At a time when independent bookstores are looking to increase their margins with nonbook items—educational toys, Bucky Balls, and Bananagrams—and Barnes & Noble and Borders are adding large toy sections to their superstores, one independent toy store is doing the opposite and growing its books department. Barstons Child's Play, with four stores in the Washington, D.C., metro area and a fifth in Baltimore, has been gradually increasing the space it devotes to books in its Washington locations since 1999, when it hired Deborah Johnson as book buyer. According to Johnson, last year retail book sales at Child's Play passed the $1 million mark, making it larger than many children's bookstores.
For Child's Play cofounder Steven Aarons, who manages the Washington stores and chairs the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, moving into books seemed like an obvious direction, in part because of the toy store's commitment to customer service. "To me, the whole idea of a small specialty store is the service you can give. Children's books are an area where you can give much more service and easily form a relationship with a customer," he says. As an independent toy retailer, Aarons is more closely aligned to independent booksellers than toy discounters like Toys R Us, as is his stores' emphasis on hand-selling and matching kids with the right toys and the right books.
"The majority of people who come here want customer service," says Johnson. "We have people who used to live here. They call and ask us to recommend toys, and they buy over the phone." Child's Play's approach to hand-selling appeals to customers like Vanessa S., one of many to give Child's Play a five-star rating on Yelp: "The people who work there know everything about the toys, and they can give you advice on toys, games, art supplies and books for children (or adults!) of any age." The store ranks high despite the fact that it does not depend on discounting. "The only time we discount is presales of major books like Rick Riordan," says Johnson.
Customer service has helped Child's Play compete successfully against online sellers as well as regional chains like Tree Top Kids, which acquired many of the specialty toy stores in the Washington area only to fail last year. It's also enabled Child's Play to add three stores in the last five years. In 2006, it opened a store in Rockville, Md. The following year it added a two-story location in Arlington, Va., and last October it opened a store on the site of a former Tree Top Kids location in McLean, Va. Later this year Aarons plans to grow again, this time by increasing the footprint of the flagship store in Chevy Chase, Md., from 4,400 to 6,000 sq. ft.
"We're not just putting down all these identical stores," says Johnson, who describes Child's Play as "a place where we have fun. There's a lot of whimsy, too." Staff get paid to play with toys and demo them with kids—and do the equivalent for books. No two Child's Play book sections are the same in terms of either size or selection. The Chevy Chase store has the largest number of titles and the strongest sales, while the two newest stores both have strong book departments of roughly 900 sq. ft.
"The book section varies with the staff and what customers come in for," says Aarons. Since he's a Star Wars fan, as are half of the other staffers at the flagship store, it went through dozens of copies of Pablo Hidalgo's Star Wars Lightsabers over the holidays, while the others sold only four or five. The Rockville store is located next to a buybuy BABY, so its book selection skews younger and appeals to parents of toddlers. "We have a guy who loves Mo Willems," adds Johnson. "So we're selling a lot of [his]. I sell a ton of Grumpy Bird. Each place gloms on to the books they love. All the stores do their own reordering." Occasionally, Child's Play stocks books or book-related products simply because they are good for kids and their parents. For example, despite the migration of audio books to digital downloads, Aarons makes a point of stocking books on CD. "They're like a shared family experience," he says. "It is something where it can be an added benefit for the customer. I feel it's important."
But he also believes it's key to stay attuned to the times. Child's Play recently introduced a Web site for its toys and games (BarstonsChildsPlay.com), and it is active on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Now Johnson is pondering whether e-books will work for the store and attended January's Winter Institute to look for ideas about selling books digitally and turning them into child's play.