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The Last Chance Guessing Game

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 19th, 2014
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Kikkerland’s Decision Maker, a very popular item at the store this time of year.

This is make-it-or-break it time for indie booksellers. These last days before Chanukah and Christmas mark our last chance to order with publishers and distributors in time for our customers’ deadlines. That means it’s our last gasp at guessing which books are going to be popular, which classic titles are suddenly going to resurge, and which of our newsletter books and staff picks will take off. Every year, there are national bestsellers and unexpected sleeper hits (like Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which Josie mentioned in Monday’s blog post, and now Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See), whose publishers were caught off guard by the book’s success and are now frantically trying to reprint, stock, and ship before the 24th.

We can’t anticipate every single sought-after title, but we do our darndest. And we know what we personally always recommend for gifts, so we need to stay on top of those in addition to everything else. For example, this time of year, we know that we can sell as many of The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor as we decide to stock. The same is true of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things, and The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty.

In addition to asking our fortune-telling Decision Maker (pictured above) whether a particular newly released title is likely to fly off the shelves, we also consult the following:

  • Bestseller lists from the major newspapers, IndieBound, and the New England Independent Booksellers Association
  • “Best of the Year” lists from 8 to 10 review and newspaper publications
  • The NEIBA Holiday Catalog
  • Our own bestsellers from the past six weeks, trying to spot rising trends
  • Classics, which always sell extra well during the holidays
  • Newbery, Caldecott, National Book Award, Coretta Scott King, and other award winners

We also check stock on our shelves, trying to fill missing gaps in popular series (always ordering extras of the first and last volumes, which sell about five times faster than the books in between) and trying to predict if there’s going to be an unexpected run on quiet backlist hardcovers. The Borrowers series is quiet much of the year, but sees a decided uptick in December, as do all of the classic series (Paddington, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, Winnie the Pooh, Madeline, Babar, Narnia, Charlotte’s Web, and so on).

This is the time of year when national media outlets are releasing all of their “Best of” lists — some of them as late as this week! — so we will have unexpected requests for sleeper titles that crop up on those lists.

On busy days, we may have more than 100 transactions, which may not sound like a lot in an 8-hour period, but when you consider that each transaction will likely include handselling of several individual titles, not to mention ringing up gift cards for teachers, tracking down stray boxes from distributors, wrapping presents, and trying to find needle-in-the-haystack single books that have been misshelved, well, it’s a lot of transactions! And it’s a LOT of fun.

This Sunday, we’ll place the last of our pre-holiday orders, cross our fingers, and play chicken with the tides of holiday shopping. Wish us luck!

Exercising Through the Holidays

Kenny Brechner -- December 18th, 2014

I was changing into my bathing suit last Friday morning in the locker room at the UMF Health and Fitness Center. It was 8:00 a.m. and there were five other grizzled middle-aged male regulars on similar missions, when the following conversation ensued.

“So Kenny, how many years have you had the bookstore now?”

“Twenty three.”

“Man, that’s a long stretch.”

“It has been a long run.”

“What do you attribute the store’s survival to?”

“Going to the gym every day.”

That answer was the source of a good group chuckle, but apart from being a bit of an overstatement it isn’t entirely a joke. Truth to say I had decided that this week’s post was going to be on the topic of how to survive the pressures of the holiday season, and I had come to the conclusion that every bookstore owner must have one big everyday activity outside the store that helps us make it across the finish line. For me that is a swimming workout.

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The UMF HFC pool: a holiday season bff.

The holiday season is, of course, by far the most strenuous time of the year for booksellers. So far, at DDG, we are having our best December ever by a large margin. As of last week my eyes have been starting to close a little earlier in the afternoon every day regardless of my caffeine level. It might seem counter-intuitive to put in an hour of vigorous exercise every morning before going into the store, but I think it is actually more important than ever.

First of all it clears one’s thoughts and gives a real chance to think through what needs to be done at the store. Second, it “sets one up amazingly” as the saying is, so that one is in peak form for the period before exhaustion takes over in the afternoon. Third, it is tremendously good advertising for the store.  More than any other time of year, when people see me at the gym during December they always think about the store, ask how we are doing, and are reminded of the need to come down to the bookstore for holiday shopping. In the first hour of business in the morning I always see people roll in that I had just spoken with at the gym. Furthermore I take orders between sets in the pool, in the locker room and elsewhere. This last Saturday, for example I was on the stationary bike for a warmup when a local dentist marched over.

bostongirl“Do you have the new book by the author who wrote The Red Tent?”

“Oh, The Boston Girl,” by Anita Diamant, eh?”

“Yes! I heard  her on NPR. It sounded great.”

“I’m sure I do have copies in stock.”

“Can you hold one for me?”

“Well, there is still a mile and a half of water between now and when I get to the store. I might forget but I don’t think I will. I’ll give you a call to confirm that it’s on hold. Give me a shout if you don’t hear from me.”

“Awesome, I will.”

I did remember, and she came in and bought gifts for everyone on her list. Exercising through the holidays? It’s the best advertising and the best medicine there is!

 

Everyone Gets Punchy This Time of Year

Josie Leavitt -- December 16th, 2014

‘Tis the season for booksellers and customers to get a little loopy from the pace of the holiday season.  Here’s how you know the season is in full swing:

- We laugh more. This is a great defense mechanism and one that makes work a little more fun. Instead of panicking at the UPS man whose cart is so full with book boxes his tires are actually going flat, we just start laughing at the enormity of his delivery. We chuckle through receiving 20 massive boxes, trying to call all the customers who have gotten their special orders, shelving all the books and restocking the shelves that are now looking bare. Laughter helps in so many ways, even if it’s not totally appropriate and we’re just laughing because someone made a silly noise while eating a cookie.

- Book requests from customers get very specific this time of year and can be challenging. Someone came in yesterday and asked for a book “…about a cheetah who teaches an adult something special and doesn’t die at the end.” She had the good grace to chuckle a bit when asking this. I’m not sure if my face betrayed my total lack of ideas, or if she knew this was a tough request. (We never found a suitable cheetah book, but I did convince her to shift gears and get My Family and Other Animals  by Gerald Durrell.)

- This time of year booksellers are always hungry. Most booksellers tend to get to lunch far later than they should on a regular day, but during the holidays, when lunchtime is a busy time at the store, we push lunch back even more. Yesterday, Elizabeth and I didn’t eat lunch until just after 5 pm. This is not good. Going that long without food just means that you’re brain isn’t working as well, so requests of cheetah books seem unnecessarily difficult and amusing. Plus, my stomach was growling loud enough that customers heard it and told me to go eat!

- When there’s a lull, it can get silly. For some reason, I’ve been delighting in throwing balls of paper at unsuspecting staffers. I try to bounce one off someone’s head into the recycling. They’re so shocked they just stand there looking indignant, which just makes me laugh even more. No one has yet thrown paper at me, but I would welcome it.

- There is never enough coffee.

- I wouldn’t have it any other way. As hard as a this season is for retailers, it’s also fun. Sure, it’s exhausting and the level of detail is painstaking, but there is something really exciting about selling so many books and knowing that there are going to be some very happy people on Chanukah or Christmas opening books that are perfect for them.

Second Week of December Recap

Josie Leavitt -- December 15th, 2014

As we enter the last 10 days before the holiday, it’s time for my recap of the previous week.

- Sales continue to be great. We are ahead of last year, even with the snow (and school snow days) and are continuing the trend of folks spending a lot more per purchase than they did last year or even the year before. Yes, we have lost some customers to the e-book world, but the ones who are buying physical books are buying heaps of them. Customers are finding that they can get a lot of shopping done at the store whether it’s for books, toys, games or stocking stuffers. We are happily wrapping and giving out sugar plums by the pound.

- Who knew that Pioneer Girl  by Laura Ingalls Wilder would be the hot book of the season that is 9780984504176utterly unavailable? I’m sure the publisher, South Dakota Historical Society, was taken by surprise as well, judging by the late date of the reprints.- Shipping issues continue to plague us. One distributor seems to have at least one box (if not two) go missing with every delivery. Theses errant boxes do eventually show up, but often it’s after someone’s deadline for their special order. Customers are not as understanding about these shipping issues as they could be. Of course, this makes sense because they all have deadlines, too. Another shipper seems to get our primary warehouse deliveries to us on time, but ones from our secondary warehouse take up to a week longer to arrive, which is several days later than normal. So, Elizabeth has spent a lot of time on the phone trying to sort this out and get things reshipped.

- One of our staffers, who loves the craziness of holiday shopping, had to go to California for her ailing sister. Darrilyn’s last workday of the year was Saturday. Being down one person is hard enough, but to lose someone who absolutely thrives on the chaos that is the holidays is a tough blow for the store. She and I created a tiny competition among the rest of the staff for who could sell the most of their five favorite books. Her top book is Being Mortal and it’s currently beating my top book, Nuts to You, by a tiny margin. But with 10 days left to go, it’s anyone’s game. And we’re all selling Darrilyn’s choices with gusto.

- When one staffer goes down, the others step up. Short of cloning ourselves, there’s not much to be done except pick up extra shifts. Everyone has taken at least one of her shifts so we’re essentially covered, but it’s going to be a challenge this week until David comes back from college and helps save the day by working December 20th through 24th.

- Th first big snowstorm of the year took not one day but two to finally get out of town. The first hit caused us to close early on Wednesday because the roads were looking really bad. The second blast of the storm caused so much tree damage at my house that until all my neighbors helped clear the trees, the snowplow man couldn’t come. Staffers who live in Burlington were able to come in at the regular time. I wasn’t able to get there until after one. We were all just grateful that didn’t happen on the weekend.

- The only thing that I’d like to change about this season is the music. We are stuck on the same bad five CDs and I’m starting to lose my mind with Barbra Streisand’s version of Jingle Bells.

Elfing the Store: Making a Book Tree

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 12th, 2014

One of my favorite things to do after a busy day at the store is to lock up when everyone leaves and then get busy ‘elf’-ing the store. It’s fun to use those quiet hours to create or rearrange displays (or even whole sections of the store if I’m feeling really ambitious), tidy and straighten, making the store look festive and fresh. All of us at the store tackle different projects; booksellers PJ, Darrilyn, and Sandy often take on the windows and spiff up the front Flying Pig table. The other day, they set up staff pick books with add-on gifts: the cookbooks Prune and Twelve Recipes with little packet of page markers and recipe editor pads; The Day the Crayons Quit with a set of natural beeswax crayons; Skippyjon Jones Snow What with a little Skippyjon doll; Elizabeth Partridge’s John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth paired with a Beatles Yellow Submarine mug, and so on. It looks great and is already drawing customers’ notice. Their creativity inspired me to surprise them with a display of my own: a tree of books.

Last week, a photo of such a tree went viral on Facebook — at least among book lovers — and a friend texted me the picture and suggested we create this for the store.  Here it is:

book tree online

(I don’t have the photo source; if you know it, please alert me so I can credit properly.)

After work, I set about making a tree of our own. We have a cart of half-price hardcovers, so I pulled a bunch of those and arranged them by size and thickness. Starting with the biggest books, I built up, using smaller and smaller books as the tree grew. (It’s a little tree for our little store.) I had to cheat a little at the top, using mini books not from our cart to make the top-most layers. As I built up, I added battery-powered strings of lights that a friend had given us, and added little bows. The very top was formed by Maisy’s Christmas Tree, which had the advantage not only of being cute and a little sparkly, but being a solid board book that can stand up on its own.

Here’s how it came out:

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The tree without lights on.

Book Tree 2014 Lit

Little red lights all aglow.

Book Tree 2014 Red Lights

With the store lights out, atmospheric tree.

Maybe it’s a little lopsided, and maybe it isn’t very tall, but it was so much fun to make, and boy, does it look cute when you come into the store!

What shall I elf next? Got any bookish crafts for us to try?

 

A Giant Earmuff Launch

Kenny Brechner -- December 11th, 2014

Most of the time when you are driving, things go as expected with minor changes or surprises here or there: the house at the top of the hill has a for sale sign, a tree has fallen. Every now and then, however, something truly startling happens. The same is true of going through a lengthy frontlist catalog on Edelweiss.

I was going through the Simon and Schuster Winter 2015 books when the frontlist equivalent of a moose standing in the middle of the road came into view. I had the shock of seeing that something profoundly local to Farmington, Maine had become the subject of a new picture book coming out from one of my favorite non-fiction picture book author-illustrators, Meghan McCarthy.

(Photo courtesy of Ann Bryant:/Sun Journal)

(Photo courtesy of Ann Bryant:/Sun Journal)

Meghan’s previous works such as Pop: The Invention of Bubblegum, Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton, and Aliens Are Coming: The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast, have all been showstoppers. It was thus with equal parts surprise and pleasure that I noted the January 2015 publication of Earmuffs for Everyone: How Chester Greenwood became Known as The Inventor of the Earmuff.

Earmuffs for Everyone explores not only the life and inventions of Chester Greenwood, but also the way in which some inventions, whose origins are in fact shared among several inventors, sometimes become popularly attributed to only one of them. This attribution is often due to the workings of creative public relations which come to resonate in the popular imagination. Thomas Edison’s “invention” of electricity is a good example. Today the back story of how the attribution came to reside with Edison rather than with Nikola Tesla has become of increasing interest. This is true of earmuffs as well, and McCarthy’s charming book recounts how what started out as a patent, and the successful production of a new variation in earmuffs by the young Greenwood ultimately become Chester’s attribution as the sole inventor of the earmuff itself. That story is filled with Farmington history and lore, and is delightfully recounted by McCarthy.

Chester Greenwood Day, which falls on the first Saturday in December, is a state holiday in Maine and the biggest day of the year in Farmington. It features an annual parade, a Greenwood flag raising, and a host of other activities. S&S had been planning on launching the book on Chester Greenwood Day, and from that point on I began working with them, and with Meghan, to make it a success. There was a lot to do.

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(Courtesy of Bobbie Hanstein/The Daily Bulldog)

The Day started with the annual parade. It was snowing and throwing down some freezing rain but the town was undaunted. Meghan rode in the Chamber of Commerce Float.

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(Courtesy of Bobbie Hanstein/The Daily Bulldog)

Next came the flag-raising ceremony, which Meghan participated in along with Chester Greenwood himself, portrayed by Clyde Ross.

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After Chester gallantly offered a somewhat chilled Meghan a cup of hot chili, she dashed back to the bookstore for the book signing. We had a big crowd of around 70 people and sold 80 books.

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Each book was signed with a custom illustration of Chester Greenwood.

Our next  task was to have Meghan judge the Chester Greenwood Day Earmuff Coloring Contest. We had more than 300 entries! There were 31 winners, one Grand Prize, a signed copy of the book, and 30 other prize winners, who all received a special pair of ‘Earmuffs for Everyone’ earmuffs provided by Simon and Schuster.

The Grand Prize winner is determined!

Prize Winner Aby Lord holds up her entry and her earmuff prize!

The Grand Prize winner was the only entry to transform the earmuffs.

The Grand Prize winner was the only entry to transform the earmuffs.

As the judge said of Leigha Higgins' winning entry, "Sometimes it pays to ask!"

As the judge said of Leigha Higgins’ winning entry, “Sometimes it pays to ask!”

The Snowflake Project

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 9th, 2014

Snowflake Project

Every year before Thanksgiving, families start asking us when we will have our snowflakes up in the store. They aren’t asking about wintry decor; they want to know when they can start picking out presents for kids they don’t even know.

For 16 years now, The Flying Pig has been working with various area agencies — local food shelves, programs that support families, children and teens, and projects that connect incarcerated parents with their children through books. These agencies send us lists of the people they serve; no names, just “boy” or “girl” and an age. We cut out paper snowflakes, one for each person (most years, the snowflakes are for children, but sometimes, we are able to include books for the parents, too), and fill the store with them.

Then, from the weekend after Thanksgiving until mid-December, families flock into the bookstore to share their favorite books with families they may never have met. We have customers who have participated in the Snowflake Project for all 16 years. What we love most is the excitement and thoughtfulness of kids carefully picking out the most treasured possible gifts for other children. Often, kids will pick snowflakes for children a little younger than their own age; it’s not entirely clear if this is because, now that they are older, they are more confident about the very best book to choose for a younger child (i.e., they have a strong sense of which of their former favorites stands the test of time) or if they simply feel protective toward the littler cubs. Either way, there is nothing lovelier than a child taking a long time to pick the right book for an unknown friend.

This year, we have more than 100 snowflakes hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes, people would like to participate but either don’t have the time that day, or don’t feel they have the expertise to choose a book for a young person, so they will donate funds and ask us to choose the books. That’s fine by us, too. Every year, we are grateful to celebrate in this way the profound, enduring love people have for books and for their fellow travelers on this planet.

First Week of December Recap

Josie Leavitt -- December 8th, 2014

The holidays are solidly upon us. The bookstore is filled with customers and books, lots and lots of books. I’ve decided that every Monday through Christmas, I’ll do a little recap of the highlights of the previous week, good and bad.

- I was totally surprised the find that there were shipping delays of up to three days with two of our candycanelargest distributors this week. It felt a little early in the season to have to say to customers, “I’m so sorry your book isn’t here, we’ve had shipping issues with our warehouse.” Here’s the thing, customers don’t really care about our shipping issues. They have their own issues. Most folks who order books the first week of December have to ship out their books, so any delay for them feels huge and sets them back on their ability to send out their packages. This is why we give out sugar plums all month. Nothing says it’s all going to be okay more than yummy candy.

- All retailers crunch numbers this time of year and we’re no exception. Our days the past week have been up considerably from last year. Interestingly, the number of transactions are actually lower, but people are spending a lot more per transaction. This tells me they are finding and buying more.

- Our annual newsletter stills drives book sales better than almost anything. Folks have come in asking for it, and they’re returning to the store with their marked-up newsletter and piling up the books. Customers have come to trust the newsletter recommendations (it helps also that Elizabeth does such a wonderful job with the graphics that it’s visually appealing and just fabulous). The newsletter display case is still the best one-stop shopping we’ll have all through the end of the month.

- Customers are in a good mood. Some folks are coming in to just look and get a sense of what they want and they’re happy with the choices they’re finding. People are taking a lot of care with their purchases. One woman spent two hours in the store surrounded by books and Post-its trying to decide what to get for her very large family. We helped her amass the stacks and then let her be, checking only periodically to see how she was doing. Five hundred dollars later, she was done. We helped her to her car and couldn’t help but smile when she said she’s not even close to done shopping yet.

- The print book is far from dead. Many customers are deliberately eschewing online shopping and e-books in favor of actual books and talking with real people about them. Many Vermonters have embraced the Shop Local movement and this can only help all the brick and mortar stores.

Retailers, how was the first week of December for you?

Distract and Delay: How to Tame a Toddler

Josie Leavitt -- December 5th, 2014

There are lots of challenges for toddlers in a bookstore. The biggest one might be not being able to leave the store with the one, two, or three things that have caught the little one’s eye. Many things in a bookstore are at child height and that makes it easy to see shiny things to play with. The problem arises when it’s time to go home and that new beloved toy has to remain behind. We have several toys and two stuffed dragons that any child can play with while they’re here and usually it’s easy to explain the kids why they can’t take those home, “The dragon lives here, but you can visit anytime,” is a line that’s always worked well. Kids inherently seem to understand that creatures need to stay at home, wherever that home is.

The problem arises when a child, usually under two, starts yearning for something that they can’t have and they can’t really play with. We like to make the bookstore as fun as possible, so we have perfected the “distract and delay” technique. It’s easy to do. If the distraction works well, we don’t even usually need the delay part of the equation. Parents are all too happy to help with this game as it gives more time for shopping without tears and everyone has a better experience.

Yesterday, young Addie, no more than 18 months, came in with her mom. Things were going quite well until she discovered the bucket of bath squirter toys. Upon being told to put back the toy she had fallen in love (a blue tugboat) little Addie pretty much lost it. The tears were flowing and then she hit that high-pitched kid’s cry that hurts your ears and your heart. I was recycling packing paper, the kind that’s clean and recycled, when I had an idea. I went over to her and crumpled it, making as much noise as I could. I asked her if she’d like the paper to keep and take home. I showed her some things she could do with the paper: make noise, make a ball, create a super hero cape, etc. The tears slowed and a smile emerged. I gently gave her the paper and she crinkled the paper all the way to her car with a broad smile.

This sort of exchange is why independent bookstore are important. My co-workers covered what I was supposed to be doing, receiving, and gave me five uninterrupted minutes to placate the unhappy tot. The mom was thrilled. Addie was delighted, we were all smiling when they left the store, and we had averted a crisis. Exchanges like this create a bond between customers, no matter what age, and this kind of connection builds good will, which is always a good thing.

What’s Selling Out of the Gate

Kenny Brechner -- December 4th, 2014

The opening days of the holiday selling season are always a time for bookstore buyers to be paying the closest scrutiny of how our handicapping of frontlist titles is playing out on the floor. What high-profile titles are selling to expectation? What dark horses have appeared? We wonder these things anxiously, seeking to fend off the great peril of being caught short on hot titles.

sandwichsmallTwo of my store’s bestselling titles this season are in the same genre, books for five- to eight-year-old girls, which has made for an exciting two-horse contest here. Pre-race favorite The Princess in Black, with its humor, adventure, LeUyen Pham illustrations, playful subversiveness, and Shannon Hale, a name brand that stands for quality, has been selling extremely well. Running right alongside it, however, is dark horse contender Dory Fantasmagory. How can this be? Well, when you are incredibly funny and heartwarming, when you deftly render the power of shared imaginative play and family interplay, when you have immortal lines like “Give me that banana. I’m calling Mr. Nuggy,” when you are in fact as all-around ridiculously wonderful as Dory Fantasmagory, then you are going to sell like crazy for us.

Uni 10-11The Princess in Black isn’t the only book featuring a unicorn with an alternative lifestyle that is doing really well this year. Amy Krause Rosenthal, continuing her recent tradition of delivering great picture books, has produced Uni the Unicorn. The book has a simple dual storyline featuring a unicorn who staunchly refuses to believe that little girls aren’t real, and her little girl counterpart, who is equally unswayed by her non-unicorn-believing friends and family. Uni the Unicorn has not only been delighting its core audience, it overcame my core disbelief that I could stand behind a unicorn picture book.

Another surprise unicorn seller for us has been Phoebe and Her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle. This graphic novel, with its snarky unicorn, heroine with attitude, and sophisticated humor, has a really broad range of appeal from 10 to adult.

secretlifeofThere is always one book that I feel coming in might be a total flop or a great seller. This year that was The Secret Life of Squirrels. Nancy Rose’s book filled with actual photographs taken by her of a squirrel, Mr. Peanuts, as he engages with elaborate miniature sets she built and placed on her porch, was obviously odd, but would it be a curiosity or an impulse buy? It is an impulse buy. We have been selling it like crazy.

Finally, in the crowded world of super cute animal photography books, a la Unlikely Friendships, which make for good family gifts, there is a real standout this year: Harlow & Sage (& Indiana). This photograph-laden account, narrated by a weimaraner named Harlow, recounts his friendship with Sage, a miniature dachshund. After Sage’s death a dachshund puppy appears in the house. Can he have a new friend? The book is simply so cute that it takes a strenuous act of will NOT to buy it.

Love to hear what surprise sellers you are seeing…