Christ, It's Books-a-Million!

bad_breath_bible_pictureRemember the crying we all did a few months ago when Borders Bookstores went bankrupt nationwide? Me neither. A stay of execution for our independent book stores before we all switch over to e-books, and one less soulless retailer on “death row” in West Lebanon. No great loss. 

But shortly after the last shelf had been torn out of the corpse of the old Borders store across from Wal-Mart, a sign went up announcing the pending arrival of something called BAM, which would soon be selling us… books, music, gadgets and coffee. Go figure. Plus ça change and all that. And since I reluctantly found myself down that way anyway, I dropped by to check this new thing out.

I admit that for a fleeting moment I wanted to think that BAM really stood for Bad-Ass Mo*Fo* – quite something to call your books-and-trinkets emporium – and I fancied I’d find something totally exceptional in the new space, like a Music Matters with a goth-themed coffee shop, perhaps. But my initial impression was simply “Borders reincarnated.” The same tame layout, same overall selection – same everything. Albeit with a slight twist. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but then I noticed odd things. And the more I looked, the more it seemed like Borders on ‘ludes; slightly warped, out of focus, subdued, even more saccharine and purged of all things original and edgy.

In fact, BAM stands for Books-a-Million, the name of what is now the second largest chain of book stores in the United States. Based in Alabama, the 30-year old company has over 200 stores, mainly in the South. With their recent purchase of 30 defunct Borders stores, they now have a decent showing up our way, too.

But they must do things differently down south. For instance, it’s not at all clear to me why “The Story of Hitler’s SS” would be on the “Humor” shelf along with Karl Rove’s “Courage and Consequence” and Sarah Palin’s “Going Rouge.” Sure, they all share the space with “The Ultimate Guide to Tractors,” but still…

And what really gets under your skin after a while is the Christian Fiction. Miles and goddamn miles of it. Endless book series I didn’t even know existed. I mean, sure, even as a devout non-believer I’d heard of the insufferable Left Behind tales by Tim LaHaye, but this stuff is written by authors using pseudonyms that sound vaguely like soft-core porn stars, like Ted Dekker and Randy Alcorn, There is lots of “Bargain Christian Fiction,” too – for those of little faith, perhaps.?

Oddly enough – from an atheist’s perspective, at least – the ultimate in Christian Fiction, The Bible, can’t be found on those shelves. No; at BAM that little gem has it’s very own corner of the store: an entire section given over to every conceivable flavor and variation of the same, single book, from every publisher on God’s green earth. (I try to imagine the planning meeting at a struggling book publisher. Bob, Director of Product Development: “Yeah, well, we’re not seeing a new Harry Potter anywhere, so we thought, well, what about putting out our version of The Bible? We think that’d be really awesome.” Peter, VP of Sales, Eastern Region: “What a great idea, Bob. I can’t imagine anyone else will have thought of that before – we’ll corner the market and make away like bandits.”) Who actually buys these things? I mean, every self-respecting Christian already has one, right? But do you need more than one if you do a lot of praying? Is it a status symbol to have lots of them sprinkled around the house?

BAM even offers a “camo” version of The Bible, hyped in a prominent isle-end display as the perfect companion for the outdoorsman. Other than the fake camo-patterned cover, however, it seems to be the same ol’ Bible on the inside, printed on that same ultra-flimsy parchment-style paper that surely will melt in the first thunderstorm. For $25 I’d expect more of my survival kit Bible – a can opener, at the very least.

All these Bibles (quite separate, you understand, from the section on Christian Living, and separate again from the entire section of Christian-themed journals) are located right across from the “Teen Faithpoint”, which is a sort of wanna-be hip zone with books like “Belieber” about Justin Bieber’s strong Christian faith, and a few volumes of Christian manga. No, really. Christian manga. Who knew?

And while I’m appalled at this waste of precious retail space on titles that I find laughably irrelevant, I of course get it now; it’s a southern thing. Faith is big deal down there, and that’s what BAM has built its bookstore concept around. Fair enough. I just don’t think it’ll fly in the Upper Valley, not for a second. Even with our respectable number of active churches, there’s just no market for this much Xtian merchandising. If I were a BAM shareholder – or employee, for that matter – I’d find it more than a little worrying that no-one bothered to look into that demographic detail before they bundled up their usual package of literary snake oil and headed to the Northeast.

Bit even if I can find a plausible reason for the aggressive bible thumping, I confess I’m still a tad confused about BAM’s interpretation of categories and themes. I come across Glenn Beck’s “An Inconvenient Book” sitting under Social Science, alongside “Houseplants: Windowboxes” and Isabel Stanley’s epic work on “Quilting.” But surely by now even southerners get that Beck is strictly Science Fiction, or as a competent defense lawyer would call it, “the delusional ravings of an unhealthy mind”?

I give BAM a year or two before they remainder the end-time novels and call it quits. And then who knows what we’ll get in the way of excitement to fill the empty spot at the Mall? A cult, perhaps?