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‘Our Friend Hedgehog’

Kenny Brechner -- May 21st, 2020

That Lauren Castillo’s Our Friend Hedgehog is evocative of childhood classic read-aloud stories is unmistakable. Why though? To answer that question we should start out by asking which classics it is evocative of. I wouldn’t be surprised if that varied reader to reader but to me the books it summoned were Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series, A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, Else Minarik’s Little Bear stories. All these books are marked by classic illustrations and when I pounced upon Our Friend Hedgehog a few pre-pandemic months ago it was because Lauren Castillo is a personal favorite illustrator and I was excited to see, in her first published written work, what sort of a story she had to tell. That the accompanying illustrations would be delightful was a given.

The characteristics Our Friend Hedgehog shares with the four books it evoked for me are a sublime blend of warmth and wonder, gentle adventure, kind humor, allayed misapprehension. discovery and friendship. The sense of possibility in a young reader is developing all the time of course, and it can also be curtailed by sad circumstances of environment. These classic books provide an exercise in world building which clothes childhood possibility in a living, magical garment. When the Snork Maiden tries to talk Moomintroll out of diving for breakfast dishes from the attic down to the kitchen in their submerged house Moominmama announces, “why shouldn’t he if he finds it thrilling?” That same sense of permissiveness and support for interest and adventure quietly illumines Our Friend Hedgehog.  It is conveyed through the interwoven actions of friendship and the natural world.

As with Emily from Little Bear and Christopher Robin from Pooh, Hedgehog and his animal companions make a human friend in Annika Mae Flores. The engaging and appealing Annika Mae provides a perfect guide for young readers to inhabit and explore this sunny world.

The comfort found in the timeless charm of Our Friend Hedgehog will be a happy discovery to many readers who are living through this most unsettled and uncertain of times.  For adults, sharing it with a child, it will be a welcome passage back to treasured inner landscapes of their own childhood,  the very agency of association enhancing the comforting effect of experiencing a new world so imbued with beloved aspects of the past. For children it will be just sheer delight, companionship, and wonder. Our Friend Hedgehog is a book that will still be there whenever you return to it.  It is of course a book to share. That’s why I’m sharing it with you.

The Flying Pig Games

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 19th, 2020

Imagine our delighted but bemused surprise when large boxes of Suzanne Collins’s The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes arrived at the bookstore last week from Scholastic. Sure, back in January, we’d planned a big hoopla around the fourth Hunger Games release and couldn’t wait to read it, but COVID-19 had knocked those plans—and even thoughts of the book itself—into the far outfield (or, more aptly, into a far and disused corner of the arena).

With scores of beautiful copies to sell and a very much shortened promo window on our end, there was nothing for it but to create a video. So on my day off, I recruited three people from my “pod” (the little group of friends and family I can hang out with in person these days, still socially distanced) to help me out. Here’s what we came up with:

There’s no way of knowing how many books we’ll sell, but given the excitement around the book (I’ve started it, and it’s REALLY REALLY great so far!), a well-placed roadside signboard, and our two hammy actors, we have high hopes. Let the Games begin!

When the Mail Makes You Cry Happy

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 28th, 2020

Last Tuesday morning’s postal delivery was possibly the best in the history of the Flying Pig. We’ve been working singly, one staffer at the store each day, and while it’s a hectic run, it’s also lonely without the collegiality of coworkers and the friendly faces of customers. It’s also a bit stressful tracking down loose ends, website peculiarities, shipping issues, etc. So to come in that morning, open the mailbox, and find these letters — well, it was winning the lottery of happy.

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Two Twos

Kenny Brechner -- April 16th, 2020

Today we’ll do two twos. Two things I’m pretty sure are true and two things we’re doing at DDG to work around the closure of our selling floor.

One true thing is that Allison Hill is the Winston Churchill of independent bookselling. It’s obvious that walking straight into the pandemic after taking over a giant job like being the new CEO of the American Booksellers Association would have overwhelmed most anyone. Allison is not overwhelmed. She is decisive, a great listener, and an authentic motivator who conveys both value and values to everyone she’s working with.

A second true thing is that as much as bookstores are in dire trouble and looking for help from our publishing partners, publishers are not having a rosy walk in the park themselves. They are in fact under great strain. Collateral damage to publishers would be a wonderful side benefit for Amazon, whose ultimate goal of replacing a diverse marketplace with a single Amazon market has found a boon companion in the pandemic. Financial assistance from publishers needs to be done as collaboratively as possible therefore. We need each other. They are partners, not lifeguards.

One thing we’re doing at the store is an idea I copied from Cover to Cover Books. For many of us, store windows are now our only display space and the idea of providing what our customers are seeing there on a web page is a terrific one. Here is our version.

A second issue is having a store full of great non-book items but no easy means behind closed doors to get them into the homes of our customers. Pictures of stock on social media are great but I also just built this.

Take care, everyone. Time to get back to working myself to death…

Publishers: Think Like a Kid

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 14th, 2020

When we heard the news that one of spring’s most highly anticipated books for kids wouldn’t be coming out until late summer, I’ll be honest: it felt like a gut punch—to kids.

All these children who had just learned they would be sheltering in place at home for weeks to come, whose worlds had shrunk practically to the size of their living rooms, were so in need of the kind of joy a new book by their favorite author brings.

I understand why a publisher would think it was a good idea to push back pub dates, and for adult books, I get it. But for children’s books, it’s different. Kids don’t care if a book tour happens three minutes or three months (or three years, pretty much) after a pub date, and I think spring sales would have been through the ROOF with parents desperate to entertain and buoy their kids. The proof is in the bookstores; those of us still operating and fulfilling orders are seeing Christmas-like sales.

Very possibly, these pushed-back release dates have to do with factors I don’t know, like questionable sourcing for the books or delays at the printers during these crazy times. But if they don’t, if it’s just a matter of author tours or marketing strategies, well, then, Publishers, I entreat you to think like a kid.

Books are friends for lonely children. Taking away a promised friend at the time it’s most needed seems a sideways strategy. Children are the most loyal, ardent fans, and they will hanker for that book no matter when you bring it out. They’ll buy it whenever it comes out, so why not now?

Children don’t understand a publisher’s reasoning for the delay. All they know is that a book they were so excited about, that was going to brighten their mood in quarantine, that they could chatter about over a video with a friend, has been suddenly taken away—like everything else this spring.

Stars and Stares

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 7th, 2020

Times of crisis test tempers, fortitude, and endurance, and reveal so much about our temperaments, attitudes, and resiliency. In addition to watching our leaders grapple with all the uncertainties, shortages, demands, and disaster this virus has wrought, we are witnessing ourselves and our neighbors in rawer states than we are used to, seeing all our strengths and weaknesses exposed in the face of our particular challenges. Out in public, on our necessary errands, we are balancing on thin edges of welcoming and distancing behaviors. Walking our dog, for example, we dart away from strangers on the sidewalk to keep six+ feet of distance, but flash a rueful smile and a quick wave as if to say, “I’m sorry I’m leaping away from you like you have the plague, but you might, and I might, and so there we are. (And please don’t pet my pup right now).”

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Reaching Readers Where They Are: At Home!

Meghan Dietsche Goel -- March 27th, 2020

Last Friday I talked a bit about BookPeople’s decision to close our doors to the public and embrace the switch to curbside delivery. I ended my post by noting that we were in the process of transitioning once again. With community spread of Covid-19 announced in Austin last week, we decided it was no longer safe to bring staff into the store either and took our business fully online. That sounds so clean and easy, but of course, what that means in real life is that as we worked to get our Bookshop affiliate site up for Saturday afternoon, our incredible customers were still sending in hundreds of orders (about which we can only say THANK YOU!).

https://twitter.com/BookPeople/status/1242189856761094144

As our marketing team worked to get our Bookshop page live, a tiny team of buyers and managers (small enough to fully socially distance) headed to the store to pick, pack, and ship out all the wonderful items that were being ordered in the meantime. Fully anticipating a shelter in place order coming down the pike, we scrambled to get all orders pulled from the shelves, packed, and shipped along with pre-paid books for upcoming events, this week’s new releases, and this month’s subscription boxes. We have never fulfilled anywhere near this much mail order business in so short a time. But somehow, a few hours before Austin shut down Tuesday night, we finished everything on the must-send list, got the water shut off, took out the trash, cleaned out the employee fridge, and gave (most) of the plants one last drink before locking up.

Hey, I need that!

And the thing is that we’re all tired. We’re tired from the work, from the worry, from the sheer disruption of it all. Today we’ve been working from home to pore over all our pending orders, our customer service emails, and all our tracking grids to catch what we missed and send it out via Ingram Direct to Home. I honestly don’t know what the indie book world would do without Bookshop and Ingram DTH providing this buffer of logistical support, inventory access, and fulfillment capacity. And it’s not just us. Indies everywhere are scrambling to figure out what all this means and what our next steps are and how we can keep business going as we serve our community—providing readers and families with resources and recommendations and access to great content as they adjust to this new normal too.

I don’t know what tomorrow will look like, let alone next week. But as we tackle each new challenge, each new pivot, each new day, this anxious, challenged, hopeful, determined bookseller hopes we might just find our way through. And until then, we’ll keep taking all the help we can get!

(My tried-and-true homeschooling recommendation of the week, by the way, is the Lawrence King Story Box story building cards. Keep fighting the good fight, fellow parents. We’re all in for a rough ride!)

From 6 Feet Away I’ve Never Felt Closer

Kenny Brechner -- March 26th, 2020

I’ve been wanting to post for days but to have a bookstore is to have a second persona and when that persona is threatened with extinction every ounce of productive energy is directed toward its survival. It didn’t help that anything I drafted in my mind to post about had become irrelevant within 24 hours. What I thought I’d do is just share the DDG state of the union.

We are still open for curbside, phone orders and online sales, and hanging in there with as much aplomb as being bone tired allows. Given that my four alarm to do list keeps growing and not shrinking it may be of interest to look at the stuff I’m actually making time to do other than processing orders.

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M*A*S*H Unit Bookselling

Cynthia Compton -- March 25th, 2020

We closed the doors of 4 Kids to the public a week ago due to the spread of Covid-19, and switched our bookstore customer service to curbside pickup and home delivery options (unless they ordered from our website, which was still mostly the two options above, as almost all of our customers choose the “pick up in store” option.) It has been a heady, frenetic seven days, with all staffers on deck, smart phones in hand, as they called, texted, and Face-timed customers on virtual shopping trips, handing “finished” shopping lists and stacks to the stalwart staffer at the register who was responsible for calling the customer on the phone for their credit card information. I spent much of the week in the family minivan, delivering packages to customer doorsteps and donuts to the staff, catering lunch at the store and creating “birthday boxes” for children in the community, our on-the-fly invention to celebrate kids whose special day was held in quarantine. Basically, we add balloons, glitter, noisemakers and little bags of swag to gift-wrapped bundles, and draw giant “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” greetings on the side of the bags in magic marker. It’s not much, but it’s something easy we can do for kids stuck at home after their party and classroom cupcakes are cancelled.

Yesterday, however, things changed, and the last 24 hours have been like a M*A*S*H episode right after Radar looks to the sky and says “Choppers, incoming.” Our Indiana governor announced a “hunker down” order, which translates from Hoosier to “Shelter-in-Place.” All non-essential businesses must close, and all non-essential workers must stay home. Clearly, it’s been a few years since our governor has been confined at home with multiple school-aged children all needing to learn subtraction and phonics, as I believe that if he had more current experience, bookstores would be classified at the same level of functional necessity as hardware stores and food delivery services. But here we are, and today we mobilized for our last day as a team in the shop, still taking phone and email and Facebook orders for delivery, and figuring out how to move forward.

My team is amazing, and I will take a moment of your time and this space to talk about what a joy it is to have staff members who are flexible under pressure, fun, and willing to pivot. I would posit that they are the very definition of frontline booksellers throughout our industry – smart, capable problem-solvers who can instantly transport themselves into the reading lives of any customer with enthusiasm. Of course, it’s a total luxury to still be able to pay them – we have managed to sell stuff this month, which is more than many of my colleagues can do, and that reality breaks my heart. We are all hurting as we watch stores lock their doors, and authors cancel tours as publishers delay launches and marketing. I spend my evenings looking for updates and social media posts from bookstores and authors, hoping that everyone is safe and well, and fueling sparks of business survival with personal orders and entreaties to friends and colleagues around the country to place orders online from their local bookstores.

Starting tomorrow, that frontline bookseller in our shop will be just little ole me. In keeping with our state order, we are officially closed, but will still accept phone, website, and social media orders. My team will all work from home fielding customer requests, text and email orders to me at the shop, and then I will pull, gift wrap and package. Afternoons will still be spent in the van, as we’re offering porch delivery (still allowed, according to the staffer on the governor’s business hotline this afternoon) and store receiving and returns will be done at night. Days will be long, but we’re hoping that by maintaining just a skeletal level of service, it will be easier to ramp back up when this crisis begins to pass. Most of all, we all need something to DO. Kids need books and puzzles and games. Parents need help with homeschooling and entertaining preschoolers while their siblings master algebra. Grandparents need contents for care packages to send, and those who care for their grandchildren full-time while parents work need all the support we can offer. As a society, we need stories to read and stories to tell, and words to explain our feelings. We need authors to celebrate and connect with, publishers with promises of launches and sequels, and readalouds to share. We need bookstores and book people more than ever, and we need to find ways to make sure that we all survive.

Let’s hear it for survival.

Be well, my friends. Survive. Take good care, and read good books.

Balm to the Soul

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 24th, 2020

Dear friends,

I don’t really want to write about bookstore operations this morning. The bare bones of it are that (1) we are down to one staffer per day to maximize health and safety, and (2) the store is nearly as busy with phone and email orders as Christmas, but without the festivity that comes with lively chats with customers and children in the store. Every bookseller I know, across the country, who is still operating to some degree is exhausted and overwhelmed with decision fatigue. That is the downer aspect of this. The upside? No shoplifting?

What I want to write about is how reading and writing are key to getting through this experience.

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