by Hannah Sacks, contributor
There are few things more magical than a bookstore. That rush of adrenaline as the doors open, catapulting you into aisles filled with unread tales you can take home for a cozy afternoon of reading. And although it’s true that books are the star of the show at these classic establishments, there’s something uniquely special about seeing your favorite characters outside of the pages and in the palm of your hand.
Although everyone has their favorite house of books, Barnes & Noble is a go-to for millions, and much of that success is due to its growing collectibles section. Rather than pigeon-holing itself with only books, Barnes & Noble expanded its stock into adult collectibles, marrying the literary world with artists’ imagination of what characters might look like in real life.
But the bookstore certainly didn’t begin by selling collectibles. According to Jackie DeLeo, chief marketing officer at Barnes & Noble, the company was launched in the 1870s as a small bookstore. Barnes & Noble was later acquired by Leonard Regio, who merged his own bookstores with Barnes & Noble and created the first superstore bookstore (Anyone else getting You’ve Got Mail vibes?). In the 1970s, Barnes & Noble became the first bookstore to advertise on TV, paving the way for the company to later capitalize on pop culture merch. The bookstore has continued to grow its influence with customers nationwide, and now boasts 600 stores in all 50 states across the U.S.
NOT A NOVEL IDEA
Despite its focus on books, Barnes & Noble has always been a purveyor of on-trend products. Take e-readers, for example. The company launched its e-reader, the Nook, in 2009, keeping up with the cultural zeitgeist and following products such as Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad. “It [wasn’t] a change of focus, but continuing the focus [Barnes & Noble] always had,” DeLeo explains. “[Readers] can interact with books any way they want to. It’s really maintaining that same commitment to being a bookstore in all of the different ways people like to read their books.”
This commitment is further reflected in the company’s decision to increase its collectibles and pop-culture sections. “We have been a bookstore that included pop culture and memorabilia, trends, and collectibles, and I think that really is what is going on in the zeitgeist,” DeLeo says. Barnes & Noble has noticeably expanded its collectibles offerings in the past few years, with stores dedicating aisles, and in some cases, entire sections, to collectibles inspired by popular franchises such as Harry Potter and various anime.
But what connects these different fandoms? They all found their beginnings as books. “Manga, anime, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones … a lot of times [these fandoms] come from books,” DeLeo explains. “We just want to include all the ways that people want to interact with their fandom.” Unlike other bookstores, Barnes & Noble has found a way to reach fans across every medium, connecting people through multimedia, not just printed words. “We always want to be a place where you can find something unique and different,” DeLeo says.
Although collectibles might seem like a stark departure for book purists, DeLeo argues that these products further expand the worlds that fans have come to love. She says that when she enters someone’s house, she immediately looks at their library of books to read their spines. Knowing what books someone has chosen helps explain who they are and gives insight into their identity.
“And now, there’s so much fun merch that expands those universes, especially when it’s in-world,” DeLeo says. “[Collectibles] really show what people are excited about and in a way that they want to project to the people who visit their home.” Especially with the rise of Zoom calls and work-from-home setups, people are finessing their backgrounds to express their interests. “I think it’s [a continuation of] the curation of bookshelves and showing your aesthetic with the merch that you have,” she says.
BOOKED ON A FEELING
It’s not just Barnes & Noble that’s excited about the company’s foray into this industry — collectible brands like Bandai Namco Toys & Collectibles America (Bandai) have sought out the bookstore as a key retailer for its products. “For Bandai, many of our action figures and collectibles are based on the hottest manga, one of the top book genres in the market, allowing Barnes & Noble and Bandai to keep fans coming back to pick up the latest from their favorite properties,” says Michael Ciminera, senior vice president of the commercial team at Bandai. “Fans love bringing their stories to life! Barnes & Noble makes that easier by creating shopping experiences and allowing fandoms to find their books and character merchandise in one place.” Each season, Bandai works with Barnes & Noble corporate to figure out the best figures and collectibles to showcase on the store’s shelves.
Barnes & Noble’s commitment to collectibles has proved lucrative for the company. “Our specialty hobby and collectible part of [Barnes & Noble] has seen double-digit growth since the pandemic,” DeLeo comments. “It is the most vibrant part of our store.” In those months of lockdown, more and more people were not only rediscovering their love for reading, but also finding new ways to bring their favorite stories to life. And although collectibles traditionally align with the adult market, this rise in popularity knows no age boundaries. “We have kids sitting there cross-legged with their manga piles, getting their collectibles, bringing Squishmallows home, and getting all the ways that they can show what they are excited about,” DeLeo says.
Of course, collectible trends come and go pretty quickly. With the rise of BookTok — a TikTok community passionate about books, book-related collectibles, and Barnes & Noble itself — the retailer has to work fast to remain on trend. “We really try to buy quickly, smartly, and sometimes tightly because trends change very often,” DeLeo says. “We can be much more nimble with the way that we merchandise the store and give ownership to the store managers themselves to display anything they want to.”
Barnes & Noble has staying power with book lovers who have grown up visiting the store, but also with a younger audience. The bookstore recently worked with Warner Bros. and its licensing partners to offer additional merchandise that speaks to a new generation of Harry Potter fans. “We have this age of Harry Potter kids who now are having kids of their own,” DeLeo says. “They want different merchandise than what was available to them 20 years ago.” Barnes & Noble promises to fill that space with in-world merch that bridges this generational gap. The company will also keep up with its exclusive collectibles that consumers can’t find anywhere else. According to DeLeo, Barnes & Noble is the largest retailer outside of Japan where fans can find collectible anime and manga memorabilia.
At its core, Barnes & Noble is in it for its fans. The company is constantly looking for new ways to connect consumers to their many fandoms, whether through words, merch, or collectibles. It’s clear that that same bookstore magic now permeates throughout the collectibles aisles, asking readers to explore their favorite stories in a new way.
This article was originally published in Issue No. 17 of The Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!