Over the past 18 years as a field sales rep for Random House, Steven Wallace has witnessed a lot of changes in Alabama bookselling. Homegrown chain Books-A-Million, headquartered in Birmingham, has grown from a regional operation into the third-largest chain in the country; venerable bookstores like the legendary Smith & Hardwick Bookstore have closed, while a coterie of new, spunky booksellers, heavily dependent on events and regional authors, continue to offer an alternative.
Wallace, whose most recent title was divisional director of field sales, southeast region (he was laid off from Random in December), got his start as a bookseller at the venerable Capitol Book & News in Montgomery. That store, which is among a handful of grande dame bookstores in the state, dates back to 1950, when it was founded by Victor Levine. Levine sold it in 1978 to its current owners, Cheryl and Thomas Upchurch—Wallace's former bosses.
Wallace fondly recalled the day he let local icon Harper Lee into the store early to browse: "It was a cold November day, and I invited her in before the store was ready to open. She was a polite and quiet woman who piled up a tall stack of esoteric nonfiction."
Of all the changes, Wallace said the rapid growth of Books-A-Million has had the greatest impact on the local scene. "They've thoroughly populated the state," Wallace said. The chain, which was founded in 1917 as a street-corner newsstand in Florence, Ala., now has 209 stores, mostly in the South—with 29 in Alabama alone. In 2005, BAM had more than $500 million in total sales.
While BAM's elevation may be symbolic of the ubiquity of mass market bookselling, Alabama's independents continue to rely for the most part on the local upscale citizenry, or carriage trade, as it is traditionally refered to, and many of them have deep roots in their communities. Birmingham bookseller Jake Reiss founded the Alabama Booksmith as an adjunct to J. Reiss Custom Clothier, one of the oldest men's custom tailoring businesses in the country, while Thomas Upchurch, of Capitol Book & News, was raised in a family that owned the local Quaker State motor oil distributor. Upchurch worries that bookselling is going the way of his family's oil business: "When Kmart came to town, they soon began to dictate the terms of the business. Chains are doing the same thing.'' Despite the competition, his modest, 2,000-sq.-ft. store continues to thrive.
Karin Wilson, owner of Page & Palette Bookstore in the Gulf coast town of Fairhope, is no fan of retailing giants. In 2005 she helped organize a citizens' action committee committed to fighting big-box retailers. Through her Page & Palette Foundation, Wilson has given more than $100,000 to local charities in the past three years. An October 2006 event with Alabama's own Fannie Flagg drew more than 1,000 people. "I look at all my big events as an advertising expense," she said.
At Alabama Booksmith, Jake Reiss views events as the core of his business. "We're on the end of a dead-end street and have zero foot traffic, so our whole staff is really more attuned to working on bringing in big-name writers rather than selling books off the shelf," he told PW. Reiss estimates his store, which focuses on literary fiction and nonfiction and carries no genre titles, hosts 300—400 events per year. He brags that he's good at it.
Sonny Brewer agrees. Brewer should know. As both founder of Over the Transom Bookstore in Fairhope and an acclaimed novelist, he's aware of how authors need booksellers. "I send people to Booksmith for hardcover first editions of my early work, because they still stock them. They never sent them back."
University of Alabama writing professor and author Rick Bragg told PW, "Walking into the Alabama Booksmith for a signing makes you think, 'One of these days I'm going to show up and just be a customer.' " Asked if he could name a favorite store in Alabama, Bragg was stymied: "The truth is I can't. I've had wonderful experiences in all of them, from the Books-A-Millions and B&Ns, to the independents scattered from the Gulf to the foothills of Appalachia. I'm just happy they are there and continue to support writers like me."
Bookselling Health Index
|Household Income: $35,158|
|Independent Bookstores: 50|
|Chain Bookstores: 39|
|Total Bookstores: 89|
|Big-box Stores: 116|
|Total Stores: 205|
|Stores per Capita: 1 per 22,097|
|Per Capita Rank: 21|