BookExpo 2019: Wowing Customers with Great Gifts

At BookExpo, Kim Salzstein, gift buyer at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz.; Chris Doeblin, owner of Book Culture in New York City; and Grace Kang, founder of the gift and stationery store Pink Olive, with five stores in New York City and upstate New York, discussed nonbook and gift sales. Sarah Schwartz, editor-in-chief of Stationery Trends magazine, moderated the discussion.

Doeblin reported that before 2000, Book Culture was purely a bookseller and an "academic bookseller at that." In response to Amazon starting to take a "real pinch" out of sales, Doeblin began to add an increasing number of nonbook items. At first, that was limited to things that were tangential to academic book sales, such as backpacks, stationery and notebooks. In that location and at that time, Doeblin found it "very difficult" to change the store's identity when it was already seen as a destination store. Once the store added new locations, Doeblin said, Book Culture was able to "move out" of selling only "student stuff," and began selling more candles, cards and gifts.

Salzstein, meanwhile, said that Changing Hands began selling nonbook items about 10 years into its 45-year history. According to Salzstein, founder Gayle Shanks decided to bring in sidelines as a way to "get more to our bottom line," and ever since then gifts have been an increasingly important part of the store. Between the store's two locations, Changing Hands carries a huge array of sidelines, from T-shirts, socks and other apparel to kitchen accessories and jewelry. And while the stores have separate gift sections, books and appropriate sidelines frequently are shelved together, such as barbecue cookbooks paired with handcrafted cutting boards.

Kang founded Pink Olive about 12 years ago, and though the store began as a destination for gifts and stationery exclusively, she has since begun stocking more and more books. She explained that selling books was "kind of a no-brainer for us," since they are often the perfect items to round out a gift purchase. According to Kang, most of her customers come in simply to buy a card; from there, one of her employees helps that customer build a gift, and a single card purchase can often lead to hundreds of dollars in sales. The books she sells are things like The Newlywed Cookbook by Sarah Copeland and a variety of children's and board books, which Kang said are increasingly popular components of baby shower gifts. She noted that there is often "no price resistance" to cards that sell for as much as $6 or $7 each, and one of her innovations is a coffee shop-esque punch card for greeting card purchases.

On the subject of whether selling nonbook items diminishes the "purity" of a bookstore, Doeblin dismissed the idea. From a financial perspective, he said, they are a huge benefit; he noted, too, that nonbook vendors will even call a store if they find out that the store is selling one of their items at too low a price point. But book publishers, he continued, are "perfectly willing" to let Barnes & Noble, Amazon and others sell books at or below cost, and undercut independent retailers. Salzstein added that nonbook "helps your bottom line," and nonbook sales reps "want you to be successful."

When asked about popular gifts and growing gift categories, Salzstein noted that anything involving cacti or succulents is always popular, as are socks ranging from fancy to "cheeky." She pointed to the apparel brand Natural Life as one that she's had a lot of success with recently, and said that brands and items with stories or charities behind them are increasingly popular.

Doeblin said that candles are a huge category for Book Culture, estimating that he has sold "thousands and thousands," and suggested that with all of the new development and construction going on in New York City, home and personal accessories will only grow in the coming years.

Kang reported that her store's custom candle line is one of her bestsellers, and books or vintage postcards related to New York always do well. She added that especially over the past couple of years, books related to women's empowerment have been increasingly popular, with Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls a stand-out hit. --Alex Mutter

Powered by: Xtenit