Today’s post involves two instances of sharing something
with a bookseller.
When talking about DDG’s store mission, one phrase that always comes up is sharing a love of reading with our customers and our community. Here’s an example of why that phrase is the coin of the realm here. I was chatting with a customer named Ellen recently about favorite books we had read and re-read as children. I mentioned that While Mrs. Coverlet Was Away, by Mary Nash was a book that I had never tired of disappearing into, that it still makes me happy just to picture it in my mind’s eye. I shared some of my deep Mrs. Coverlet thoughts with her, how much I loved The Toad and what a great villain Miss Eva Penalty was. I also shared how I had never been able to settle whether book one, While Mrs. Coverlet Was Away, or Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians, book two, was my favorite. In my heart, I explained, I knew that book one was a better book, but book two was maybe a little bit more fun as it had more Toad and Miss Eva. Ellen declared that she empathized with this sort of titanic intellectual exercise.
Ahh, February. The season of foil wrapped chocolates, large displays of “blind date with a book” made of brown-paper-packaged titles with teasing little labels, sidewalk salt crunching underfoot on the dusty footprint-filled tile floors of the shop and burnout. Bookseller burnout – that bone-level exhaustion, lack of motivation, tired-hamster-on-a-wheel feeling that hits so very hard in the bleak months of the 1st quarter. If we were lucky, we attended Winter Institute in Baltimore, filled our notebooks with great ideas and our pockets with business cards, flew home exhausted and then the avalanche of ennui tumbled onto our desks. If this wasn’t a year for a conference or even a midwinter gift show, we slogged through the slush of January, shoveling our sidewalks and doorsteps, putting up paper snowflakes in the windows to replace the holiday lights, and waited for customers too few and far in-between. Surely, there is no year as long as the 31 days of January in retail, except that sneaky month of February, which is an era worthy of its own class of dinosaurs.
Bookstore days happen in shards of activity. A 10-minute segment of our morning might include:
helping a customer find books for her seven-year-old nephew who is suddenly obsessed with rock collecting,
calling the distributor to see why a title we ordered a week ago still hasn’t arrived,
ringing up a sale,
wrapping a birthday gift, and
looking up book three in a series a youngster can only remember has “magic” in the title.
On a good day, retail is best suited for people comfortable holding two or three different threads in mind at any given moment. Add to that unexpected weather events, and it’s a whirlwind of crazy. (Scroll to the end for happy puppy-in-snow video.)
I have a small shopkeeper confession: when I visit other bookstores, I love meeting new bookselling colleagues, checking out interesting local sidelines and greeting store pets, but mostly, I’m there to read the shelf talkers. Those charmingly bookish handwritten cards, sometimes covered in fancy plastic protectors, sometimes laminated, and often just taped to the edge of the bookshelf are like little peeks into the soul of a store. In some stores they are all written on white card stock, and I marvel at the incredibly neat printing that fits all those words onto that little space. Other booksellers use a color coded system, with each staff member’s blurbs written on their own signature colored paper, so that customers can skip across sections looking for “their” staffer’s picks. Flurries of one color in Romance or Science Fiction give clues to that staff member’s personal favorite genre, and looking at the clusters of colors is like a Venn diagram of the reading preferences of the store team. Even fancier are the stores with custom printed shelf talkers, each bearing a photo of the staffer who wrote the review – in my store, that would be WAAAAY too many pictures of yours truly, but I love the idea, and feel that approach adds a lot of credibility to this “hands free” handselling technique.
Writing this blog can generate some strange thought processes. The truth is that a bookseller’s brain is kind of a big swirl in which wildly disparate, nothing-alike books and stories and sentences bump up against each other continuously, like mismatched socks in a washing machine (yes, I was just reading A Sock Storyby CK Smouha to my 5-year-old tonight). So it’s hard to say what exactly will be top of mind when Thursday comes around. Out of the maelstrom, you can find yourself wondering unexpected things, such as: is physically putting animals to rest a new theme in children’s books? I mean, no, it’s obviously not a “trend.” Sloths and llamas and unicorns can breathe easily. But this week I found myself thinking about two new books that deal with mortality on a very practical level, albeit with different slants and for different audiences.
On a day of questions, two stood out. Here is the first.
“As you are going along writing your book, how do you stay true to your vision for it?” That was the question a high school student asked one of my favorite YA authors, Maria Padian, yesterday during a school visit. This was not only an excellent question, but one Maria had never been asked before by a student. “I lock in on my characters,” she replied. “Plot follows character and staying true to them keeps the story in line. I always ask myself both what my characters want and what they need. That is a central tension for me and my books are always a journey between those two points.”
Our dear publisher partners are filling our stockroom with lots of shiny padded envelopes, artistically printed boxes, and expensive specialized mailers this month, all in hopes of getting our attention about new book releases this spring. My postal delivery person is cranky, because most of those items don’t fit in the mailbox, and so she has to pull around to the front of the store, leave her vehicle, and carry them inside the store. I was sitting at my desk today with a bulldog at my feet, sorting the mail that accumulated while I was at a trade show last week (see Toy Trends from Spielwarenmesse), and the number of packages (and their varying usefulness) is just remarkable.
I’m headed home now from the Nuremberg Toy Fair (http://www.spielwarenmesse.de) with an iPhone full of pictures, a suitcase full of catalogs, and my heart full of German hospitality. While toy fairs, trade shows, and gift marts are a rather regular (never ho-hum, but certainly not unusual) part of my schedule as a buyer for the shop, this event is the high water mark in inspiration. Not only is this event larger than anything here in the U.S. (A Postcard from Nuremberg) but it is so beautifully executed at all levels that it is simply hard to imitate. Booths large and small are carefully merchandised, and everywhere it is evident that not only are toys big business, but the design and manufacture of items for children holds a distinct and important set of obligations for quality and care. Languages, distribution channels, and pricing strategies may be different, but the understanding of the value of play and its importance to healthy human development is a value shared as easily as pretzels and good German beer.
Over the holidays I found myself helping a number of customers find books for those voracious younger readers who can be so tricky to keep supplied in books. I have one of those insatiable second graders and even as a children’s book specialist it can be a challenge. These readers want content, and they can handle longer stories, but they’re still young. They’re not ready for the emotional weight or thrilling suspense of many middle grade stories intended for slightly older kids. Plus, every reader has their own quirks—especially at this age—so there’s not exactly a one-size-fits-all solution. My reader rarely peeks out from behind the pages of his latest book, it seems, and has book piles started in every room. That being said, he’s only seven. He’s still turned off by dense type (“looks boring”) or the first two pages don’t hook him quickly enough (“is boring”) or for some reason the book drags in the middle (“got boring”).
Guten tag from Germany, where this week I am attending Spielwarenmesse, the world’s largest toy fair. The enormous footprint of this show is hard to describe, so I will begin with the numbers, which while seem tangible and solid, in no way capture the vastness of this event. Over 67,000 attendees representing 132 countries are registered as I write this, and I am certain that the final numbers will increase. There are over 2800 exhibitors, housed in 12 separate convention halls, representing companies from over 68 countries, and showcasing over 1 million products. 120,000 of these products are NEW – and will be seen by buyers from around the globe. The entire city of Nuremberg seems filled with toy people, and this event is so large that public transportation, including an excellent integrated municipal train, tram and bus system, is free for all badge holders during the show. (New York City, are you listening?)