The company, founded in 1965 as a mail-order business, got its start selling dental clamps, dovetail saws and other specialty tools. It soon expanded to novelty items including “un-dullable” kitchen knives and self-watering plant pots, and in 1973 opened its first physical location, in New Hampshire. In the decades since, Brookstone became a staple of U.S. malls, offering shoppers a distraction — and often, a resting place — as they milled about.
But in recent years, the business has struggled to keep up as more Americans shop online. Specialty stores have struggled, analysts said, as mainstream retailers such as Amazon.com and Target expand their selection of quirky gadgets and other novelties. Brookstone competitor Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy in 2008, while mail-order business SkyMall followed suit in 2015. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
“Brookstone was quite innovative in their day in a category that’s become ubiquitous,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School and the former chief executive of Sears Canada. “Customers today go into a Brookstone and say, ‘Hey, this is cool.' And then they check their phones and see that Amazon is selling 12 variations of that item, often for less money."
Although the retailer has helped launch several household brands, including Tempur-Pedic, iRobot and Fitbit, it was unable to capitalize on the success of those products, said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst for Forrester Research. “Anytime Brookstone had a bestseller, it got commoditized and sold by competitors,” she said. “Honestly, I’m shocked they’ve been around for as long as they have.”
In its bankruptcy filing, Brookstone cited debts of up to $500 million against assets of $50 million to $100 million.
Several mall retailers, including Nine West, Claire’s and Gymboree, have filed for bankruptcy in the past year, as heavy debt loads and increased competition continue to batter the industry.