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Rags to Riches: From Anderson Books to Books-A-Million

By Penne J. Laubenthal

The old Anderson Bookland store in downtown Florence, Alabama, will soon house the elegant corporate headquarters and retail store for internationally known clothing designer Billy Reid. Let us hope that the former Bookland building will bring as much good forture to Reid as it did to the Anderson family. However, the Anderson success story, like Billy Reid’s rise to fame, is not a question of luck but a matter of hard work, talent, intuition, initiative, and marketing savoir faire.

The mega-store Books-A-Million is the fourth largest book retailer in the country. It had it’s beginnings nearly a century ago when a 14 year old boy named Clyde Anderson started a newspaper stand in order to help support his family. When the workers on Wilson Dam told the boy they missed their hometown newspaper, Anderson made a deal with the northern publishers to have them delivered to Florence. He constructed a make shift newspaper stand out of old piano crates, and within five years he and his brother were able to open a bona fide bookstore. (photo of Anderson Bookland by Matt McLean, Florence Times Daily)

Clyde’s son inherited the store in 1950 and opened a chain of stores called Bookland.. Then in the 1980s Bookland bought Gateway Books and by 1988 the youngest Anderson opened an 8,000 square foot store in Huntsville, Alabama. After the first effort failed, Anderson opened another 30,000 square foot store nearby and in 1992 Books-A Million was born. Books-A-Million began developing the concept of book-store-as-entertainment. Events such as book signings and readings (especially by Southern authors) became regular features.. In 1993 about ten Books-A-Million stores contained espresso bars, encouraging customers to think of the bookstore as a place to sit and relax as well as to browse.

The chain still operates small combination bookstores in towns that cannot support a super-store. In a 1994 interview with Retailing Today, Anderson explained the reason why: "We're from a small town and we wanted a concept that would work in a small town…. But if you could have a combination book and something else--we developed a combination books and cards--that the economics of that may work."

The phenomenal success of Books-A-Million rests largely on the marketing expertise of the Anderson and the chain’s ability to offer clients exactly what they want. Books a Million maintained a regional focus at a time when national chains were becoming more homogeneous. Individual Books-A-Million stores were given the freedom to launch marketing campaigns for books of particular interest to customers in their own markets. For example, books published by the Birmingham News on topics like the University of Alabama's successful football season or the death of a local race-car celebrity received special campaigns, as did The Firm, a first novel by Mississippi author John Grisham, which became a national best-seller and feature film. (photo of Books-A- Million by Cydney Cappello)

Like their father before them, the Andersons know how to put themselves out there and take a chance. In 1993, the year the University of Alabama upset Miami in the Sugar Bowl,Sports Illustrated decided not to feature the event as its cover story; however, the Anderson brothers convinced the magazine's editors to print 200,000 special editions of the magazine, put Alabama running back Derrick Lassic on the cover, and add additional stories about the Alabama victory. Books-A-Million bought all 200,000 copies of the special commemorative edition and within a month sold all of them, bringing in $900,000 and an estimated profit of $200,000.

In late spring or early summer, clothing designer Billy Reid will move his corporate headquarters to the old Anderson Bookland building at 114 N Court Street. Since 2004 Reid has been operating out of the historic Pickett Place on Seminary. The new building on Court Street will display the entire Billy Reid men's and women's collections, previously shown in full only at the New York store. Reid’s business has been booming since he moved to the Shoals. His unique designs may also be found at www.billyreid.com


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