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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