Author Archives: Josie Leavitt

Crashed Witch Outside Bookstore

Josie Leavitt -- September 30th, 2014

Every year, for the 18 years I’ve had the bookstore, I have always wanted to do a Halloween decoration outside the store that was funny. On Sunday I finally achieved thishat goal. I am not a crafty person; in fact some would say I’m the opposite of good with an artsy project. But this weekend I was driven to create a crashed witch on a tree in front of the bookstore. A crashed witch is quite simply making it look like a witch crashed into something. I’ve always found them amusing and thought it would a nice touch for the store.

I looked up what I’d need on the internet. Witch hat, hair, gloves, cape and witchy legs and of course, a broomstick. I left work and gathered my supplies, all easily obtainable from the hardware store, the local drug store (which was very well stocked in witchy ephemera) and the craft store. Tools were gathered and my co-worker PJ was a stalwart and able helper. Plus, as we kept saying as the witch took shape, “This is fun!” Sunday was a strange retail day that afforded big expanses of time where we could both work outside as we were customer-less, then we’d get really busy, then we’d have quiet again to work on the witch.

It was a little more complicated to do than I thought (isn’t that always the way with projects), mostly because the tree was large and the staple gun wasn’t quite cutting it, so I had to go back to the hardware store, not once, not twice, but three times to get things I needed as problems revealed themselves or it became evident that I’d forgotten something. PJ tried on the witch hat, then modeled the hair and then got busy affixing them together. We then stapled it to the tree and assembled her legs. In a perfect world we would have longer legs with striped tights, but neither one of us could find striped tights, so we substituted pre-made witch’s legs that were a little smaller than we’d hope for, but still worked. We stuffed a pair of kitchen gloves with bubble wrap as well as the sleeves of the body, so she’d look real. As it took shape, there was palpable delight from both of us.

witchFinally, she was done. She looked great. To create something funny for folks to notice when they’re stuck in traffic at the light by the store pleased me no end. And, to make it even funnier we added a sign above her head: Don’t drink and fly.

Keeping Business in the Village

Josie Leavitt -- September 29th, 2014

My store is in a village filled with wonderful shops. All of the business owners got together, first on Facebook, then via email, then in person to try and figure out the best way to work together to bring people in our town and get them to stay here to shop. Many wonderful things have come from these gatherings.

First, and perhaps best, is we all got to know each other better. Some photo 2shopkeepers I count as good friends, others I don’t know as well. All own stores or restaurants that I patronize, so it’s been nice to work together to increase business for all of us. We were originally focused on doing something special for Small Business Saturday in November, but our attention quickly turned to creating a brochure we could all use to highlight our stores and restaurants. It’s easy to think that just because we all know what treasures exist in our village, visitors do as well. This is just not the case. Parking issues make some folks stay where they’ve started and not venture forth. The goal with the brochure was to not only give customers a map of our village and surrounding shops up the road, but to encourage them to patronize all of them by offering a discount. Working together created something truly wonderful.

photo 1The brochure is eye-catching and professional, and it includes all the stores, save one (who didn’t want to participate because they don’t believe in discounting) that were happy to pass on a 10% savings to customers who used it. There’s a check box on the back that lists all the participating stores that allows for store stamps or initial to indicate the discount has been used. Customers then take their brochure to other stores and shop and save. The beauty of this system is it gives one family or shopper just one brochure to keep until they’re done shopping, so we’re not giving out multiple brochures to one family.

But the real joy of this brochure is how it came out. It’s a full-color tri-folded thing of beauty that would have been prohibitively expensive for one store to do on its own, but split 16 ways it only cost each store $50. So, by working together we created something that has driven business to all our stores and not broken anyone’s marketing budget.

Celebrating Good Staff

Josie Leavitt -- September 22nd, 2014

It’s sometimes easy to take good bookstore staffers for granted. This all changes when someone goes on vacation. My store is small with a very tight-knit staff of six, including Elizabeth and me, who co-own the store. Fall seems to be the season when folks go away and their absence is felt from the first day of their vacation until they return to work. It’s far more than just having someone else at work, it’s the realization of what they contribute that makes it hard when they’re gone.

Laura took her first real vacation two weeks ago, her first since she started last year. She’s a stalwart worker who wears many hats easily. It seemed to me that she was gone far longer than 10 days. Folks who needed help in the poetry section were done no real service by me in her absence. I’m on the sales floor more when someone’s away, which is a good thing, but it’s also hard. There are so many things that need doing at a bookstore other than selling books: ordering and returning books, planning events, paying bills and more bills, dealing with damages, following up on special orders, etc. Having a good staff means these things can not only get done, but I get help with them. When someone’s gone there is a void. I realized while I was working more to cover Laura’s shifts, that she’s great at working with customers with whom I don’t connect with as easily. I could no longer hand her customers I found hard or wanted to know about things, like poetry, that I didn’t know. She’s great on the phone and follows up on little details that I sometimes lose track of.

Working in a bookstore is fun but it’s also hard work. People who say, “I want to open a bookstore when I retire” have no idea how much energy it takes. The fun of having a good staff is that we fuel each other. One person’s energy can flag and someone else can help out and help rejuvenate the other. Plus, talking about books is galvanizing and wonderful fun. Darrilyn, who is away for the next two weeks, and I always have long discussions about the latest mysteries and which writer’s new book disappointed or thrilled. Sandy, who has recently returned from a jaunt to Italy, is unfailingly polite and fills the historical fiction void with ease as well knowing the best picture books. All our staffers are wonderful and that makes going to work all the more fun. So, bookstore owners, take a moment and tell your staff how much you appreciate them, before they plan their next vacation.

 

Laughter and Terror: Writers and Stand Up Comedy

Josie Leavitt -- September 15th, 2014

When I’m not working at the bookstore I teach and perform stand up comedy. I usually teach comedy in my hometown of Burlington, Vt., but this Saturday I taught a stand up workshop in Hadley, Mass. I had posted this class on my Facebook page, and was delighted when Ellen Wittlinger messaged me to say she was thinking about signing up, but was a little “terrified.” I’ve known Ellen for years and assured her that she was hysterical and would be a great addition to the class. Plus, a little creative terror can be good for the soul.

hardlove

I was thrilled that Ellen, author of one of my all-time favorite books, Hard Love, had converted herterror to trying something new, and we both whooped and hugged when she walked into the class. What I wasn’t expecting was for Ellen to bring her friend, Lisa Papademetriou. Lisa had co-written a book with my friend Chris Tebbetts, M or F,  a humorous take on Cyrano de Bergerac and what happens when the ghost writer falls for the boy. They arrived early and we chatted. I had only met Lisa once when she popped into the store and signed stock. The class administrator came over and checked them in. “I usually shelve these guys,” I blurted. Christine looked askance at me. I explained the whole bookstore-writer dynamic going on and she just laughed.

Continue reading

First Times

Josie Leavitt -- September 9th, 2014

Owning a children’s bookstore means that there can be a lot of firsts for young customers. There is something wonderful about being the place where milestones are achieved. All too often we don’t stop and notice what astounding things kids are doing because, well, they’re not our children. But at the bookstore, in a small space, often with customers we know, there is a wonderful opportunity to see what happens when something “clicks” with a kid.

Usually the first milestone is walking. There is nothing more fun than being at the store when a littleoliver one figures out that he can put one foot in front of the other and get from over here to over there. Parents stand by nervously or excitedly, depending on the baby’s wobbliness, as they watch their child walk over to one of the bookseller’s outstretched hands that have a book in them. I do love that kids will often walk over to the person who’s holding a book. What better way to reinforce that reading is fun? Of course first smiles are always great to a part of. I’m a fan of making little ones laugh.

There is something amazing about being present when a child becomes a fluent reader. This usually happens when a kid is picking out a book, usually a chapter book, but sometimes a picture book, and the light clicks on and suddenly reading just makes sense and the words flow freely and the struggle is gone, replaced by ease of reading and comprehension. This has happened time and time again in  our 18 years of business. Every once in a while this can happen with a  very young child, sometimes no older than three, who walks by books and starts reading all the titles. When this happens we all just sort of stand around stunned while a smiling parent realizes that somewhere along the line their little toddler has taught herself to read.

Other milestones that can happen at the store include a myriad of things. Potty training success happens a lot, although this one can be a little more fraught, as there are whoopsies, but that’s why we have mops (it’s actually funny, but every bookstore bathroom also seems to double as the utility closet) in the bathroom. Every milestone deserves a celebration. Paying for a book and working on manners happen every day. I can always feel a parent’s bursting pride when their two-year-old not only says “thank you” but makes eye contact while doing so.

Saturday, the milestone happened with my visiting cousin’s six-year-old son. Justin is a sweet boy who can read quite well, but couldn’t yet figure out how to tie his shoes. The entire family was visiting and all were busy looking at the store which they hadn’t seen yet. Justin was left to his own devices and he found a book on tying his shoes (which sadly was purchased by another child before I could jot down the title). He sat there quietly and then figured it out. We were leaving for lunch and we found him on the floor just tying and retying his shoes. His mom was beaming, his grandparents were choking up, and I was wondering what the fuss was about. “It’s the first time he’s done that.” I was told by my other cousin. Ah, that explained the joy and why we found him on the ground the rest of the trip, tying and untying his shoes.

 

An Amazon-Free Partnership

Josie Leavitt -- September 8th, 2014

We all can talk about Amazon as the scourge of the book business, the reason indies are struggling and that might be true, but there seems to be little people actually do about Amazon. Here in TVW Cover smallVermont, one small publisher, Common Ground Communications, is trying something unique to support indies: he is not offering former Governor Jim Douglas’ autobiography for sale on Amazon. This book promises to be a good seller in my small state. It’s not every liberal state that has had a successful Republican governor, so his story should be a good one.

Chris Bray is the publisher of the book The Vermont Way. And his decision to sell the book only in stores and bypass Amazon sends a strong message that sales to bricks and mortar stores matter. Chris, a long-time customer who actually spent time in the Statehouse as a representative, clearly understands that backing up the message with thoughtful, possibly risky action, is the best way to support local Vermont bookstores. Chris is all about collaboration. Maybe that’s how we can get back to supporting stores and selling more books.

Working with stores and talking with us about things like discounts, shipping and setting up events well before the book comes out is a great way to get the stores invested in the book. I even suggested that Chris waive shipping if invoices are paid within 30 days, which he is doing (following the example of other small publishers like Godine). So here we have a book that will likely be a hugely popular book in my state, that is comes with free shipping if you pay your bill on time and is only available in physical stores. No one can buy it on Amazon. I can barely wrap my head around what this means. It will be very interesting to see if I see any customers who haven’t shopped in our store in a while because they’ve gotten a Kindle.

Working together with a small press to drive sales into the bookstore is so refreshing. Chris really wants to support the indies, and obviously, wants to sell lots of books. I have no idea how many sales he’s risking by not offering the book on Amazon, but the fact that he’s willing to take that chance and work with indies exclusively, means I’ll work harder to sell the book. This is what a publishing partnership looks like: both publisher and bookstore on the same page (pardon the bad pun) working together to sell a book while supporting what’s important.

Free Lunch at Work

Josie Leavitt -- August 29th, 2014

Today is the last day I’ll be working with David. As Elizabeth pointed out earlier this week, he’s leaving us for college. Yes, it will be a sad day, but also a fun day. Today is the day I make good on losing bets to this smart teenager. Today, lunch is on me.

I try to make work more fun by upping the ante when there’s a minor disagreement. The other day I asked David to remind me to change the message on the our receipt paper so it didn’t say we were having a sale. He said, “Laura already did.” I didn’t quite see that change, of course, because I only looked at the first line of the message, not the whole message. The first line looked the same. David mentioned it again, and I said, “Are you sure? It looks the same to me.” David smiled a wicked smile, and I could see the idea taking hold. Not one to back away from silly things, I offered to bet lunch that I was right and he was wrong. The tension ramped up as we reprinted a receipt. I read the first line and felt victory was surely mine. Then I kept reading the four-line message, and sure enough, Laura had changed it, I just hadn’t read it all the way through.

David looked appropriately victorious. Later that day, we went double or nothing on something ridiculous, like the weight of an outgoing returns box. (Sometimes, when it’s a little slow, we do silly things.) I’d like to say that I won, but I think we all know that’s just not true. So, it will be my absolute pleasure to buy our soon-to-be-college freshman whatever he’d like for lunch today, and even though tomorrow is my day off, I’ll be picking up lunch for him as well.

Their First Stop

Josie Leavitt -- August 25th, 2014

As summer starts to wind down here in Vermont, I’ve noticed a trend. The bookstore is where a lot of people come first on their vacation or on their return home. It’s always interested and delighted me that the store is such an anchor for people. I know we’re not just a bookstore; no local, independent bookstore is just a store, we’re all so much more and the depth of that feeling gets revealed when people come by for the first day of vacation or the day they return to us when they’re going back to local colleges.

The folks on vacation are a great group. They come from all over the world, with the farthest afield coming all the way from Cape Town. This family has been shopping at our store for 16 years and now their daughter is off to college. It’s hard to imagine that little Alice with her proper accent asking on her first visit, “Where’s the loo?” is going to college next week. But, she is and it’s been great fun to see her grow up, summer visit by summer visit. Her family comes to the store usually on their first day here. They need to stock up on books and they get armloads. The parents are big readers, too. And honestly, there’s nothing I like more than seeing folks walk in the store like long-lost friends and getting hugs and getting caught up on the last year and what they’ve read.

Last week I was truly touched by a returning customer. A young man came in the store and looked to be in his early to mid 20s. He had a deep, resonant voice and seemed very familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. And then he asked for George R. R. Martin books, and I knew it was Casey, who had left for college in Washington state six years ago and stayed out there. I said, “Casey?” He grinned broadly, knowing that I was picturing him the last time I saw him: shorter, not shaving yet and still a kid. But he somehow (as they all do) grew up into a wonderful adult. He hadn’t seen our new location, so we talked about that. He loved the expanded adult section, but he remained true to his two loves from his first visit 17 years ago: the comics and science fiction sections.

What astounded me was he had gotten in at midnight the night before and here he was at 10:30 the next morning, buying books from the store that provided all his books for his childhood. It seemed to me like we were a bit of security for him. Casey had come back to Vermont to attend medical school; clearly he was a little nervous about it, but he was comforted by the store and our having Game of Thrones and Calvin and Hobbes. As I rang him up, I laughed a little and told him his reading tastes hadn’t changed much since he was seven, buying Redwall and Garfield collections.

I cannot say enough how much these encounters, which seems to happen more and more as our youngest customers from when we first opened are now marrying, getting graduate degrees, or coming to the store with their families on vacation, mean to me. They are a great reminder that the local bookstore means something. Something big. We may never know the true impact the store has on a life, but when I get a glimpse of how our store has been an anchor for young people it makes me happy and proud. And very appreciative that they all come by to say hi and tell us how they’re doing.

Talking Diversity with NPR

Josie Leavitt -- August 22nd, 2014

Yesterday, Elizabeth Bluemle was interviewed by Audie Cornish as one piece of a three-part series on NPR’s All Things Considered program talking about diversity in books. Elizabeth has been talking diversity, or lack thereof, in children’s books since her post five years ago, Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty? As the co-owner of the Flying Pig, I was bursting with pride as Elizabeth deftly articulated the diversity issue and what we as booksellers can do about it.

Diversity and children’s books has now become a hot topic, with many people realizing that there has be more representation of non-white children in kids’ books. When asked about the database of books (now over 1,000 titles strong) she started collecting five years ago, featuring main characters of color whose stories are not primarily driven by racial issues, Elizabeth responded: “Well, I think there are so many books that are published about issues that the consumer culture has developed this idea that books with brown faces on the cover say, are going to be heavy, serious books. And while those books are very valuable and important and wonderful books to read, they also don’t describe the entire experience of human life in this country.” This list is an invaluable asset to all who work with children. Elizabeth’s point is all kids have the same range of experiences: school, family, navigating friendships, etc. and those stories should be equally compelling to all regardless of the color of the kid on the book’s cover.

Continue reading

Patience and Education Pay Off

Josie Leavitt -- August 15th, 2014

More than a year ago, I got mad at our local PTO for having an Amazon-sponsored book fundraiser. I tried to explain, nicely, why that was a really bad idea on many levels. The first being, Amazon doesn’t actually support the school. They don’t help with auctions items ranging from the third grade spelling bee, the eighth grade trip, or having story hour for the entire kindergarten class on their annual field trip to the bookstore. The second is, Amazon’s business model is to put independent bookstores out of business. Sadly, I have yet to conquer the allure of the Scholastic Book fair, it’s just too big and too much money (that’s a blog post for another day).

Every time I saw someone from the PTO I would explain just a little more in depth about what their working with Amazon does to us and the other local businesses in town. It really boiled down to the fact that every local business needed the PTO’s support; if they wanted to be able to shop at our stores, they actually had to patronize them. I got an email last week from a PTO member who wanted to talk to me about working with them this year.

Their plan is simple: feature a different local store every month as a fundraising base for the PTO. The beauty of this plan is the organization. The PTO is working hard to get everything in place so that all the event dates can be included on the first school calendar of the year, the one that everyone puts on the fridge. The parents are extremely about making these events successful.  We are both hoping that this monthly support idea will be a win-win for all involved. And, after the initial setup there’s little to do but promote at school, in the local paper, via social media and at the bookstore. It’s just not rocket science. It’s kids and books.

The best of this plan is that the school will be driving business to the store. Not every parent shops at all the stores in the village, but they’re much more likely to visit a store for the first time if it means 20% of their purchase will go back to help fund their kid’s PTO. And, it’s easy for the shopkeepers. We will have a kickoff wine and cheese preview complete with book talks. The parents will have the store to themselves for two hours and then the in-store book fair will run for 10 days. In-store book fairs are easy to do as their is no schlepping of books to the school. These are really aimed at parents who will come to buy early holiday presents for the family. I was struck also, by the kindness of the PTO liaison who suggested that we run this promotion during a slow time for the store. That was really thoughtful of her and she understood why we couldn’t run this during December.

So, after a year of feeling despair about the school not “getting it,” I now feel very optimistic about our new venture. I’ll have a blog update after the event at the beginning of November.