Last August Books-a-Million’s $934,000 purchase of the leases for 14 Borders stores from U.S. bankruptcy court gave it entrée to seven new states above its stronghold in the Bible Belt. By year’s end, through the acquisition and assumption of more leases, BAM! had moved into 41 former Borders locations and gained a toehold in an eighth state. Together the new stores provided the nation’s #2 chain, or as it prefers to describe itself, “the third largest book retailer in the nation,” a presence in New England for the first time. Some wondered whether the Alabama-based retailer, which gets a bigger slice of its sales from Bibles and religious items—17% of BAM!’s sales were in religion last year—than most other general bookstores, could survive in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Connecticut. When the new stores were opening, then president, now CEO, Terrance Finley said that the company would tweak its product mix, but all stores would continue to offer a Faithpoint area with Bibles, Christian Living, and Christian Fiction.
A tour by PW of several New England BAM!s found that, despite a religious area for adult titles and a separate children’s religion area, many of the locations that BAM! took over look like the Borders stores they replaced, down to the cafes. True, the stores’ summer sale flyer featured Bibles at 40% off, but the same flyer also offered a buy-two-get-one-free special for popular children’s and teen titles like Divergent, Delirium, and Fancy Nancy, as well as discounts on toys from Lego, Mattel, and Hasbro. As one shopper at the Concord, N.H., store posted on Yelp, “It feels like Borders never closed, just the name of the store changed. The magazine section, cafe (Joe Muggs), children’s books, and music and movies are still in the same locations, and the selection of books and discounted bargain books here is good and still growing.” The company even places the same stress on selling its rewards discount card, or Millionaire’s Club card, that Borders did. A recent job posting on Monster noted that BAM! booksellers have to “explain the Discount Card Program to every customer. All Books-A-Million associates are required to sell the Discount Card.”
At the BAM! store at the Maine Mall in South Portland, long rumored to have been among the top five stores in the entire Borders chain—which went for $168,757, nearly two-thirds more than the next most expensive lease—customers are greeted with new title displays that could be at any superstore, chain, or independent. One July table featured shrink-wrapped sets of the paperback of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Foster Huntington’s The Burning House, and Jon Katz’s Rose in a Storm next to a dump of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s American Sniper and Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln. All three Fifty Shades volumes were sprinkled throughout the store, and there were plenty of sports titles and other nonfiction, regional books, mystery, and true crime.
While Borders may not have had a selection of “As Seen on TV” tchotchkes or as many scented Yankee Candles, BAM! has tried to keep its predecessor’s large romance area, calendar selection, and magazine area (sans foreign newspapers). BAM! also continues to stock DVDs and music, including a selection of vinyl, and an especially strong bargain book area shelved by category. Unlike Borders, BAM! also has a significant Nook presence and a Geek Chic section, which speaks to its mission: “books, toys, tech, and more.”
BAM! executives declined to discuss how they have altered their product mix in New England or how the stores are doing, but in a conference call discussing second-quarter results last week, Finley said that using its experience gained over the past year, BAM! is adjusting the assortment and layouts in its new stores to better serve each marketplace. The chain also credited the addition of the new stores for much of its 14.9% sales increase in the quarter (see story, p. 6).
Just how much of Borders’s New England business BAM! has gained is hard to gauge. One bookseller, whose business is up, conceded, off the record, that BAM! has taken back half of the business that the store got when Borders first closed. Others don’t view BAM! as a competitor. Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson’s in Concord, N.H., is going forward with plans to move his store next June into a space where it will more than double in size, from 4,000 to 10,000 sq. ft. “At the end of the day,” he says, “you have to put up the best store you can have for your customer. After Borders closed, we went full steam ahead.”
Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn.—on the other side of the river from the Waterford, Conn., BAM!—says that she picked up customers in the interim between the closing of Borders and the opening of BAM! “We’re up from last year,” she says, “and we’re doing fine. I can’t say it’s damaged our business.”
But no matter how much BAM! has strengthened its inventory and staff at its New England stores, it’s not the only player that stresses price and breadth. The mini-regional bargain books and music chain Bull Moose, which had wanted to bid on the former Borders store at the Maine Mall, will instead open a store in South Portland in an expanded 11,000-sq.-ft. former Blockbuster Video location in November.