Last September, Books-a-Million quietly made a big move into the used books business with 2nd & Charles, a 40,000-square-foot test store located just outside the company's hometown of Birmingham, Ala., stocked almost exclusively with used merchandise (including CDs, DVDs, video games, and vinyl, as well as books). Though the corporate office remains quiet on the store and its success (BAM merchandising group president Terry Finley declined to comment "for competitive reasons"), December saw the retailer open a second test store in Augusta, Ga., and word on the sales floor is that the retailer plans to open three more 2nd & Charles stores in locations yet to be determined.
A recent visit to the original 2nd & Charles, located on a retail corridor in Hoover, Ala., found that the store is taking in tens of thousands of new items each week. There's a sizable bullpen at the front for customers with merchandise to sell; behind the selling counter, some dozen employees were sorting newly arrived stock. A sign just beyond the bullpen reports the number of items added to shelves in the current week; on a Tuesday, that number was more than 14,000, but an employee asserted the real figure was more like 21,000.
The store has a surprising lack of signage out front; save for a few carts of bargain-basement titles and a bin of free stock on the sidewalk outside, nowhere does it indicate that 2nd & Charles is a bookstore of any kind, much less a buy-sell-trade enterprise. Inside, the store pushes a recycle-reuse-repurpose aesthetic, with a mural made of cast-off hardcovers, splintery wooden bookshelves like you might find in a more traditional used bookstore, and no free bags—if you want a sack for your purchases, you'll have to buy a canvas tote or a 99 cent plastic bag made from recycled water bottles. There is no indication of 2nd & Charles's relationship to BAM anywhere.
Reaction from local independent booksellers has run from indifferent to accepting. Jake Reiss, owner of Alabama Booksmith, and Jim Reed, owner of Reed Books, each insisted that 2nd & Charles doesn't represent any real competition. Reiss, whose bookstore stopped selling used titles more than a decade ago, told PW that none of his customers has even mentioned the new store. For his part, Reed appreciates having another place to send customers should they fail to find what they're looking for in his shop. Since Reed's focus is on rare and out-of-print books, he thinks that 2nd & Charles doesn't offer the kind of stock his customers are most interested in.
On the other hand, David Hutchinson, the owner of Augusta's the Book Tavern, a more traditional new-and-used independent bookstore, has indicated that he's working on strategies to confront the big box used-book concept, fearing that it could become the heavyweight of the used-book scene. This strategy will likely focus on the power of an independent, owner-driven business to tap into the community of readers; though 2nd & Charles does carry some signed copies of new books, there's no indication that it will incorporate author visits or community programs as part of its business strategy. Hutchinson acknowledges the outlet has some advantages—square footage, visibility, and "deeper debt capacity" than independents. "These may be enough to buy them dominance in the marketplace," he said. "Though I wonder how quickly they will alienate their customers and fill their shelves with undesirable books."