"From the very beginning, I wanted us to be known for something special," said Helena Bolduc, co-owner and head sidelines buyer of Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colo. At Boulder Book Store, her purview is all non-book items other than cards, blank books and magnets. Off and on for more than 15 years, Bolduc has brought in clothing, accessories, cookware, food and much more for her store.
"We have to differentiate ourselves from other bookstores," continued Bolduc. "And we also need to differentiate from the gift stores."
Boulder Book Store is located on the Pearl Street Mall in downtown Boulder. There are several bookstores in the general area, as well as many gift stores on the mall. Bolduc has worked hard to find things that her neighbors aren't selling yet and to cultivate a standard for quality. One of her earliest successes was locally produced, artisanal chocolate, which remains a bestseller for the store.
"When I started the chocolate section, what I had in mind was not bringing in a huge quantity of chocolate, because that is easy," recalled Bolduc. "I wanted to make customers think we have the best, to concentrate on the best chocolate section that I could put my hands on."
Chocolove, a Boulder chocolate producer, was one of Bolduc's earliest partners. She has since expanded the selection with a variety of high-quality domestic chocolate. Bolduc said she "didn't believe" in importing chocolate, because it's much better fresh. She also noted that tastes have changed since she began stocking chocolate--as chocolate has become more of a connoisseur-type product, Bolduc has had to go to greater lengths to impress customers.
"I don't consider myself a chocolate buyer. I call myself a chocolate hunter," Bolduc said, laughing.
T-shirts made by local clothing company and printer Goodbye Blue Monday have also done very well for Boulder Book Store and are perennial bestsellers. The store has sold a variety of shirts with memorable designs, including one called "Tattoo Willie" that features a picture of William Shakespeare in a T-shirt with sleeve tattoos down both arms. According to Bolduc, the shirts sell year round, and are particularly popular with the many students and tourists who visit Boulder and want a souvenir.
And thanks to the large amount of meditation groups and spiritual centers in Boulder, meditation cushions have sold well at the store for a long time. "It's something unique," commented Bolduc. "It's not something that you can find everywhere."
Boulder Book Store also carries a selection of vintage bookends. There is no single vendor for these items, and each pair is unique: David Bolduc, Helena Bolduc's husband and store co-owner, finds these at antique shops in the area. It was important to her and her husband, Bolduc explained, that they not carry bookends that could easily be found at Barnes & Noble and elsewhere. First Edition Match Boxes--handmade wooden matchboxes featuring first edition book covers--have also sold briskly, as have a selection of Fridolin music boxes.
"Most of all I'm up for quality," said Bolduc, when asked what she looks for in prospective sidelines. "But you can't just bring in beautiful things. They have to be things that are also affordable."
Pricing sidelines, she continued, is a constant balancing act. Theoretically Bolduc can mark sidelines up as high as she'd like, but in her experience the complicating factor is always the price of a hardcover book. Bolduc suggested that the sideline prices should be "proportional" to those of hardcover books. And while Bolduc has found that customers generally seem amenable to paying a slight premium for something that is either locally or at least domestically made, there are some exceptions. She noted that expensive domestic scarves don't seem to sell, although American-made knit caps priced between $35 and $40 do.
"All of the soaps I bring in, all of the cosmetics, all of that is local," said Bolduc. "But sometimes local and American-made are so expensive that you can't bring them in."
Apart from some of the perennial sellers, such as the T-shirts and chocolates, sidelines tend to come on fast and go very quickly. They may be part of a broader fad, or tied to a particular event and very topical. An example of the latter was the Bush countdown clock--the store sold 1,895 of them between 2006 and 2008. Being "ahead of the game," Bolduc emphasized, is a necessity-- it doesn't do much good to start carrying an item after all of her neighbors are already selling it. And just because something worked in the past doesn't necessarily mean that a similar item would sell as well now.
In order to stay on top of things and keep the sideline offerings fresh, Bolduc is always on the hunt for new items. She's in almost constant communication with her staff about things to bring in, and though Bolduc goes to a trade show perhaps once every two years or so, she's found that traveling is the best way to find new items. Explained Bolduc: "Visiting other places, other towns and other cities, it does wonderful things for seeing what people are buying."
Boulder Book Store carries most of its gifts and sidelines on its main floor, which is by far the most well-trafficked. More and more though, Bolduc is experimenting with incorporating sidelines into other sections. Examples of this include cookware in the cookbook section; Eagle Creek bags, water bottles and flashlights in the travel section; and meditation cushions in the spirituality section.
Her department has seen its biggest period of growth since around 2011, when gifts were split from cards, magnets and blank books. Bolduc would like to continue expanding the store's sideline offerings, but even for a shop as big as Boulder Book Store, space is an issue. "We have a lot of books," she said. "We have to work things out with everybody else. It's always a matter of balancing what's important and what counts." --Alex Mutter