It’s finally spring here, and with that comes two things: fundraisers for just about every cause under the sun, and folks asking for donations. During this season of benefits, if our store is typical of all indies, bookstores get asked to give something just about every day. This year has found me on the other side of the counter asking for donations as I’m newly on the board of the Pride Center of Vermont and our benefit is in May. As I’ve approached businesses for donations I’ve noticed several things and thought I’d share. Continue reading
Dear Big Five Publishing House Shipping Department,
I am writing today because I can’t take it anymore. Every day I receive books from your company and every day I despair a little more. No, not because the books are damaged (I’m actually surprised at how infrequently this happens, so yay, you!) but at the sheer waste that has been happening lately. I know you’re busy with the merger and dealing with the kinks of combining two shipping departments, but this is crazy.
The bubble wrap to the right (I put the foot-high flying pig penny holder in the photo for perspective) represents the bubble wrap I got for three boxes of books. Here’s where my real issue takes hold: all of this bubble wrap came to protect five books.
I’m sure you’re scratching your collective heads right now, thinking surely, five books did not come in three boxes. Yes, yes, they did. Five books, picture books at that, came in three fairly large boxes. I understand why there was need for protection as we all know books packed in large boxes without copious amounts of bubble wrap or air pillows are far more likely to get bounced around and damaged during shipping. But I have a suggestion: why not combine the shipments into ONE box? Books are friendly things and they like being together with other books.
And I cannot recycle this kind of bubble wrap where I live, so now I have to throw it out or somehow save it in my already crowded back room, where I currently have six feet of bubble wrap waiting for someone in town to move who wants free packing materials. And while it looks like it should stack well, it doesn’t ,and is forever falling to block our access to our restocking shelves. While I didn’t have to pay for shipping on these (thank goodness for that, or I’d have written a far less pleasant note) I didn’t actually order these books. They were complimentary copies. Please don’t get me wrong, I love getting your books and particularly love getting free books from you, but not in three separate shipments that create more work than necessary for my already overworked staff.
So, since you’re probably still shaking out the kinks since you merged, I have a few ideas that you might want to start adapting.
- Use the right-sized box for shipments. It feels like the folks in charge of printing boxes with your name company name only have made HUGE and LARGE boxes and no mailers or small boxes. If you forward me the name of the person, I will write to them as well.
- Perhaps ask stores if they want these free books before you send them out. Not all freebies are created equal (this is what no one will tell you, so you can thank me for my honesty later). Again, if I get the name of the person to speak to about that, I will draft a note post-haste.
- Maybe it’s because I live in Vermont, and we care about landfills here, but to not use material that can be easily recycled seems very 20th century, and isn’t your new company supposed to be an industry leader? Lord knows you’re big enough to be setting a better example.
Thanks so much for your time and I hope you all have a great day.
There is lots of fun to be had at the bookstore for adults and I am not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m talking about a coloring book. Yes, a coloring book. The Inky Treasures series of coloring books are designed for children. But their complexity of art and grown up images have made this a bestseller among our adult customers. There’s more to do than just color. Creatures and treasures can be found on the pages, and there are hidden objects and symbols to be discovered to complete a puzzle at the end.
These books are fun. Silly, old-fashioned fun, and I cannot keep them on shelves. And it’s not just me. Ingram Distributors has almost 13,000 on order for the two books combined. I have to confess I knew nothing of these books, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book or its companion, the newest one in the series, Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Coloring Book. But more customers sure did. Within a week, I had more than six special orders for them. Today, I finally learned about these books from an extremely happy customer.
Maureen came in yesterday fresh from the first nice day we’ve had and asked for her special order. She orders often enough that she really couldn’t remember what had come in. I handed the book and she started smiling from ear to ear. “Do you know about this?” I said that I didn’t. “It’s a coloring book for grownups. I can color again!” Her enthusiasm was utterly contagious. Maureen missed coloring with her now teenaged sons. She explained about the joy of colored pencils and just taking some time and filling in a beautiful drawing with the colors of your imagination. She left clutching the book to her chest.
And then, I ordered a coloring book for myself.
Part of every day at the bookstore is spent calling customers to tell them their books have arrived. This means that I get to hear a lot of outgoing voice mail or answering machine messages. With this in mind, I’ve created a helpful list to make this part of my job easier.
- Animals have no business being on a message. Barking dogs and squawking parrots are not fun to hear on the phone. I have called people and had to listen to 30 seconds of barking because someone thought that was funny. It’s not. It’s 30 seconds of a dog barking at me.
- I don’t speak another language, so if you do, just know that I’m thrilled and jealous about your bilingual ability, and I’m just waiting for the beep and silently hoping I’ve called the right number.
- Singing on your outgoing message should also be avoided. Some folks actually have lovely voices, but the singing messages tend to be long and there’s no way to fast forward to the beep.
- Do try to identify yourself in the message. So often I feel like I’m just hoping I’ve gotten the number right and messages like, “Leave a message.” or “Congratulations, you’ve reached me,” do little to allay those fears.
- Don’t give me directions. Lately, I’ve called people and been urged to “just breathe” or “slow down and enjoy the music.” I’m working. I have enough to do without being told how to manage my time.
- Lastly, if your outgoing message contains your kids laughing because they’ve messed up the outgoing message, please leave that. While I might not always enjoy the messages the kids leave on the answering machine if I can hear them being coached by parents, kids just losing it in fits of giggles delights me. And if it’s a particularly infectious laugh, I might just call back so I can keep laughing.
Last Friday Elizabeth and I participated in something new: a materials review session for local school librarians. We had never done this before and were very curious what it would be like. Elizabeth was approached by one of our good customers who works at a school library two towns over. Every three months librarians from public schools in the district get together for a materials review session. Often this is run by one of the librarians, but Sue asked if the bookstore could do it. Elizabeth said yes and we were off.
The materials review session was on science books for all ages, but mainly elementary grades. Elizabeth did all the research and gathered some wonderful books ranging from the Max Axiom graphic novel series about all things science-related, to novels about Tesla written for kids, and the best collection of animal books I’ve ever seen.
The review session was a wonderful way to showcase what we know as a bookstore and what we can offer libraries, be they public libraries or housed in schools. The gathering was informal and lovely, hosted by Sue at her house. While Elizabeth and I did not avail ourselves of the wine (however, the cheese was superb), the others did and everyone settled in the living room while we spoke about the books. It was a rare early spring day when the temperature was almost 70 degrees and the sun was shining. I was mightily impressed that the living room was full and no one thought about not coming. These women (sadly, not a man in the room) were rapt, eager to learn more and to talk about books. What I loved hearing was how the same book can be a huge hit at one school and completely not checked out at another. These librarians all knew their students so well it was amazing.
Elizabeth created an order form more for reference than for actual orders as most schools are at the end of their budget cycle. We knew that going into the session. It felt important to let some of the librarians get to know us. Not everyone shops at the bookstore and to get some time with them felt far more important than getting orders. We are trusting that they won’t order on Amazon, which is always a risk whenever you do a book talk. We offered a better discount for anyone who ordered within 30 days after the book talk. So, we are trying to be competitive with Amazon. But it’s really not about that. Getting access to a room full of head librarians who are in charge of ordering was far more important. Building a network with schools takes time and is all about baby steps. The more they get to know and trust us, the more likely they will order from us when they have budget money in the summer.
In the end, I think we talked about more than 50 books and I did a roundup of forthcoming adult titles for their own personal summer reading. It was a lovely gathering and everyone left happy and chatting about books. Not a bad way to start the weekend, at all.
For the last nine years we have been blessed with working a young woman, PJ LeBerge, who had been a customer at the bookstore since the day we opened when she was only six years old. Today is PJ’s last day. She is moving on from the bookstore in preparation for graduate school. While I’m saddened to lose her, I’m so excited for her future and her obtaining a degree in library science. I can’t help but think the bookstore work had something to do with her career choice.
PJ started working for us when we moved our store to Shelburne. She was 16 and an avid reader who was also painfully shy. Peej (as we all affectionately call her) was great at organizing sections, doing window displays and restocking. But in the beginning she was hesitant to work on the register. Elizabeth and I let that slide for a months while she got used to working in a retail environment. Then one day in early December, I threw her to the wilds of a busy Christmas day. I will always chuckle at the look on her face: wild-eyed and nervous. But I knew she could do it. Not only did she do it, she thrived at it. Even saying at the end of that day, “That was crazy, but it was fun!”
It’s been wonderful to see her blossom as a bookseller and a person. Her book choices are eclectic and she can recommend just about any book for any reader. Peej’s love of history (she has a thing for Vikings that we also tease her about) made her a valuable asset. She can speak passionately about all genres because she’s a broad reader. I owe her a debt for introducing me to the wonderful mysteries of Camila Lackberg. She loves to wrap. Every holiday season, whenever someone needed a book wrapped, we’d ring our little bell at the register and she’d wrap books beautifully with lots of perfect ribbons. She also bring a farming work ethic to the bookstore and never shied away from big projects. In fact she and Elizabeth spent many late days reorganizing sections or cleaning the basement. She loves to work hard and takes great pride in what she does, often coming to the bookstore right from her other job working at a horse barn.
The joy that PJ feels with books is matched only by her love of horses. She is singlehandedly responsible for our horse shelf in the middle grade section. Kids come in looking for horse books; they are very popular at our store, and she can chat about each book with humor and tell the young horse enthusiast which ones have gotten horse behavior right and which ones are, well, less than representative of what a horseman would do. She reads all the galleys on horses and tells which ones we should carry. She even discovered a then self-published horse book that we sold literally hundreds of in two years.
It’s been a privilege to be part of her life. We’ve seen PJ go from a straight A student in high school, to an honors student at the University of Vermont and then a successful Masters candidate at St. Andrews in Scotland. When she returned home from Scotland she worked for us again, even more poised and mature than when she had left. As she embarks on this next exciting chapter of her life I know I will miss her easy laugh, her wry sense of humor, her love of snacks, and now tea. But mostly I feel such pride in her. In these last nine years she’s been an increasingly valuable asset to the store. We will miss her and wish her nothing but the best.
And I reserve the right to call her when she’s home for Christmas and see if she wants to come in and help us wrap and read a galley or two and write up a few shelftalkers.
Sometimes there are days when no matter how hard I try, I just cannot find a book that is supposed to be in the store. First the search is solitary: I just know the book is somewhere in the store, then after many minutes of searching, I ask a fellow bookseller for help. Then the two of us brainstorm just where the book could have gone. It gets to the point that one of is searching with the phone in a pocket so we can roam more freely and still get work done.
Such was the scene on Tuesday. Here’s the background: a customer ordered a book, the phone number we had was out of order so we set the book aside on the counter with a note to research the number. The research led nowhere, so we kept the book on the side counter. Books do not make it on the special order hold case until we’ve contacted the customer in some way. Usually, this system works quite well. We all last saw the missing book on Thursday of last week. Then it was gone. We hadn’t sold it to anyone and we only had the one copy in the store so it was still very likely it was in the back of the store by the register or the office. The customer who ordered the book called Tuesday asking for it. We took her number, corrected her customer file and told her, quite honestly that the book was in the store but we couldn’t find it.
The call from the customer mobilized Laura first to start searching. When she couldn’t find it, I got obsessed. We almost always find books after searching this hard for them. I started enlisting customers’ help. I told the two groups we had in the store that if they found the book we would give them a book of the same value, free. This one mom had her kids looking. It was actually funny how many people in the store were just standing back from the shelves scanning the books. And here’s the crazy thing: not one person found the book. No one could find it. We even pulled the counter from the back wall to see if it had fallen behind it and the wall. It hadn’t. It’s been three days and we still can’t find the book. We checked every single special order being held, in case it was accidentally tucked in the wrong place.
It got so bad I asked every customer who came in the rest of that day to look for this book and explained the free book offer. Customers were very helpful and not one of them found it either, but they did have new perspective into one of the most frustrating parts of my job: looking for books. So, here’s what I know. The replacement copy has come in but we still can’t find that book. I have not given up, as I know on some level, that book is still in the store, and honestly, I’m not going to completely relax until it’s found.
All bookstores struggle with getting people to attend events. Whether you’re a large store in a big city or a small store in a rural village, there is always pressure and anxiety about who will come to author readings. I hate poorly attended events, not for me, but for the author. I want all events to be great experiences for the author who might have come a distance to share him or herself with our community. It is impossible to predict how many people will not only come to an event, but sign up to coming beforehand.
This is where the family calendar is king. If an event makes it on the family calendar, then it’s very likely folks will actually come and not just think about going. The family calendar runs the lives of everyone I know. It has to. Families are so busy these days with children’s sports, play dates, tutoring sessions, etc., that there’s very little wiggle room for spontaneous additions. This is why getting a bookstore event inked in the calendar in advance can mean greater attendance for store events – making it to the calendar means someone in the family has committed to going to it.
In less than two hours last night we had upwards of 12 people RSVP for an event with parenting expert Vicki Hoefle on April 6th. (And three more people have signed up since I began writing this post.) We did not run an ad, nor did we do a radio spot. In fact, we spent no money at all. All we did was write up a modified press release for the event and post it on our local Front Porch Forum. This is the description of what FPF is from their website: “Front Porch Forum is a free community-building service. Your neighborhood’s forum is only open to the people who live there. It’s all about helping neighbors connect.” Its simplicity is genius. Its reach is vast and its cost is delightful.
The FPF goes to everyone nightly. It is often the only email people read because it is so local and it’s about your town and people you know. It’s not just about commerce or announcing tag sales, but it can help solve mysteries. For instance, everyone in part of my town heard a massive BOOM last weekend and many folks posted to FPF about it wondering what it was. Was it a train derailment? A frost quake? Ice shifts? Earthquake? Turns out someone had a party and set off a cannon. Yes, a cannon. Without the back and forth conversation that can happen on the forum, we’d all still be wondering. In the meantime we all learned a ton about big noises that can happen in winter.
Posting is simple: text only, no embedded images or links. We emailed our event listing in the morning and it was added to yesterday’s forum. Our announcement was towards the end of a rather long forum with lots of posts, but everyone read it through, as evidenced by how many people RSVPed. That kind of response is so gratifying. And the beauty of this is while you can only post to the forum in your neighborhood, other people can post your text to theirs for you, so you can cover the entire county for free if you have enough friends.
Knowing now how many folks signed up in one night is a great indicator of how successful the event will be. We will run the post three more times until April 6th and hope to fill the store and use the money we saved by not paying for advertising on bringing in more books.
Elizabeth and I have had the bookstore for almost 19 years and we generally agree on most things we bring into the store. We’ve even said, quietly at the end of a long day when we’re dreaming a bit on what else we can do, “Wouldn’t art supplies be great?” Secretly, we both have a passion for art supplies. Why I’m not exactly sure. I can’t draw at all, but there’s something about a sketch book and nice pencil that delights me. Elizabeth is much the same, and she can draw. Combine our love of all things arty, paper, pencils, crayons – heck, even good coloring books – and a brutally long winter where warmth never seems to take hold on sunny days, and you’ve created the perfect storm for the great arts supply arrival.
As the sideline buyer, Elizabeth is responsible for bringing in some of our bestselling items: all of our cards, do-dads, toys, artsy things, and more. I am responsible for receiving these when they come in if she’s not there. I set about to receive two or three different sideline orders on Friday. They were all art supplies. At first I loved the idea of so many great pencils, pastel crayons, sketch pads, etc. But then I quickly became overwhelmed. I kept thinking, through my laughter, where are all of these going to go? I do not do displays, except the most simple ones. My skill is not in making things look pretty or necessarily inviting to the eye. Elizabeth dons her ubiquitous elf hat (we have a longstanding joke at the store that when Elizabeth stays late to rearrange sections, she’s “elfing”) and can make just about anything look good and suddenly people are buying whatever she’s put out.
I texted her a photo of what had come in. Partly to tease her but also partly for guidance. I was utterly overwhelmed. These boxes are all writing implements or sketchbooks. That felt like a lot to me. I was getting confused about how to group them and where they should go. Elizabeth came in at two for her shift and we all had a good laugh. Then later that day and well into the evening (elfing is hard stuff that takes concentrated time with no customers) she texted me photos of the our new sections with handmade signs that say Spring into Creativity. And we are selling them! How can we not? They all look so inviting. Doesn’t everyone loves the possibility of creation, of taking a blank page and filling it with lines and shadows to make a picture? And what better way to create young artists than with easy (and very affordable) and fun supplies?
Here’s the only thing: I took one sideline meeting a month ago when Elizabeth was out sick. What did I order? Pencils!
It’s not often that changing sections of the bookstore actually occurs to me. Usually, this is Elizabeth’s area of expertise. I often joke that if it were left to me, we’d have exactly the same set-up we had the day we opened. The other day I had a moment of inspiration about graphic novels. I must confess, that this year is the first year I’ve really gotten into graphic novels. Why I’ve resisted them for so long is beyond – they’re wonderful, but that’s another blog post. Graphic novels had been in a spinner case towards the back of the store where we have the fantasy, sports, action adventure and young adult sections.
I got this idea looking at a case of books and thinking, “Hmm, I haven’t sold any of these in a while.” Graphic novels have been selling well, but people are always asking if we have them, which tells me they’re not seeing them. So I did an even swap for the action adventure books and the graphic novels. And everything fit in their respective new sections. There is nothing more frustrating than swapping out a section only to realize that I’ve misjudged and there isn’t enough room and then I have to re-shelve everything back where I started.
I liked how things looked. Putting graphic novels in the same area as fantasy seemed like a good fit. The thing with organizing a bookstore is working hard to have similar sections next to each other so that serendipitous browsing can happen. The delight of discovery should be a goal of every store. My thinking behind this shift will hopefully bear itself out. Just as graphic novels seemed to have a solid home, I felt equally strongly about the action adventure books. Kids who like the Alex Rider or the young James Bond series might also enjoy a rousing sports book. Again, put similar books where like-minded readers are likely to find them. This also works for people shopping for these kids. They might see a graphic novel on their way to get another book and think, “Maybe I should try that for my daughter.” The real beauty of the switch is having enough shelf space to face out more titles, which also translates to more sales.
I will check back in a month and let everyone how this switch has been in terms of increased (hopefully) sales and customer feedback. If your store has moved a section and it really worked, please share your success story in the comments. I’m always curious.