Author Archives: Josie Leavitt

A Cautionary Morning

Josie Leavitt -- April 21st, 2014

I have written before of my relationship with my local coffee shop, Villiage Wine and Coffee. I am there every day that I work, and most days that I’m not at the store. They start making my drink before I reach the counter; they draw a picture on my cup daily, they provide breakfast now and stock the oatmeal that has all the berries because it’s all I eat, etc. They are closed for the week to refinish their floors and I am bereft.

They are only closed until Friday, when they’ll reopen with a shiny new floor. But the lack of them in my week has gotten me thinking about how I’ve come to need them. Yes, I love coffee, but it’s so much more than that. Kevin’s, as we all call it, is where I go to see friends and get hugs. I can get caught up on news in the village by going there and I never know who will be there that I know and enjoy. Kevin and I talk about the plight of small businesses in this world of people getting everything online cheaper but at a steeper personal cost.

Again, I am reminded of the importance of shopping at the places you want to stay open. In our small village with our collection of a dozen or shops, there is a deep reliance on our core customers. We feel the lack of each one when they move, or when they get an e-reader and stop buying books. Yes, I know they can buy e-books from us, but most prefer to go to Amazon or iTunes. I guess this week I’m getting a preview of what would happen if the coffee shop ever closed. And I do not like my world without it.

I had an idea for the village stores to make a point about how much they are needed. I wondered what would happen if we all closed for one day, or even half a day. And rather than being open we would explain to customers the importance of them choosing us over online shopping. I wanted the total dramatic effect of shuttered stores for the day with OUT OF BUSINESS signs in the windows.  I wanted people to see just what it would feel like if we all closed. I know people have the best intentions about where they spend their money. But it’s easy to get caught up in the ease of online shopping and forget that every dollar spent online is a dollar that your local store needs. Not only does the local store need it, but more of that dollar stays in your town. I envision a day where everyone gets it and realizes that where you spend every retail actually really does matter.

For now, I will try to remember to make extra coffee at home to bring to work and count the days until Friday.

Are We Still Talking About This?

Josie Leavitt -- April 17th, 2014

Earlier this month, there was an blog post on the New York Times site about the negative effect that e-books can have on young readers’ (not fluent middle grade or older readers, but emerging readers) ability to understand what they’re reading. Really? This is news? Am I the only who is not shocked to hear this?

Take a four-year-old and give him an e-book and watch what happens. He “reads” it like a game, with buttons to press, new noises to make, etc. While he might be enjoying himself, he’s not reading, he’s playing — and these are two distinctly different and very important activities. Learning how to read requires a bit of hard work and concentration. “It seems that the very ‘richness’ of the multimedia environment that e-books provide — heralded as their advantage over printed books — may overwhelm children’s limited working memory, leading them to lose the thread of the narrative or to process the meaning of the story less deeply,” says Anne Murphy Paul from the MotherLode blog in the Times. Kids are having time focusing on all the bells and whistles but are missing the story. Of course they are. They’re kids.

Take that same boy, and this is not a scientifically proven thing, just 18 years of selling books to children, and give him the same book as a physical book and he will be engaged. He will try to predict, he will point out things he knows, and those things won’t wiggle or squeak when he touches them. He will make up his own noises for them. Maybe he’ll just run his little finger over the drawing to see if it feels like something. Maybe he’ll let his imagination wander and wonder. He will get ready to turn the page when he feels like it. The paper will have a texture and a smell. And if he grows up to be a reader, he will surreptitiously sniff every book he buys for the rest of his life.

Reading as a tactile event. How the pages turn is important, especially with picture books. Learning the right way to turn the page is a huge skill for young readers. I used to love turning the pages when my mom would read to me. Almost all books feel different from one another. As a reader, you develop a relationship with the book. How does it feel when you’re reading it? Are the pages shiny, sometimes too shiny, and you have to angle it a different way from the light. This is important for little minds to grasp. There is so much subtlety with reading a book that is lost with an e-reader.

So, give the kids back their books and let them learn to love to reading.

Getting Books to Kids for Free

Josie Leavitt -- April 15th, 2014

Kids and books should always go together, but sometimes there are financial issues that prevent this. Last week I got to see a great program that worked to remedy this. Literacy Night at the Lothrop School strived to get every student a book.

lost chidlrenLast week, Emily Raabe, debut novelist of the recently published Lost Children of the Far Islands, and I traveled down to Pittsford, Vermont to the Lothrop School for their annual literacy night. Emily was our first-ever employee 17 years ago. It’s a real thrill to be able to sell her book! There is a lovely symmetry to that which delights me. Emily’s sister, Sara (also a former Flying Pig staffer), just happens to be the principal of the school. Their literacy night includes kids in jammies (see this post for how literacy night worked in Maine with Elizabeth Bluemle) and children having different classrooms to hear different stories, then coming back together as a group for an author reading.

book table morebooksOf course the kids were adorable, and yes, there was much discussion about books and stories. But what made this event stand out were the free books for the kids. I walked in the gym and there were four tables of books arranged by ages from first grade right through fifth. As kids streamed into the gym they circled the tables and eyed the books they knew they couldn’t touch until after the presentation. The kids at this school are among Vermont’s rural poor with almost half of them qualifying for free lunches. Pittsford is a town that reflects the changing face of Vermont with a mix of farming kids and kids whose families have been caught up in heroin and meth addictions.

This was Emily’s first event for her book and she did really well. The kids seemed to have a hard time settling down and were a little chatty throughout her reading. While they may have been talking, they were paying good attention and asked many questions about the book and being a writer. One child asked, after hearing how many drafts Emily wrote, “Why don’t you have gray hair?” Emily deftly handled this one. She was also extremely kind when kids misheard her asking if they knew what a selkie myth was and hands shot up and a boy said, “I know what a selfie is: it’s when you take your picture with a phone.”

Kids bought Emily’s book and while they were waiting to get them personalized, the book tables were opened. Sara explained, “We’re going for controlled chaos.” Children streamed to the appropriate tables and carefully choose one book each that had been scoped out before. Every student left with a book. And I was left with a very happy feeling to be part of such of a special evening.

Successful School Visits

Josie Leavitt -- April 14th, 2014

School visits, if done well, can be win-win situations for the school, the author and the sponsoring bookstore. Bringing authors into a school is a gift for students, and often one that stays with young people for the rest of their lives. Often, if school visits are part of an author’s tour and that author is already going to the bookstore, the visit will be free. This is a huge boon to schools. The best school visit usually require at least one school staffer, often the librarian, to help organize and cheerlead the event. Below is a list of tips to make them as successful as possible.

- If a school, even the one that is most local to the bookstore, doesn’t actually order books from the bookstore, they are not likely to get offered visiting authors. This is definitely a case of helping the school that supports the store.

- Someone at the school must actually be excited about the visiting author. If there is tentativeness on the school’s part there is the potential for a bad visit. It’s totally okay to say no. The flip side of this works for stores, too.

- In a perfect world there would plenty of time to plan and perhaps do an author study and get the kids excited about meeting the author. We all know this is not a perfect world. But even with limited notice there are ways to get kids excited for author visits by reading the first few chapters of a book to the class in advance of the visit. It doesn’t take much to get kids intrigued by authors.

- Order forms must be easy and given to the school in a timely way. We offer our standard school discount to all books purchased for an author event. All order forms must be turned back to the bookstore at least a week prior to the event. I’m always surprised at what books the kids want and it’s often not the one the author is touring in support of; it’s usually the one you never expect and the one that’s hard to get. Allowing enough time to get the books in is vital.

- Bookstores must be really organized about the book orders and how the kids want them signed. I usually let Elizabeth do this for us. She’s meticulous and her system really works. Each child’s book(s) is rung up, the receipt stapled to the form and then the book is wrapped in the form. Then the books are organized by classroom and brought to the school for the author to sign.

- Authors need to make sure their computer/flashdrive/Power Point, etc works. Nothing is more frustrating than needing a Mac and only having PC things. I know it’s more to lug around, but if you bring your laptop from home, then you’ll know everything will likely work.

- Don’t schedule every minute of the day for the author. I know it’s a case of wanting to get the most out of the visit and getting as many kids to see the author as possible, but this is hard work and authors need time to eat, go to the bathroom and just breathe. Allowing breaks during the day just makes for better presentations throughout the day.

- Last tip: thank the author with something that’s easy to carry on a plane. Puppets and dioramas (I am not making this up) are lovely, but are really hard to travel with.


Totes to Texas

Josie Leavitt -- April 8th, 2014

I never knew how many people collected flying pigs until we opened the store in 1996. Collectors come in varied ages, with a slight tip towards women, but a surprising number of men also collect all manner of flying pigs. We usually have people eyeing our four shelves of flying pigs that have been given to us throughout the years. They look so disappointed when I tell them they’re not for sale.

Last week we got an email from someone inquiring about any flying pig collectibles. I wrote back andbigpuppet said we had finger puppets and our own Flying Pig tote bags and I could easily send both to her. She called later that day. Becky, was calling from Austin, Texas. We don’t have many customers – okay, any – customers from Texas, so this was a surprise. She has a collection of over 200 flying pigs, she said she wanted the tote bag. I asked, “Not the finger puppet as well?” To which to she said, like a true collector, “Is it the small one from Folkmanis with the magnetic nose?” Well, yes it is. Clearly, she already had this one. If you don’t know these puppets, they are wonderful. And the magnetic noses mean they can stick to a lot of things, including each other, which is just adorable. I always know I’m driving too fast when my paired piglets fly off my rearview mirror.

Becky happily asked for a tote bag. Which I popped in an envelope and mailed off. But first, I had to ask her how she found us. I thought she had done an internet search for flying pig things, but actually not. She had gotten a poem in her email that somehow led her to Kate Messner’s website. Kate, of course, is a very talented writer of many books for children, and a great customer of the Flying Pig, who links to our store on her website. Once that link was made, Becky contacted us for memorabilia. So, in the ever increasing connectedness of the internet, another flying pig found a home.

Pretty nifty.




Books That Make You Sob

Josie Leavitt -- April 7th, 2014

As booksellers, we read a lot of books. Hundreds a year in all likelihood and there are books that stay with us for their humor and their characters. Some books combine all the great things of a Box of Tissuesmemorable story coupled with deep sadness. Not the kind of sadness that is fleeting, but the kind that flat-out makes you sob. I am the first to admit that I weep easily and often if I’m moved, but there are books that just crush me. There is nothing wrong with crying with books because the emotions are real. I refuse to read books where animals die because that simply slays me.(why people dying isn’t the same is worth looking at, but that’s a blog post for another day).

It’s funny – as a kid I don’t really remember crying at books or stories. When I was sixth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Groupe, read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory and she started sobbing halfway through and never recovered. I cried more at her sadness than what was happening in the story. Teachers weren’t supposed to cry.

Books six and seven of the Harry Potter series had me crying so hard, a friend came outside to the deck where I was reading to offer solace, tissues and plea to not reveal the ending. But let’s face it, if you were a Harry Potter fan, how could you not shed a tear or two, or hundreds at the deaths of Dumbledore and Fred Weasley. And Dobby’s brave sacrifice just about killed me. When I tear up talking about these things with kids they think I’m a little crazy. This brings up the point that the sobbing that adults do at kids’ books often makes up for the tears the kids don’t shed. It’s always struck me as funny that there’s not a grown-up around who can’t stem the tears when reading Charlotte’s Web and yet I’ve not met a kid who has cried at that book. Perhaps it’s more a sense of the sentimental that children do not yet posses, but it’s always struck me as funny.

The Fault in Our Stars found me crying so hard at the ending that my dog, Ink, became so alarmed he jumped on my chest and started to lick at my face. This served two purposes. His jumping up was funny enough that it got me to stop crying for at least a minute while I explained to Elizabeth why I was practically convulsed with tears, and his insistence on licking my face grossed me out enough that I sat up and pulled myself together.

thiefAnd lastly, the book has left many adults stunned: The Book Thief.  I found myself crying throughout that book but devastated at the end, and not just from sadness but from the beauty of the ending. I’ve had many customers tell me that this was the book they read in public and regretted it. When I sell this book and other books that are surprisingly sad I always warn folks not read them in public, or at least have tissues handy and be prepared to have kindly strangers ask if they’re okay.

What are some of the saddest books you’ve read?


To Host or Not to Host?

Josie Leavitt -- April 3rd, 2014

We were recently approached by an author wanting to do an event with us for his Vermont history book. Local authors are lovely and they should be supported, but how to do to that when their book is published by Amazon? The book was published by CreateSpace, which is Amazon’s independent publishing arm. This was the first time I’ve been speechless at the store. I punted bydragon

The more I thought about this the angrier I got. I know the author wasn’t thinking about the larger picture. He was understandably proud of his book and wanted to set up as many events as possible. I just couldn’t say yes right away. I left word with Elizabeth about it and she wondered if we could get the books on consignment from the author. This at least saves us from ordering directly from Amazon. Then I posted on the NECBA listserv to get advice from other booksellers.

Elizabeth’s point is an excellent one and one that was echoed by other booksellers. Getting the books directly from a local author is probably the best thing to do. Several colleagues responded privately that it was galling to be asked by authors to provide the one thing Amazon cannot: a connection with real people. Authors smartly know that events are a great way to reach people. And while Amazon is great at suggesting other titles you might like, they can’t compete with a one-on-one connection borne out of people being in the same room talking about books.

I am still struggling with this. I know Amazon doesn’t really care about my little store, but increasingly, I’m forced to try and compete with them on price on a weekly, if not daily basis. It is easy to characterize Amazon as the big bad monster, but when an actual Vermonter comes in with his book, it’s hard to say no. So, with a small dose of education about why shopping locally is not important, it’s vital, I will likely host this event.

Booksellers and authors: what are your thoughts on events with Amazon-published authors?

Should We Lose the Bags?

Josie Leavitt -- March 28th, 2014

It is time to reorder bags. I find myself wondering if we should restock the ubiquitous shopping bag or not. Our bags are recycled kraft paper with soy based ink, so they’re about as eco-friendly as a bag can be, but the minimums per style are often huge. Yes, they are great advertisements for the store, but if no one uses one,I find myself wondering about the viability of keeping them.

It’s funny because I almost always want a bag when I’m shopping. My car tends towards messy and I usually park and walk, so I need to carry my purchases. But, the first place I shop tends to be the bag I use for my whole outing. I can hear folks yelling, “Bring your own bag.” I try to. I have bags literally looped on the front door knob, and even in the car, but I seem to never get myself together enough to actually have them with me when I need them.

Most of my customers are not like me. They come in, often with their Flying Pig tote bags (we give them away as premiums when folks spend $75 or more at one time, which happens a lot) or other reusable bags which they happily fill with books. More than likely, customers say no to a paper bag. I’m sure I’ve brought this up before, but some folks spend more time deciding if they want a bag than they do picking out their books. So, I find myself on the bubble about bags. If 90% of my customers don’t want bags, why do I keep paying for them?

I’m curious about how other stores, and customers, feel about bags. Are they obsolete or still a necessary part of doing business? Should we reorder, or not?

Putting Tintin into Historical Perspective

Josie Leavitt -- March 27th, 2014

Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, is guest blogging today. He is responding to a question posted on the NECBA listserv about censorship in the bookstore, specifically surrounding Tintin titles. I’m grateful to Kenny for sharing this with, as he dissects the issue clearly and cogently.

Bookstores are sometimes asked by customers to remove titles that the customer finds offensive. congo The classic graphic novel series by Herge, Tintin, garnered this unhappy attention recently at a friend’s bookstore. It is an interesting issue. Bookstores are not censors in the strict sense of the word, however to remove a book by virtue of an objection is certainly in that neighborhood. How to address this thorny situation?

Sam Gamgee was of course mistaken in the “notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness.” I believe it to be of the first importance to be kind, but not blind to the embedded biases and prejudices we find in beloved literary works such as Tintin. The integrity of the present is dependent on the integrity of the past. We need to understand the complex dual historical continuum of enduring artistry and base cultural biases which are almost always intertwined. Herge’s Tintin in the Congo, which is not available in an edition for children in the United States at present, has long been cited as an example of unfiltered imperial colonial prejudices. For many of us it is certainly uncomfortable to see these elements mixed in with the familiar voice of a Tintin tale. The impulse to expunge rather than understand reinforces the very blindness it decries however. Recognizing the fallibility and bias of beloved works of literature is a matter for understanding not for removal, the impulse for which is quite as destructive as any embedded historical bias. Reading Tintin in the Congo offers us tintinan opportunity to broaden our understanding and see our own world with clearer eyes.

Herge’s Tintin in general contains many historical biases from his present. Are any of us free from biases that will be painfully apparent to the eyes of future generations? The Marx brothers were progressive and socially conscience. The inclusion of African-American actors and musicians in A Day at the Races was a progressive choice. Is it nonetheless rife with stereotypes that are painful to behold? Of course. Does that mean that children shouldn’t watch it or that the movie should be erased? Of course not. The fallibility inherent in the human condition is something to share and discuss with children, not shield them from, even as the enjoyment of classic works of children’s literature is something to share across generations. And that, my friends, is the discussion that needs to be had with our censorship-minded customers.


Food at the Bookstore

Josie Leavitt -- March 25th, 2014

I get a lot of comments on my lunches, or lack thereof. I’m not sure what happens that makes it so difficult to eat lunch at lunchtime when you work at a bookstore. I think it’s the timing of the book deliveries, or just that things get busy, or could be that I’m just too lazy to eat if it means breaking up my day.

Every store has a natural rhythm to its day. For us, from 10 to noon we get organized and shelve what didn’t get done the day before. Often this can mean being greeted by massive stacks on Tuesdays when the new books can find their rightful home on the shelf and not the back counter. The morning is also a good time to make phone calls. Also, because the mornings tend to be quieter than the afternoon, projects get worked on during this time. Emails get written as follow-ups to author event requests, school visits get organized, etc. The only thing that accompanies me on this is an iced double shot skim latte. I have this every day unless it’s 10 degrees or colder out. This drink is also known as a Josie at Village Wine and Coffee. And every day they draw my name of the cup in ever-increasing fanciful ways that make me smile.

Noontime rolls around and often I’m not hungry yet, so I just keep working. Then something bad happens around 2:30. I start to get a tiny bit cranky, just a bit, but enough that cold callers should be wary. Most of my ad reps know this about me and have smartly tend to come to the store in the morning. Frustration creeps in with small things, like damaged books caused by poor packing. The hassle of dealing with these on an almost daily basis (is it me, or are these happening more and more?) can seem far more irritating when my stomach starts letting me know it’s been far too long between meals. Around this time, I start foraging the back room for anything that constitutes food. We usually have nuts tucked around and in a pinch, they’ll do. I’ll sneak a peek in the fridge in the vain hope that the weak iced coffee I never drank has mysteriously thrown itself away. Sometimes, there’s cheese. Sometimes, that cheese is too nasty to even contemplate eating, let alone throw out (why we can leave office fridges in such states is beyond me, but I’m guilty of the closing the door and just hoping someone else throws it all away.)

Then around 3:30 or 4:00 the serious need for food has set in. I know now that if I don’t actually eat something with protein, bad things will happen. I remember a joke from Paul Reiser who said that he got a headache because he was too stupid to eat. I do this weekly. Finally, I sit down long enough to realize that I’m desperate for real food. Since the cafe next door closed, I now have to get in the car to get something. But because it’s so late, I get something small because dinner seems like it’s just around the corner. Often, I will find one or more of my staff hunched over a sandwich at three in the afternoon. They are usually standing at the desk or the counter, eating while they keep working. I’m sure this is against OSHA, but more booksellers don’t like to stop.

Sure, I could pack a lunch. But I just don’t cook any more. It’s time-consuming and annoying to cook for one, so I just don’t it much. Consequently, I have very little I can pack for a lunch. If I bring a yogurt in it’s a good day. Customers will sometimes bring food over. One customer owns a diner and every time she comes in I tease her about not bringing me a grilled cheese with tomato and bacon. Twice now, she’s brought me one and that has just made my day.

Booksellers, I’m very curious: how do you feed yourselves during the day?