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Publisher To Open Bookstores in Toys 'R' Us Stores

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Move over, Barbie and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Make way for Poky Little Puppy and Dr. Seuss.

Toys "R'' Us is joining with the nation's largest publisher of children's books in a venture aimed at opening children's bookshops in toy stores nationwide.

Through an agreement with Western Publishing Company, which publishes the popular Little Golden Books, the toy retailer this month will open bookstores in 28 of its stores. If the new Books "R'' Us sections are successful, they may spread to half or more of the toy chain's 550 stores next year.

Publishing-industry observers said the move could expand an already-booming market for children's books and provide access to books for many children who might not otherwide read them.

"This is a place where parents and children flock,'' said Roberta Plutzik, the director of the general trade division of the American Association of Publishers. "If children who would never go into a bookstore find books in these stores, more the better.''

"Part of becoming a literate culture,'' she said, "is accessibility of written materials.''

More 'Browsing Space'

As the nation's largest toy seller, Toys "R'' Us is projected to rack up $7 billion in sales this year, according to Michael Goldstein, a vice chairman of the chain.

It already stocks many of the 2,000 items produced by Western Publishing as well as popular children's books, coloring books, and educational products from other publishers. Typically, however, those products are displayed on wall racks at the back of the stores.

"We found we already sell a lot of children's books despite not having an attractive environment for that,'' Mr. Goldstein said.

Through the new arrangement, however, the toy retailer plans to convert storage space in its stores into spacious bookshops with carpeting, tables and chairs, and better lighting.

"It's going to be more of a browsing space,'' Mr. Goldstein said.

The new bookstores will carry 1,400 to 1,800 titles, about four times the selection currently available in Toys "R'' Us stores. In addition to Western Publishing products, the selection will include popular books from Random House, Simon & Schuster, Little Brown & Co., and other publishers, said Ira Gomberg, a spokesman for the publishing company's parent corporation, Western Publishing Group Inc.

In contrast, noted Judi Baxter, the president of the Association of Booksellers for Children, independent children's bookstores carry an average of 7,000 titles.

"The selection [at Books "R'' Us] will be relatively small,'' said Ms. Baxter, who also owns Judi's Bookstore in Twin Falls, Idaho. "If children's bookstores are in the same marketing area, it could have some impact on them.''

Booming Sales

The new venture capitalizes on a nationwide trend toward increases in sales of educational products and children's books. Sales of children's books have reportedly doubled since 1986, exceeding $1 billion last year.

"A good portion of that is 'baby boomers'' purchasing practices,'' Ms. Baxter said. "They tend to have more expendable income and to be better educated and have a strong interest in education for their children.''

Some of the increase, however, has also been the result of the growth of "whole language'' as a means of teaching reading in schools, which emphasizes using children's literature in class rather than phonics workbooks.

The Books "R'' Us stores, however, are expected to derive little benefit from classroom book sales, experts said.

The chain already opened two pilot bookshops last year in stores in Brookfield, Wis., and Livingston, N.J. Mr. Goldstein said book sales at those stores have increased "several times over'' as a result.

"From their information on other stores,'' he added, "that business wasn't coming out of somewhere else.''

The stores opening this fall are clustered in New England, New Jersey, northern California, and the Chicago area, Mr. Gomberg said.

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