The Rise of the Nonbook: How Bookstores are Trying to Change with the Times

bearBookstores all over the world are feeling the pinch, just like all other retailers. Many of the bigger chains are coping by selling nonbook items. Today’s B&N or Borders customer can see everything from a funky coffee mug to stuffed animals and Japanese treats. Oh, and don’t forget the coffee and cookies.

This summer, my favorite Barnes & Noble started remodeling, making room for a new section selling educational toys and games. This happened all around the country. All brick-and-mortar bookstores are competing with Amazon as well as stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco that carry fewer books but discount what they sell. They are also competing with the growing eBook field. In the article, Carolyn Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster (talk about an industry expert) predicts that eBooks could make up 40% of her company’s revenue in the next 3-5 years. Yet publishers are worried that as more brick-and-mortar bookstores close, fewer people (eBook readers included) will be exposed to the latest books. Without the displays, customers won’t know what’s out there.

B&N and Borders have both entered the eBook field. However, while you can read a Nora Roberts book on a Kindle or a Nook, you can’t give your new baby a stuffed Nook or Kindle to play with. And you can’t hang a Kobo eReader over your baby’s crib and expect the baby to be interested. Now, you can go into your local B&N and and Borders and buy educational toys and games and stuffed animals.

When I first heard about this new trend,  I was prepared to be horrified. Here was yet another reason for bookstores to take room away from books and sell something “Not Book.” Then I saw the toys and games section at my local B&N, and my first reaction was “Oooh, what a nice selection.” The prices were better than I expected, and I saw toys my grandnephew would love. Then I turned around and bought a paperback or three, and I bought something on my nook, too. Something tells me I succumbed to the master plan of B&N.

Just to show they could be different and the same, too, Borders announced they were forming a partnership with Build-a-Bear Workshop. Borders has faced huge financial hurdles in recent years. To keep customers coming in, they have been promoting both the Sony Reader and the newer Kobo eReader. Like B&N, they are losing revenue to the Web, eBooks, etc.  This month, Borders will open sections dedicated to Build-a-Bear, as well as selling books and DVDs tied to the Build-a-Bear brand.

Of course, the Build-a-Bear announcement was met with gasps of horror, too – some of them from me. How dare bookstores sell so many nonbook items? I pictured stuffing all over the floor of the Borders and screaming children running under my legs.  Then I looked around my local Borders and noticed something.  Guess what? They’re already doing it. Like most Borders in the U.S., a good chunk of the store is made up of the Paperchase section, which sells stationery and hand cream and aluminum water bottles with skulls. Beyond that, the stores also entice customers with glitter balls that sparkle almost as much as the vampires in Twilight, as well as chocolate bars, Japanese candy and snacks, wind-up toys, and board games for all ages. Some Borders even sell bottles of the official Tru Blood energy drink. Even before putting in the toys and game section, my Barnes & Noble sold Godiva chocolate in all possible forms, as well as coffee and mugs and travel cups and aluminum water bottles. And don’t forget Barnsie, the official B&N bear.

Is this really all that new? Even before Borders opened up in this area, the Waldenbooks here sold nonbook items such as videotapes and CDs. For years,  Borders and B&N stocked nonbook items, from educational toys to Harry Potter and Twilight candy. Even purses designed for anime fans.

What’s new is the degree of it. The nonbook items have become like the popcorn session at the local movie theater – a big part of the revenue. This makes long-time readers nervous. People are worried the books will disappear. They didn’t mind so much if their Borders sold a few board games as long as they could find the books they wanted. Now, people are worried they won’t be able to find books amidst the clutter. Many readers love the bookstore experience. They don’t want to trade it in for the experience of walking through something that looks like Santa’s workshop. They also worry about the distractions, especially if they go there with children. Why go through that when they can shop online or buy eBooks instead?

The darn nonbook items are a distraction. Yet I’ll confess to adding a glitter ball to my book purchase. Of course, I came there for the books and still bought books. Even with the toys and games and Build-a-Bear sections, they are still bookstores. Bookstores have something over movie theaters. Nobody goes into a movie theater just to buy some popcorn, but some people might go into a bookstore to look for toys and games. Just imagine… They might buy books, too! Maybe somebody who hadn’t entered a bookstore in years will come back, see something they like on a display, and start reading again. That sounds like a win/win situation to me.

Or as Carolyn Reidy told the New York Times, “I’m in favor of anything that brings traffic in the store If it’s toys or games that brings a family into the bookstore, then I say fine.”

- Anne Marble AAR

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13 Responses to The Rise of the Nonbook: How Bookstores are Trying to Change with the Times

  1. Magdalen says:

    I go once a week to a Barnes & Noble that’s 140 miles from my house. That sounds wrong, but it’s true: I have to be in the greater Philadelphia area one day a week, and my reward is a multi-grain bagel & iced coffee, maybe some free Wi-Fi, and definitely scope out the new books.

    I hope they make it out of their financial difficulties, and stuff — like the brightly colored notebooks I bought before RWA National — makes that possible, I’m all for it.

  2. Ellen AAR says:

    The Borders where I go used to have a great DVD collection. Gone now.
    It was replaced by lots of……stuff. Toys, games, glitter balls, pens pencils and other tchotchkes. The books are still there but I sometimes feel like they are becoming secondary.

  3. Sandy AAR says:

    I don’t mind bookstores selling what they have to in order to stay alive. I used to be in Borders at least twice a week — and always on Friday or Saturday. Now I haven’t been in a bookstore in weeks. I buy eBooks when I want to read these days and I’m sure Borders is missing my $ and those of others who’ve switched. If bears and the Paperchase stuff (which is really nice, BTW) can help them stay afloat, I’m all for it.

  4. xina says:

    I don’t mind it at all. My B&N sells Vera Bradley bags! I thought that was a little strange when they first appeared.

  5. Hannah says:

    I wouldn’t mind it except that it makes it hard to shop with my 4 y.o. son when I specifically want to buy him a new book–he’s too distracted by the toys to care about the books.

  6. Pat says:

    I stopped going to bookstores (large and small) when books were the “oh,yeah, we also carry them” items.

    Now I buy only online because I can find what I want and get lists of upcoming books with blurbs and often pre-pub reviews. Sites like AAR help me with links from the reviews, so if something really intrigues me, I don’t have to copy down the title and then drive somewhere to find it.

    I find that I make just as many impulse purchases (“Readers who bought this title also bought…” or “Recommended for you…”) as when I shopped in bricks and mortar stores. The difference now is when I shop for books, I find the books I want.

  7. Leigh says:

    I really don’t miss bookstores. . . I know that sounds horrible. But with the Internet I can search our reviews on books and make my buying decision without feeling like I am taking a big gamble.

    I love being able to buy a book without leaving home. I have never been the type to just buy what is out there. I have always had something that I was looking to buy. So in the past, different outlets (K-Mart, Wal- Mart, grocery stores, and bookstores) all had different schedules (before Tuesday release dates) and I used to drive from one to another looking for new releases with more then 50% of the time coming away empty handed.

    Even now, knowing the released dates, my local bookstore doesn’t always have the book. It is perfect for me to be able to order online, and at 2 am the book is delivered to me, and it is there when I wake up.

    A friend of mine, works near a Books A Million and she find new releases all the time before the release date. . . but in my small town it doesn’t happen, and with gas so high, it doesn’t make sense to drive 40 miles to for a book.
    I feel like bookstores are for the dedicated readers. I know many people like to browse, find new authors etc. And love the ambiance of the bookstores. . . but the convenience outweighs that for me.

    I realize that not everyone feels this way.

  8. Carrie says:

    I’m a browser. I do buy books online sometimes, but much prefer to “handle” the book. I love any bookstore, including used bookstores. I don’t mind them selling other things (I LOVE the coffee), as long as the store still has a decent collection of books. Before I spend my hard-earned money on a book, I usually want to read a few pages. So I try to buy books locally before giving up and going online. I do own a kindle, and sometimes buy books for it, although my preference is reading an actual book. ;-) I find I mainly use my kindle for freebies or discounted reads, or for books published in ebook format only. The only other reasons I buy for the kindle are books where the content is too adult to have around the house (minor children) or that have covers I simply can’t stomach or am too embarrassed to own. :-)

  9. willaful says:

    I was at a store a while back that had what was practically a Twilight merchandise shrine. It creeped me out.

  10. AAR Sandy says:

    Frankly, I think bookstores caused a huge chunk of their own problems, but I’m still sympathetic to the situation they find themselves in. Back in pre-Internet days when I didn’t know book release days, going to the bookstore to see what was there used to be an adventure — and even a little exciting. But once I became clued in to when books were released and would go to my bookstore only to find them NOT there, well, then what used to be exciting turned into a frustration. They simply did not adapt to their most loyal customers needs by still keeping the same lackadasical shelving habits they’d always had. This is the number one reason I got a Kindle.

    I’m glad bookstores are adapting because as a society we need bookstores. But I wish they’d adapted before it was necessary to sell bears by serving the needs of bookbuyers better.

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  12. Kay says:

    “Yet publishers are worried that as more brick-and-mortar bookstores close, fewer people (eBook readers included) will be exposed to the latest books. Without the displays, customers won’t know what’s out there.”

    As an avid ebook reader, I disagree with the above statement. I don’t feel I need physical displays to know what’s out there. Between Facebook, Twitter, websites for Barnes & Noble, websites for the publishers, and authors’ personal websites, there are many avenues for me to find out what books are out there. On FB, I have many authors (who I’m fans of) recommending and praising their fellow authors upcoming releases. In fact, I get more of my info on upcoming releases from the Web than I do from an actual store.

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