” The Daily Item, 6 May 2019, www.dailyitem.com/news/update-boscov-s-ceo-we-re-not-going-anywhere/article_a6c18276-7011-11e9-a6af-c30fc4f8675f.html.
- Perry, Jack, “Bibliophilia: Bookstores, Communist and Capitalist.” The American Scholar, vol. 55, no. 1, 1986, pp.107-111. www.jstor.org/stable/41211294.
- “PRIZM® PREMIER Psycographic Zip Code Lookup.” Claritas, 2019. claritas360.claritas.com/mybestsegments/#zipLookup.
- Suburbanstats.org. “Current Selinsgrove Borough, Pennsylvania Population, Demographics and Stats in 2019, 2018.” SuburbanStats.org, suburbanstats.org/population/pennsylvania/how-many-people-live-in-selinsgrove-borough.
- Google Maps: Susquehanna Valley Mall & surrounding attractions.
- Timeline: The History of Books-A-Million in the Susquehanna Valley Mall
- ThingLink: Books-A-Million Floorplan
- Books-A-Million Logo: http://www.greentreemall.com/store/booksamillion
- Susquehanna Valley Mall Image: http://www.wkok.com/susquehanna-valley-mall-could-be-heading-for-sheriffs-sale/
- All other photos taken by Benjamin Adelberg and Sarah Fluke