A person has to be tough to make it to 100, and the same is true for companies. No business survives for a century without handling numerous challenges and setbacks along the way. Books-A-Million, which was founded in 1917 in Florence and is now headquartered in Birmingham, is one of those companies that has made it to the big 1-0-0.And it has done so by constantly turning the page during the tidal wave of change that has swamped the book and publishing industry during our digital age.
“The past decade has been an interesting time in our business,” said BAM President and CEO Terry Finley, who has been with the company for 32 years. “There’s been a lot of disruption coming from the digital sector, and we’ve had to adapt on all fronts. Books have been sold online through Amazon since the late 1990s. Then e-books came along, and other digital competition. Each of these things has challenged and affected the business.
Finley paused, then smiled. “And yet, here we are. We’ve weathered those storms and we’re still going.”
Still going strong, in fact. BAM is the second-largest book retailer in the U.S, with 260 stores in 32 states and more than 5,000 employees nationwide (including approximately 1,000 in Alabama). The company also operates an e-commerce division (booksamillion.com), a book distribution subsidiary (American Wholesale Book Company), and an internet development and services company (NetCentral, based in Nashville).
It is a far cry from that day in 1917 when Clyde W. Anderson built a newsstand out of some old piano crates and set up shop on a street corner in downtown Florence. His original plan was to sell out-of-town newspapers to workers who were living in Florence temporarily while constructing the Wilson Dam. The newsstand was so successful that Anderson moved into a storefront and added books to his merchandise. This was the origin of what eventually became known as Bookland, and then Books-A-Million beginning in 1992.
Today, BAM is a third-generation family business. Clyde W. Anderson’s son, Charles Anderson, is still involved with the company as Chairman Emeritus, and grandson Clyde B. Anderson serves as Chairman of the Board. The company has grown by remaining true to its Alabama roots, while not being afraid to branch out in new directions.
Change certainly has been necessary in recent years. An entire generation has come of age with computers providing their primary source of reading material. The thought of turning real pages in an actual book can seem as out-of-date as sending a handwritten letter or getting photos developed.
But not everyone has banished books from their life. There are still segments of the publishing industry that are doing extremely well, led by children’s books, young adults and faith-based. Finley said the key is to stay in front of the trends and – as in all businesses – give the customers what they want.
“Our merchandise mix has changed dramatically,” Finley said. “The strongest part of the book industry now is kids and teens. So we’ve adapted the store layout to where about half the store is geared toward them. We took the whole second floor at our Brookwood location and turned it into Kids-A-Million. It did well there, so we rolled it out to a number of the stores in the chain that have the space. It’s a constant process of adaptation.”
Finley said the stores also have become more interactive. Back in the day, bookstores often were as quiet as libraries, with customers silently browsing the aisles and thumbing through the discount bin. Now, Finley said, BAM stores are filled with displays and hold events that are tied to the latest book or even movie craze.
“The current generation prefers to spend their money on an experience, rather than just going to the mall and buying a bunch of stuff,” Finley said. “So as a retailer, we’ve had to improve the experience in the store. In the beginning that was all about adding a coffee shop or a café. But now it’s about creating atmosphere. So if we have a big Star Wars year or a big Harry Potter year, we want to be a place where the people who are attracted to that want to be.
“Fundamentally, we’re an entertainment business now. If you go into our stores today, one of the biggest growth categories is collectibles – figures and other things that are related to whatever the big movie or video game is – and they’re aimed at Millennials. We have young people on our staff who stay on the pulse of that, which you have to do as a merchant. We try to have a lot of fun, and fun attracts young people.”
As should be expected, one of the things Finley does for fun is read. It began when he was in college at Auburn working at J&M Bookstore, then continued during his professional career as a merchant for Gateway Books in Knoxville, Tenn., and then at BAM.
“I’ve always been a big reader,” Finley said. “When I was a merchant, I didn’t read every book that was sold in the store, but I had to read a lot of them in order to try to figure out what would sell and what might be the next big thing.”
Finley is more selective in his reading material these days, preferring political books and what he calls “big, fat biographies.” But he continues to sample a wide variety of genres, and promotes his favorites through the BAM President’s Picks program.
“It’s really fun, because I can be real choosy then go to the stores and say, ‘You should read this,’ ” Finley said. “And through these recommendations, we can make things happen with books that maybe aren’t the obvious bestseller, both instore and online.”
One type of book that Finley particularly likes is cookbooks, which he reads while cooking the dish. Finley said he cooks nearly every weekend, and likes to challenge himself with elaborate recipes that involve numerous ingredients and hours of preparation time.
“I had this one chili recipe I found in Cooks Illustrated that takes all day,” Finley said. “You’re grating and chopping and sautéing. It’s like therapy. And then at the end of the day, it taste pretty good, too. It’s a great stress-reliever. That’s my hobby, along with reading.”
Reading, of course, will never go away for Finley, and books will always be his first choice. Because while today’s society constantly deals with computer reboots and low battery levels, Finley said comfort can be found in the reliability of a good old-fashioned book.
“The great thing about a book,” Finley said, “is that it’s a piece of technology that works every time.”