Author Archives: Josie Leavitt

Vacation Reading: How to Choose the Right Books

Josie Leavitt -- February 27th, 2015

I don’t get to go away too often. Vacations, the real kind, with sun and sand, seem to be an every two year or more occurrence. Happily for me, I’m in the beach cycle this year. As I pack for my trip the hardest question isn’t what clothing to bring, it’s what books to pack. Yes, I said books. I don’t have an ereader, and while I understand the benefit of them now, as I am forced to choose what books to bring, I wouldn’t have it any another way. I love the feel of a book on vacation at the beach. I do not WallFon.com_12771want to be tied to a device, any device, while I am on a beach, so I happily will pack a few books.The particular bend a book gets when it’s been read in the sand and sun, the random stains of sunblock, the spill of a beer carelessly dropped on the cover, these all tell the story of the book, and I love that.

Books have to match my mood, or the mood I think I’ll be in when I start reading. This is true pretty much every day, but never more so than on vacation where this is a limited selection of books to choose from. So, I have spent much time going through the galley shelves at the bookstore carefully trying to match my need for escapist fun with well-written, well-plotted books that will engage me during a whole day of reading by the water. Now for the fun part, or the sad part depending on what books I have to leave behind: choosing the books that make it in my carry-on. I have chosen adult books for this trip for two reasons: they are longer so one adult book is going to last for more days than a kids’ book, and I don’t get read adult as often, so this is a real treat for me. 

When I only have room for three books, what makes the cut is so hard. The new Ann Packer, The Children’s Crusade, is already in the bag. I was a big fan of her earlier book, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, so that was easy. Now I have room for two more. The question I’m grappling with is, do I want a mystery (that’s almost always a yes for me) or something more sweeping and epic, or a short story collection that might lend itself to the wandering brain I usually have on vacation? Oh, the choices! Knowing myself as a reader is helpful, but still I need to weigh the balance of known authors versus taking a chance on an unknown and perhaps brilliant author? My second book is from Lauren Holmes, Barbara the Slut and Other People. A short story collection that looks very good, and seems to have a good mix of funny, poignant, and sexy.

The last book is more problematic. I have four books on the dining room table to choose from. One mystery, two books that promise to be “epics,” and another short story collection. I keep waffling between the mystery, A Good Killing and Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble. Here’s the real issue when a bookseller goes on vacation: do I read something that’s already out, or do I “discover” something new that’s not coming out for months? I don’t fly out until tomorrow morning, so I will delay deciding until tonight. And that leaves me one thing to pack right now: my reading glasses!

So, vacationing readers: how do you choose your books for vacation? And what do you choose?

Nerve-Wracking Things

Josie Leavitt -- February 23rd, 2015

I am so fortunate to have the staff that I do. I enjoy working with everyone and can honestly say that work is a pleasure. I get a lot done during the day.  But I’m also not naive enough to think that it’s tea and crumpets all the time. I know that I sometimes drive my staff crazy. Sometimes I make them down right nervous. I made a list of just a few of the things I do:

- I have the best intentions, really I do, of actually going to the post office with that package. I’m not certain when the post office phobia started and I know I should really deal with it. But I do eventually mail these things. The problem is I’m too efficient because before I go to the post office, I’ll run some other errands. I’ll make a deposit at the bank, pick up a late lunch (and by late I mean 4 p.m.) and then completely forget about the package in the front seat because I’ll I can think about is my hot, yummy-smelling chicken sandwich. Did I mention I got everyone a bag of those homemade chips and a massive brownie to share?

- I can lose things. My desk tends towards to a chaos that only I understand. Recently, Laura has been working very hard to clean up consignment books. Our paper trail is somewhat lacking, especially for books we’ve had a long time because it’s only been in the last two years that we’ve really been keeping excellent records. Laura entrusted me with the stack of consignment forms whose authors needed payment. She handed me the stack with a  very clear post-it breaking down who I owed what to. I took that stack home. I think she actually blanched when I did that, but said nothing. I came to find out that she and PJ talked about how it might have been a bad idea to not make copies of these forms first. Triumphantly, two days later, I returned the stack to its new resting place: the paid consignment folder.

- “Hey, want to be Cat in the Hat?” I shudder to think how many times I’ve asked that to unsuspecting staffers. I try to make it sound fun, but also know that staffers will be hotter than you can imagine, dressed as Curious George, Cat in the Hat, and Winnie the Pooh, etc. during their shift. I actually said to a co-worker on Friday, “Yes, there are air holes. They’re in the nose. You’ll be fine.” I would wear the costume, and did once, but generally, with our absurdly low ceilings I am too tall. Everyone else at the bookstore is under 5’4”, so they get asked more frequently. We actually insist that folks take frequent breaks so over-heating is not an issue.

- Apparently, my habit of leaving post-its for myself all around the back of the store is anxiety-producing. I guess that makes sense. Sometimes these little notes are up for weeks and then I get mad when someone takes them down. I never date these tiny action items so no one has a clue when I wrote it, when it needs to get to done, etc. I write these notes so I don’t forget to do something, but it’s been pointed out that if they just stay up like some new modern art, no one knows their status, and I’ve now ceased to actually see them, it’s sort of a pointless system.

-In the vein of post-its, I tend toward random stacks of books in areas where random stacks don’t belong. This again, is my action item area. But without telling anyone why they’re there, they are just a stack of books that is irritating and in the way. Often these are books that came to us damaged, and I’ve already called about them and am in the process of deciding where to donate them.

I want to be the kind of boss who is truly supportive of her staff, and it’s clear to me that my own behavior belies that impulse. So, today marks the first day that I will remove old post-its, clean up my messes, and realize that my organizational style might need some tweaking. And I’m certain once this behavior gets cleaned up, I’ll find some way to make the staff nervous anew.

When the Flu Hits

Josie Leavitt -- February 13th, 2015

I’m not certain what’s going on in the rest of the country, but Vermont has been hit hard by the flu, one of the worst colds folks have ever seen and a stomach bug. When you have a small staff, illness can be a real problem. It’s not just an issue of having someone to actually work, but staying healthy is a challenge. Box of Tissues

Conveniently, we all waited to get sick until after the crush of the holidays. I’m sure it was because the pure adrenaline of the season kept all the bugs at bay. I got it first when we came back from annual week off. My fits of sniffling and sneezing for days was preceded by a very bad sore throat. It’s been a month, and I’m still coughing. Sandy got it next, pretty much the exact moment I felt well enough to work again. She was really sick with the flu and had a fever and chills. We had to force her to stay home. Then,  just as Sandy was rounding the corner to better health, PJ got the nasty cold that sidelined her for a few days. And now Elizabeth is deep in the heart of the worst part of the flu.

Every day now begins with the same ritual. The first one in disinfects everything at the register. The phone, the keyboard, the mouse, the credit card machine, etc. Pretty much anything that can be touched gets wiped down with an antibacterial Lysol wipe. I’m not sure what good this actually does, but it sure does make us feel like we’re taking action against the bugs. We have a ready supply of tissues and antibacterial hand sanitizer for use after we use the tissues. We are trying very hard to stay healthy, but it’s a struggle. The world of retail is practically designed to throw the maximum number of germs at you. Parents stop at the store to load up on books before they go to the pediatrician with their obviously sick kid. Adults are not as careful about their germs as they could be (not many folks over a certain age have embraced the “cough into your elbow” strategy that kids employ) and touching money and credit cards all day can is just asking to get a bug. Usually I feel like working retail builds up my immunity, but as I sit here writing this, coughing and sneezing anew, I can’t help but wonder if I’m now starting round two of the cold.

The only thing that’s good about being sick is having unfettered time to read without guilt. I used my downtime to read the new Dennis Lehane galley, World Gone By,  which I thoroughly enjoyed. I sometimes feel like adult mysteries are my guilty pleasure that I don’t indulge in that often because the kids’ books are stacking up on the bedside table. I spent all day reading and napping when I was sick and just loved it. I think we’re all so busy that it’s really hard to just take a day and not do anything, so when we’re forced by illness to slow down there’s a luxury to it, even with the irritation and discomfort of a nasty cold.

Readers: what do you choose to read when you’re home sick? Is there anything that you’re drawn to that helps you feel better?

Out of Context

Josie Leavitt -- February 9th, 2015

Little kids are used to seeing me in one place: the bookstore. When they see me out and about running errands they get a shy smile and just look at me. It’s as if they had no idea I existed outside of the store. Really young children have been to call the store “Josie’s house,” which is adorable, but does speak to the number of hours I can be found there. I had a very funny exchange with one of my favorite three-year-olds on Saturday.

Stella and her family had been to the bookstore and gotten heaps of books. I’m off on Saturdays, so I missed her smiling face. But this day found me helping out friends who own a restaurant down the street from the store. I was working the counter during the busy lunch rush, taking orders and making coffees. Young Stella came in for lunch with her parents. She saw me at the counter and a very curious look crossed her face. It went from confusion (she kept looking back towards the bookstore) to laughter. I greeted her warmly and asked if I could take her order. Her parents and I were chuckling over Stella’s attempts to wrap her head around why I was at the cafe. “You work at the bookstore,” she said. I told her, yes, I did, but sometimes I worked here, too. “Why? How many jobs do you have?” I was just so charmed by her smiling face. I could almost hear her brain working trying to figure out why I wasn’t where she was expecting me. I said that the owners of the cafe were friends and they needed help today, so I helped them.

She came around and gave me a hug. Then she asked if I was in charge of the chocolate chip cookies. “As a matter of fact, today, I am,” I said. Her face lit up. I checked with her parents and they said she could have a cookie after lunch. Stella started pouting until I did what I do with kids who want a book: I asked her which cookie she wanted and we wrapped it up and put it in a bag which she retrieved at the end of lunch. It was the equivalent of putting a book on the special order shelf or noting it down in the wish list book.

As if seeing me out of context weren’t enough. PJ, my co-worker, came to the cafe to pick up lunch for herself and Sandy. Stella’s eyes just about popped out of her head when she saw her. “You’re here, too?” She asked. PJ said yes, Stella literally scratched her head and said quite simply, “My parents are here.” And she skipped back to her table. Every time I looked over while PJ and I were chatting, I noticed she was looking at us, taking it all in.

I think it’s good for kids to see shop staffers in other places, even if it rocks their little worlds. And I must say, Stella’s reaction to me working behind the counter was tame compared to adult customers who came in for lunch, saw me and then leaned in and whispered, “Are things bad over there, that you’ve taken a second job?” I just burst out laughing when I heard this and said I was just helping my friends out. But I’m sure the small-town rumor mill will be rocking with this info and I’ll spend much of next week assuring folks that things are just dandy at the store.

A Dynamic Author Visit

Josie Leavitt -- February 6th, 2015

Earlier this week, we hosted Kate Messner at our local school and at the bookstore for her new book, All the Answers. To say that Kate puts on a great event is an IMG_4141understatement. She is a force of organization to reckoned with, and seems to possess boundless energy, even at the end of a long day. One very shy girl joined the event while her mother shopped and by the time she had to leave, she was beaming and happily clutching a copy of the new book.

I went back through my emails to see when Kate started planning for her book tour and was astounded to see the first email went out last May!  She’s been planning ever since, and making my life as a bookseller so much easier. She created an email that I mailed to my local schools in May and then the schools and Kate hammered out the details of the visit. One of the really great things about working with Kate is she really tries hard to get indies as much business as possible, by setting up local book sales through independent stores. She also created her own order form that the schools could copy and give to all students. This form was part of the letter. Really, the only thing we had to do was coordinate the book orders and advertise the store event.

Once we got about a month out from the visit, Kate was tweeting and posting on Facebook about the event. She even created a Facebook event that we could share. I mean really, she made it so easy for us. We had a good turnout for the event and Kate’s calm was great. She started the event and people just started to lean forward in their seats. Kids quieted down and were rapt the entire time she was speaking. Kate used to be a teacher and it’s clear she understands kids and how to get them engaged in a presentation. Listening to her speak about her writer’s notebooks made all of us practically start twitching to jot things down. One of the things I love about author visits is how they can inspire kids to start writing. To hear her talk about the evolution of this book and how it all came from one thought that she jotted down in her notebook more than two years ago was a gift of a moment. Kate made writing a book sound so doable that all these kids left thinking about becoming writers.

The other thing that was wonderful about Kate was she book-talked three books by toteother authors  that she loved and was inspired by. That kind of generosity was not lost on me.She spoke with passion about Bigger than a Breadbox, The Red Pencil, and The Case for Loving. Kids were just as enthused by those books as they were by Kate’s. And, she gave us enough notice about this that we had plenty of time to get in those books so we could sell them. She even had giveaways. I left the day energized by the success of the event and vowed that I would try to be half as organized as Kate for my next event. Finally, Kate tweeted about the bookstore when she got home, with a photo no less!

 

 

The Help of Friends

Josie Leavitt -- February 2nd, 2015

It doesn’t happen all the time, but when I draw a total blank for a customer’s request, I’m grateful to the members of children’s bookselling world for bailing me out. There are two internet listservs that are only for children’s books: the ABC and the NECBA. (I should add, I’m sure there are more, but these are the only two I have access to.) The ABC is part of the American Booksellers Association and NECBA is the children’s book group of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. Having access to other children’s booksellers makes such a difference in my work life.

Bookstores can be very solitary places to work. The only immediate colleagues you have are the life-saving-equipment-250x250staff at your store. But sometimes, everyone draws a blank on a certain title or we just can’t think of books about a certain time period. Yes, there are ways to look these things up, but often they can lead on wild goose chases that are maddening. Sunday afternoon a new teacher came in and was looking for fiction books for her fifth and sixth grade about westward expansion. Admittedly, this is not a topic I’m well versed in. I stumbled along in the middle grade section looking for covers with wagons and western images. I realized this did not make me look all that competent. She was not looking to buy anything that day, she was planning for a unit in six weeks. So I regrouped. I told the teacher honestly, “This subject is not my strong suit, but I can ask my bookseller friends and see what they suggest.”

Yes, I could have gone to any number of internet searches, and had she been needing a book that day, I would have. But her timeframe allowed to go to my friends on the web. Within minutes of posting my query, I got some answers. Sadly, not as many as I’d hoped for, but knowing the collective brain of children’s bookselling world (okay, mostly the world of New England) could help me made me feel better. And my customer was heartily impressed that I could just pose a question of other booksellers and get some pretty speedy answers.

Knowing that I have ready and easy access to the “collective brain” as we call it makes me a better bookseller. I can safely ask questions of people with different strengths than I have. And the beauty of this versus an internet search is booksellers are speaking about books they know and feel confident about. So I don’t have to look up reviews for books I’ve found on an internet search these titles come pre-vetted by my peers. The other great thing about this is the feeling of camaraderie with other booksellers. There is a lovely sense of having backup when I’m at a loss, and that is a lovely safety ring to grab hold of.

Dealing with Death in the Community

Josie Leavitt -- January 30th, 2015

The joy of owning a bookstore in a small town is being part of the community. Bookstores are usually the first place people turn when they have significant moments in their lives. Usually these moments are joyful: finding out about pregnancy, a child learning to read, going to school for the first time, buying a home, etc. But sometimes these moments are not happy. We’ve had a spate of sadness in our little bookstore community this week.

whensomeIt’s been a challenging time at the store. A local school lost a parent earlier this week. The ripple effect from this is enormous, which just serves to remind me just how connected we all are. A father in his early 50s died suddenly from a massive heart attack on Tuesday night. He leaves behind three lovely children and his wife, who is a teacher at the school. To lose anyone is always hard, but a father who is so connected with the school his kids attend just breaks your heart. Parents are coming in asking for books about death to help their kids understand and make sense of what happened. Older kids are shell-shocked, younger ones sometimes just ask why everyone’s so sad.

A teacher at a different school asked about books about death as several kids in her class arelifet dealing with loss. Elizabeth came up with a solid selection for younger kids. Maybe the best book out there for young kids is Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Young Children. There is something about this book that makes it easier to talk about death because it covers the life cycle of many things, so little ones can understand it. And Dog Heaven and its companion book Cat Heaven are great books for celebrating the life of a pet and easing the pain of their passing. As a bookseller, I sometimes struggle with titles for older kids who are grappling with loss. There are plenty of fiction titles that deal with loss, but I don’t have a favorite book for that age and find I’m always looking good titles, so, readers, please share some the books you use in these situations.

Every day brings a new challenge, and today, as the snow falls in my small town, I will be grateful to part of my community and will do my best to support my customers who are in need, and celebrate with those who are joyful.

The First Award of the Season

Josie Leavitt -- January 26th, 2015

For the people in children’s books, next Monday is a huge deal. It’s our equivalent of the Oscars. There are many awards that are given at the American Library Association Midwinter conference. However, for picture book fans, the first award of the season, the Charlotte Zolotow Award, was given out last week by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC). This award is for picturesparky text. There are only two other awards for text of picture books: the E.B. White Read Aloud award given by the ABC (part of the American Booksellers Association) and the SCBWI Golden Kite Award. It does seem odd to me that there are so few awards for text in picture books. Yes, the pictures are huge in these books, but the words are often why parents have to read the same book every night at bedtime for months.

Last week the winner was announced and it was Jenny Offill’s charming book, Sparky, about a girl who comes to terms, in a very funny way about the limitations of her pet sloth. This book is a delightful play on a child wanting a pet desperately, and then getting one and realizing he’s got some issues that other pets don’t have. The committee then named five honor books, and, I’m thrilled to say that Elizabeth Bluemle’s book, Tap Tap Boom Boom  was one of them.

tapIt’s been a good year for Tap Tap Boom Boom. It made the New York Public Library list of top 100 books of 2014 and now the Zolotow Honor. The fact that Elizabeth keeps getting honored as an author makes working with her at the bookstore all the more fun. After the NYPL nod, we sold more of her book for the holidays, and now we just keep ringing our little bell at the store (we normally ding once if we need help at the register) twice when someone needs a book signed by Elizabeth. It’s awfully fun to hit the bell twice and shout, “Author! We need a book signed!” Some folks come in not knowing that Elizabeth co-owns the store, and the look of surprise and delight when we ask if they’d like the book signed never gets old.

The other Honor books were excellent as well, and not surprisingly, books I enjoy handselling. Beautiful Moon: A Child’s Prayer, written by Tonya Bolden; Chengdu Could Not, Would Not Fall Asleep, by Barney Saltzberg; Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, written by Katherine Applegate (it is interesting to note that this book, as well as Elizabeth’s, was illustrated by G. Brian Karas), and lastly, Water Rolls, Water Rises = El agua rueda, el agua sube, written by Pat Mora.

This award is a wonderful way for Elizabeth, and the store, to start the new year. I fully expect our little bell to get a workout in the coming weeks.

What Do You Get Rid Of?

Josie Leavitt -- January 20th, 2015

It’s that time of year when a lot of bookstores are doing returns. The season is slower and there are still bills to pay from the massive ordering of books during the holidays, and doing returns really helps with cash flow. But returns also make you look at how you’ve curated your store. The challenge with being a children’s store (any store really, but people have strong opinions about what’s in the kids’ section) is you are judged by customers on the depth of your stock, even if no one buys what’s impressing them.

Some returns are easy to make. Books that are now out in paperback don’t always need the corresponding hardcover. There are always the mistakes made during a frontlist buying session when I realize I’ve purchased every picture book with cute bears, regardless of the story, or I’ve overestimated how many of a new book would sell and now have four left of the display, etc. These are simple decisions often made with a rueful laugh and a promise to do a tighter frontlist order next season.

Then there are the harder decisions. Has a book earned its shelf space? Or am I keeping for purely nostalgic reasons? Or, do I need to have it because it’s a classic? People come to any bookstore with expectations of what makes a good store. Meeting these expectations while also doing the requisite number of inventory turns to remain profitable is a huge balancing act. Do we have the entire Swallows and Amazons series? Of course. Does it sell all the time? No. But we’re not going to return them because they’re great, they can change a child’s life (one reluctant reader years ago read the series and now designs boats), and they are measured by which your store is judged. We get people saying, “I can’t believe you have these!” and seeing those books on our shelves elevates the store in their minds and creates trust in our ability as booksellers. Do we need to have every Caldecott and Newbery winner? Probably not, if shelf space is determined by sales alone. But you can’t not have them. So you strike a balance and hope you’ve got the right mix for everything, but you  know that someone is always going to be disappointed or shocked we don’t have X or Y book.

So as I prepare to tackle returns, I’ll be looking at not only what hasn’t sold in a while, but why do I have it? And if I can’t honestly fight for the book, then it’s gone. But if someone on staff can lobby for a book then we’ll keep it. Maybe we could be more calculating about returns, but there’s always that lovely moment when an adult’s face lights up at seeing that long-lost childhood favorite he can now share with his children that somehow makes me proud we don’t just run the store strictly by the numbers.

Retailers: how do you approach returns at your store? And what types of books do you fight for?

 

 

 

Mean Customers and How They Make Us Feel

Josie Leavitt -- January 13th, 2015

We’ve all had this happen: sometimes customers are mean. They don’t set out to be angry or cranky, but sometimes they are. Recently, two of my youngest staffers shared a few funny interactions with me, proving what we all already knew: being able to share the misery, as it were, makes it easier to deal with mean people.

She had been helping a customer and it wasn’t going well, and rather than say anything out loud, rightpostshe let me know she needed help by slipping me a note, that quite simply said, “This woman doesn’t like me.” Almost heartbreaking in its simplicity, the note was a tiny cry for help borne out of frustration. Once I stopped chuckling (it was funny, after all) I traded spots with Laura and asked her to help me ring up someone while I worked with the woman. After I helped the customer, who didn’t really like me much either, Laura and I had a good laugh about it. But this brings up the joy of having other booksellers to be able to help out when things get a little difficult.

Sunday I left work early because I wasn’t feeling well and the store was quite slow on a frigid Sunday. PJ is quite capable and I retreated to my couch with a hot cup of tea and promptly fell textasleep – only to awakened by my phone alerting me I had a text from one of my co-workers. I’ve given all of them the same text tone of an old-fashioned teletype machine, it’s very loud. I read the text. I felt horrible. I texted back and asked if she needed help. She said she was okay, but someone actually yelled at her because we closed the store for a week to take our annual break. I really wish I had been there for that. Sometimes you just need help and someone who can handle the situation.

My turn for cranky customers came yesterday. I’m not sure if it’s the weather or just a wacky planetary lineup. But I was working with Laura and we had three in a row. And one on the phone. All smallflwounhappy about things I couldn’t totally fix. But we did reach good agreements and everything ended well.

Here’s the thing, though. The number of cranky or mean customers is literally dwarfed (by a factor of 100) by the number of customers who come in and share their kindness with us. I got to work Sunday and noticed fresh flowers. I asked who they were from and was told, “A customer saw the article in the Wall Street Journal about the bookstore and wanted to say congratulations.”

Luckily for me, this is the environment I have the pleasure of working in almost every day.