In the past few years especially, sidelines have become an increasingly important way for bookstores to diversify their inventory and gain margin. At the Bookstore at Fitger’s in Duluth, Minn., sidelines and gifts account for 50% of sales. “They’re part of the reason we’re still alive,” says manager Sally Anderson. New stores, too, like East Side Story, which opened in Nashville in mid-August, are bulking up on sidelines. The store devotes half its inventory to book-themed art and gifts, including literary portraits for $100.
For some stores, regional gift items are just as important as regional books. At Phoenix Books in Essex, Vt., manager and sidelines buyer Colleen Shipman scouts for locally made items like the soon-to-be-released FlXit, a sculptural, slinkylike toy made from cardboard. Other stores focus on the tried and true. University Book Store in Seattle added a Moleskin boutique to its flagship store earlier this fall, while at Cornerstone Cottage Kids in Hampton, Iowa, Bananagrams is still going strong, according to manager Kayleigh Bass.
Below are sideline favorites, both higher ticket and inexpensive impulse items.
The Bookstore at Fitger’s, Duluth, Minn.
This 25-year-old store has carried toys for the past decade, but ramped up its selection of book-related toys seven years ago. In addition, it does a brisk business in sidelines like large, colorful Sky Lanterns from Quantum Fireworks Company, which customers buy to celebrate a special occasion or to memorialize a loved one. The lanterns are biodegradable and flame resistant. Manager Sally Anderson is also seeing a big comeback in hand puppets like those from the Puppet Company. Most of the sidelines she stocks are in the $10–$25 range.
Green Apple Books, San Francisco
“Sidelines account for about 1% of our sales—books get priority here—but sales have gone up on them in the last year. We just have to be very careful with what we carry, and like to keep our price point under $10,” says co-owner Pete Mulvihill, who sees sidelines as an add-on, especially at the holidays. Green Apple does well with Finger Monsters, adult-sized finger puppets for $1 from Accoutrements, and recently added First Edition Matchboxes from Hillary Kaye, matchbooks with vintage book covers on top. “They make great impulse buys, even though San Francisco is so antismoking,” says Mulvihill.
The Learned Owl, Hudson, Ohio
With two toy stores on her block, bookstore owner Liz Murphy prefers book-related sidelines, like Boo plush toys from Gund to go with J.H. Lee and Gretch LeMaistre’s Boo: The Life of the World’s Cutest Dog and Boo: Little Dog in the Big City (both Chronicle). It took a special order for a “really nice globe” last year to convince her to try something different and stock Replogle Globes. Last Christmas she ordered a few additional globes for the store, and they quickly sold out. “I’m lucky enough to be in a situation where I don’t have to [stay under a price point],” says Murphy.
Linden Tree Books, Los Altos, Calif.
“Linden Tree has always carried Folkmanis puppets, and we have a longstanding customer base that regularly travels to us for them,” says owner Dianne Edmonds. Other steady sellers include sketch books, colored pencils, and puzzles from eeBoo, a boutique toy manufacturer. And so far Edmonds has been pleased with sales for the store’s newest sidelines, plush figures from Merry Makers that tie in with book characters. “We try to carry items that have a price point which combined with a book makes for a nice gift,” says Edmonds, who notes that sidelines account for 10% of sales.
Lowry’s Books, Three Rivers, Mich.
“I’m in a small town and I couldn’t make it if I just sold books,” says owner Tom Lowry, who has seen sideline sales rise slightly every year. Some, like model cars from Revell and Legos, he’s known about and enjoyed since he was a child. Others, he finds at gift shows. This year’s bestsellers include the Head Massager from Kikkerland, the Hobbit and Star Wars Legos, and Toysmith craft and science kits.
Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, N.C.
Malaprop’s carries journals and sketchbooks from Moleskin, but also looks for local items. “You can get that [generic] bookmark in any old store, but this beautiful photograph one of the mountains is only available here,” says sidelines buyer Caroline Green. One of the advantages of carrying sidelines she sees is to be able to create “a whole experience” in one place: a book, a bookmark, and a candle to light when you read it. The store does well with small items like postcards, buttons, and magnets, and sells its own Malaprop’s “classic” tote bags.
Mysteries & More, Nashville, Tenn.
“We usually try to carry mystery-related items that no one else has,” says co-owner and manager Greg Bruss. Typically the store does best with items that range from just under $10 to $20. Among Mysteries & More’s top-sellers are items from Fred and Friends like Fuzz, a five-foot-long crime scene scarf, and Freeze! gun-shaped ice cube trays, as well as crime scene bandages and mints from Accoutrements.
Phoenix Books, Essex, Vt.
“We emphasize local whenever we can,” says manager and sidelines buyer Colleen Shipman. “We do a lot with local artisans like Patricia Maeder’s Simply Art. We have a nice service for wine and we also do coffee mugs.” She also seeks out sustainable companies like US Sherpa International and has done well with Sherpa’s scarves, shawls, and fleece-lined wool socks, as well as meditation singing bowls and charms. The store’s toy business recently benefited from the closing of a toy store several doors down. It carries a mix of fun and educational toys, ranging from the original Silly Putty to a kit to make a clock that runs on lemons.
Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif.
Skylight buys sidelines at the L.A. Mart and direct from local artists. “I try not to go over $40 or so. It depends on what I think people are willing to pay based on how cool or unique the item is,” says gift buyer Frieda Gossett-Clayton. “Most of our greeting cards are priced at about $4. That sounds expensive, but since most of them are letterpress or handmade, people are willing to spend that.” One item she thought might be a gamble because of its $29 price has turned out to be a strong seller: a cardboard Cat Tank playhouse from SUCK UK.