Recently, a Books-A-Million (Bookland in smaller malls) opened where I live in Blacksburg, Va., at the new First & Main development. Many stores and restaurants are still being finished at the development and have yet to open at the South Main Street location. No, it's not located at the intersection with First Street, as reported by the ever-ridiculous joke for a newspaper known as the Collegiate Times. (How difficult is it to use Google Maps?) There's no First Street in Blacksburg.
Now, I've been used to Borders (Waldenbooks in smaller malls) for the last five years, as that's the book retailer I became accustomed to while studying at Marshall University. The closest Borders to where I am now is in Bluefield, W.Va., and that's a Borders Express. When I came to Virginia Tech for graduate school, I began shopping for books at Barnes & Noble (B. Dalton in smaller malls) in Christiansburg. So, now that the Virginia-Tech area has Books-A-Million right near campus and the Barnes & Noble just a short distance down the road, which one will come out ahead?
I have been inside the Books-A-Million in Blacksburg twice since it opened. However, I find the store to be disorganized, and it's tough to find books. Some books are completely removed from areas where they should be to be featured elsewhere in the store. While I'm OK with setting up separate displays, some copies of the book should remain in its original location. Also, this location has very few books overall. I have searched the store over for books to which I knew the title and the author's name, and I ended up concluding that the title was not available. Of course, no one ever came over to ask if I needed help finding anything.
On the other hand, just a little farther down the road in Christiansburg is the Barnes & Noble. Every time I go inside, the staff is friendly, and it only takes a few minutes before someone comes over to ask me if I need help finding a product. And, I've never had difficulty finding what I went there for. The store just seems more open and inviting, and there definitely seems to be a larger, more well-organized variety of books. And, of course, Barnes & Noble stores have a Starbucks inside, or at the very least, a Seattle's Best Coffee, which is a subsidiary of Starbucks. As for Books-A-Million, who the heck is Joe Muggs?
Now, let's face it, we can all just order our books on the Internet. But if you don't want to pay for shipping, and if you like the convenience of stopping by your local store (and being able to flip through the book before buying), your choice of bookstore will likely come down to one thing — numbers (if you can find what you're looking for at both, that is).
Barnes & Noble is the top bookstore in the country, followed by Borders. Books-A-Million takes the third-place spot. Aside from sales, though, what about the money that's going to come out of your own pocket? I'll compare the same products from all three (though only two are relevant to customers in the Blacksburg area) here (prices from each store's Web site as of 11/24/08).
Just After Sunset (Collector's Set) by Stephen King
Books-A-Million: $24.16 (members pay $21.74)
Barnes & Noble: $26.25 (members pay $23.62)
Borders: $37.50 (this is the original retail price, Borders does not list a discount for this new release)
Cross Country by James Patterson
Books-A-Million: $18.65 (members pay $16.78)
Barnes & Noble: $19.59 (members pay $16.79)
Borders: $16.79 (here, Borders does offer a discount from the $27.99 original retail price)
The Once and Future King (Paperback published by Ace Books) by T. H. White
Books-A-Million: $15.11 (members pay $13.59)
Barnes & Noble: $20 (members pay $18)
Hamlet (Paperback published by Washington Square Press) by William Shakespeare
Books-A-Million: $9.95 (members pay $8.95)
Barnes & Noble: $5.99 (members pay $5.39)
Winner: Barnes & Noble
The Associated Press Stylebook (2007)
Books-A-Million: $14.31 (members pay $12.87)
Barnes & Noble: $15.16 (members pay $13.64)
So, even though I found Books-A-Million to have a limited selection and worse customer service, they win the overall battle of having cheaper products. Now, I hate these membership programs where you have to pay money to save (which isn't very smart unless you buy a lot of books), but even without including membership benefits, Books-A-Million has the best prices. If you do read enough to buy a membership card, you'll save a ton of cash by shopping with Books-A-Million. If you want to get some rewards without a membership, Borders does offer a rewards program that is free to join and provides some return every $150 you spend. This only a 3 percent return, though, and Books-A-Million's one-year membership ($20) saves you at least 10 percent on your purchases. This means you need to spend more than $200 a year at Books-A-Million to start earning return on your membership. Barnes & Noble's membership is $25 a year with similar savings, meaning even when factoring in rewards programs, Books-A-Million is the best bookstore chain for your buck.
My hopes are that the limited selection and lack of customer service at the Books-A-Million in Blacksburg are a result of the store still being very new because 1) it's closer to my apartment and campus and 2) it's cheaper than Barnes & Noble. However, if aesthetics matter to you, Barnes & Noble has the coolest stores and the best-designed Web site. (And Starbucks!)