Those Funny Little Gifty Books

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 19th, 2019

One of our best-loved and most brilliant staffers snorts derisively every time one of those little square feel-good or funny hardcovers comes into the store featuring a fuzzy kitten or a leering raccoon on the cover. She cannot believe anyone in their right mind would buy these books, and in fact she placed a bet with me last summer when I brought in three copies of Cats on Catnip from Running Press. She was receiving a Hachette order, came upon them, and just held one up to me, eyebrow cocked as if to say, “This? Really?” I eyebrowed her right back and said, “We will sell all three in a week and a half.” The bet was born and I won.

Despite my victory, she was similarly skeptical when six copies of the little book below arrived at the store this September:
First of all, how could we resist a book filled with pocket pigs? And at least two of them are airborne, so it was a must for our store, The Flying Pig. Sure enough, they’ve all sold. (NB: It didn’t hurt that we bookmarked the page with the pocket pig, aloft, wearing wings.) Continue reading

Building a “Best of 2019” Book List

Cynthia Compton -- November 18th, 2019

It’s that time of year when “Best Books of 2019” lists are as rampant as holiday bazaars, and every retailer in the country, it seems, has added an endcap display of bestsellers. Yesterday, on my way to staff our booth at our local Junior League Holiday Mart, I stopped at the hardware store for a package of AA batteries and some packing tape for today’s tear-down. Right next to the register was a book rack — not manuals on home repair and the many miracle uses of caulk, but an honest-to-goodness NYT bestseller display.

As I waited in the checkout line, I entertained myself by imagining all the funny signage that a real bookstore staff would have used for this display: “Get Some Pliers with your Patterson!” “Buy 2 Tubs of Wall Patch, Get a Patchett!”  or “Child, extend your Reach(er) with a new Tape Measure!” Sadly, while the picture on the side of the beef jerky package was pretty amusing (who knew that jerky is a stocking stuffer?) there was nothing funny about finding that book selection in the place I buy sidewalk salt and that thingie for the back of the toilet tank that makes the water stop running. The gaps between copies indicated to me that this literary product placement was WORKING… folks buy books where they find them, when they need them, and when they are told what’s popular or good.

The use of “Best of” lists and “top 10 books” are guaranteed media winners at this time of year, and serve as click bait on every social medial platform. Customers looking for easy ideas in book purchasing rely on these lists as shopping guides, and while they might not discern between blatant marketing pitches and carefully considered lists created by literary review publications, there is no questioning the power of a short, exact list of “this is what to buy” during the season of long gift lists and short available shopping time. Many stores, mine included, develop “top 10” lists, or “staff picks of 2019” and publicize these lists to their own customers, and also to every media outlet that can be convinced to pay attention, in the hopes that this is the list that customers will print and carry into our stores for their holiday gift buying.

Some years ago, we developed a three-list program in our store for the 4th quarter, and it has become a staple of our holiday buying and marketing. As a children’s store, we don’t have the luxury of just one reading level to market toward — so we develop three “staff favorite” lists: one for picture books, one for middle grade titles, and one for young adult books. Truthfully, we also create a board book “top 10,” but that is more for store display purposes than publication. We have found, over the years, that these staff lists are expected by our customers, circulated through our own social media and used as shopping lists by parents and grandparents in our community (yes, I’m sure that Amazon makes some money on my picks), but they are also annual fodder for local media outlets looking for easy articles and interview topics — any of my staff can perch on a stool, look at the camera,  and espouse the virtues of this year’s Top 10 picks… and most of my crew are a lot funnier and more photogenic than me.

We begin compiling our three lists in August each year. Someone (currently Emilie, because she’s the queen of Google Docs) starts the list, and everyone on staff is invited to add their favorite books of the year to each category. We know, of course, that the first draft will be much too long, but try to get a few nominations from everyone on our team (because everyone will be handselling these, and I want the list to be a genuine reflection of our entire staff’s taste). The list grows through September, and then someone (usually Hannah, because she was vaccinated at birth with a strong dose of practicality) labels the titles by genre, noting how many are historical fiction, what the balance between male/female/non binary gender protagonists looks like, and checking to see if we have one or two paperbacks as picks in each category. I readily admit the final book lists are “adjusted” for balance, and even tell customers this behind-the-scenes information when I am handselling. “I know that your daughter loves fantasy, and honestly, all three of these were on our original Top Ten list…. but in the interest of balance, these two titles were set aside. Because, you know, we had to keep all those realistic fiction people happy. But here are the best three, and don’t just take my word for it, ask anyone on staff, because we almost came to blows over which one of these made the final cut.”

Staffer Lori adds “mom credibilty” as she tests titles with her own young children as readalouds, and student staff members Haley and Caroline have strong opinions about book cover aesthetics, as well as what their peers are reading. Typically, I get two unquestioned picks on each list as “benevolent bookshop dictator,” but because my own reading is so influenced by the most dog-eared ARCs on the stockroom shelves, I think the staff may be getting the upper hand in the selection process anyway.

I love the process of developing these lists, because each staff member is allowed to add titles, and I’m always surprised about the books they feel strongly about. I am also always gratified by how their handselling numbers follow those recommendations, and how customers will ask for a particular bookseller’s choices, since “they did such a good job for my kids last year.”

Once October 1st arrives, we get serious about winnowing the lists to 10 titles each, for by Halloween, I want all those cases of books in the stock room. Knowing what our top titles will be adds value to our fall buying, for we can order case quantities without concern, and the extra margin this allows lets us play fast and loose with last-minute distributor special orders and experiments (“Cynthia… we need some picture books with weasels on the covers for a display I want to do on election week… can I just order these titles, even though they might be short discount?”).

On or about the first of November, we add the final lists to the back of our printed monthly activity and event calendars, and by Thanksgiving weekend, all three displays are set up in the store. Those tall stacks of 10 titles in each section are a godsend to distracted customers on a gift-buying spree and the busy booksellers who are helping them. It’s so easy to say “well, let’s start with our staff favorites, shall we, and then I’ll grab a few other titles for you to consider” when waiting on four customers simultaneously on the floor. Some of our regular customers just head in and start stacking books from those displays, for they know that eventually, they will pick up each and every title for their kids. And that is the kind of holiday handselling that makes my Top 10 list of favorite things — may we wrap these for you?


Recipe for a Happy Store

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 14th, 2019

The delightful Kevan Atteberry drew this for us several years ago. We just keep updating the cake!

In a week and a half, on November 23rd—the very day that children’s book legends Susan Cooper and Steven Kellogg are scheduled to grace the store for an author event, in fact—the Flying Pig will turn 23 years old.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been around that long, although many betraying silver strands in my brown hair say otherwise. My then-partner Josie Leavitt and I were just 32 years old on that chilly but exciting opening day, and we had only been in Vermont for five months. The bookstore was an impulse, a potential hobby (ha!) we would run while pursuing our creative writing.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, here we are, a few miles north of where we started and still part of a vibrant, connected community. We’ve had the great good fortune of being part of our customers’ lives, seeing children grow up and bring in children of their own, seeing friends and neighbors through difficult times in their lives, and sometimes saying goodbye, always too soon. It’s an honor to be a longtime staple in a community. People trust us with confidences and questions, worries and wonders, deep sorrows and great joys. Bookstores are  special places, and while bookselling is a questionable business (financially speaking), it is a wonderful vocation.

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Sticking with Friends for Thanksgiving

Cynthia Compton -- November 13th, 2019

“We’re going to read some Thanksgiving stories today, my friends. Do you know what we do on Thanksgiving?

“Eat turkey.”

“Have some Grandmas.”

“We have a Grandma, too. She brings presents and she doesn’t like our dog.”

“OUR GRANDMA IS DEAD.”  “Oh, honey. I’m sorry. Do you think about her sometimes? “No, she’s dead. We went to the saddery and everything.” “The cemetery? That’s a nice place to go remember people.” “And then we had ice cream and I like ice cream but mostly cake.”

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Mother Bruce Rocks Pajama Night!

Kenny Brechner -- November 12th, 2019

I have known since I read his first adventure in 2015 that Pajama Night needed Mother Bruce. It must be. It was destined to be. And in 2019 it was!

Mallett School’s Prime Time Reading, aka Pajama Night, is still, for 13 years running now, my favorite event of the year. How could it not be? After all, it has some of the best ingredients an event could have: a shared love of reading, widespread community support and partnerships, great authors, a great crowd, amazing decorations, and pajamas.

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The Great Book Title Game Show

Cynthia Compton -- November 11th, 2019

“My son is in 8th grade, and he needs to read that one book. CAUTIOUS AFTER DARK? I think that’s it. But you can check your computer. He’s in Mr. Teeter’s Gifted and Talented English class. Do you have it in paperback?”

“Hmmmmm…. I’m not sure what the classroom reading assignments are in every school right now, but maybe I can help. Would you like to text your son quickly to check, and I’ll look up that title….  ”

As I returned to the register to type, my staffer quietly walked over to the young adult section, slid a copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon from the shelf and placed it next to me on the counter. (“It’s OK,” she murmured. “We had another one from that class yesterday, and they wanted the “Dog Man at Night.” It took us a minute to figure out that 8th graders were not assigned Dav Pilkey graphics.”)\

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Snakes in the Stock Room

Cynthia Compton -- November 8th, 2019

Well, that title got your attention, didn’t it? Me, too. That imaginary half-asleep visual made me sit suddenly upright in bed one night this week, during those predawn hours when shopkeepers toss and turn, as the myriad of details and responsibilities and events and tasks mount in the 4th quarter, and each day we worry and wonder if we’re doing all the right things. And so our incredibly stretched brains work a little overtime, and process our anxiety through a series of strange dreams. This week, I dreamed that there were a family of snakes living behind and in the huge stacks of boxes in our storage room, peeking their little heads out unexpectedly when I moved around the baby toys, looking for that stack of Who Was? paperback overstock.

Of course, my brain was telling me that I’m anxious about all those boxes of merchandise, and perhaps advising a slowdown on the roller coaster of ordering new stock. Sadly, though, this dream will be followed by another in a few days, in which I step into our stock room only to fall into a giant abyss, falling down, down, down like Alice, with no White Rabbit to save me. That’s the dream of “you don’t have enough stuff!” and the fear of empty shelves, big title shortages, and the customer who remarks to her friend that they should “just head to Target, because this store is too picked over.”

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Fact Checking the Octopus

Kenny Brechner -- November 7th, 2019

Last week Mervyn, DDG’s Octopus oracle, delivered his predictions as to which titles would sell strongly during Downtown Farmington’s Early Bird sale. It is time now for us to do some fact checking.

The Early Bird started out with the usual spectacle of long, pre-dawn lines outside the downtown’s three story anchor store, Reny’s, whose well earned slogan is “Maine’s Shopping Adventure.” The Early Bird Sale involves all the downtown stores offering specials from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Reny’s offers time-sensitive specials. This means deeper discounts between 6:00-7:00, creating a bit of a stampede when the opening bells go off, as you can see in the photo.

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Letting Kids Be Kids: A ‘Wrecking Ball’ Event for the Ages

Meghan Dietsche Goel -- November 6th, 2019

A massive signing operation!

At the beginning of Tuesday night’s Wrecking Ball release event, Jeff Kinney said that after 14 years of straightforward tours, he wanted to mix it up—and that’s exactly what he did. The show pulled out all the stops and more—raising the bar for interactive, kid-oriented fun that rewards longtime super-fans and newcomers alike. With a set that took a full afternoon to set up, a wheel of activities to drive the action, and plenty of goofy, unpretentious fun, the 2200 people in the audience were in for a rollicking ride. Continue reading

A New Kind of New-Baby Book

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 5th, 2019

It looks like a new-baby book. And it IS a new-baby book, but it’s also so much more. Kyle Lukoff’s picture book, When Aidan Became a Brother (fabulously illustrated by Kaylani Juanita and published by Lee & Low), takes on—in the most clear, lovely, and warm way—the desire for families to unlearn gender assumptions, especially when a new baby arrives.

The story begins with Aidan, who, when he was born, was assumed to be a girl. His room was decorated the way girls often liked their rooms decorated; his clothes were the kinds of clothes many girls liked wearing. But Aidan was a boy, and after realizing it, Aidan and his parents set about to fix the parts of Aidan’s life that didn’t work anymore. Boom! Not a big deal, just a process. The simplicity and caring of this opening slays me; it’s like reading the first lesbian YA novel that didn’t end in tragedy. You mean, gender coming-out, too, can be a joyful and textured experience for a kid? Hooray!! Continue reading