Author Archives: Josie Leavitt

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Great Catalog Idea

Josie Leavitt -- August 13th, 2014

Every bookstore strives to create unique newsletters and catalogs, and oftentimes we are successful. But there are times when we could use a little help. This is where the ABC Children’s Group sponsored by the American Bookselling Association, comes in. Every year they create a full-color catalog for all member stores to use for the whole year. The catalog, Best Books for Children and Teens, features titles vetted by members, so it’s not about publishers paying for advertising, this is a catalog of books we all feel strongly about recommending in our stores.

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A Busman’s Holiday

Josie Leavitt -- August 8th, 2014

I have recently been traveling in New England and, as I’m wont to do when I’m on holiday, I visit other bookstores. I do this for several reasons, chiefly, I love bookstores and it’s nice to be in one and not see everything that needs to get done, but rather, just enjoy the store. When I’m in a store I become one of those people who sniffs the books, who stands back and admires the display, wonders about the choices for face outs and ponders what sections are the good sellers.

I was in Bethel, Ct., and stopped by Byrd’s Books. I heard about this store through our trade smallassociation and have been reading their very good e-newsletter, so I was very curious to see the store. The day I happened to visit, they were busily preparing for their Find Waldo Local party. My timing really couldn’t have been worse. I arrived at three, just under an hour from their party with an expected attendance of 50 kids and their parents. They had moved most of the shelving out of the middle of the store (they had smartly gotten all their floor units on wheels, so they could move them out of the way for events) and the owner, Alice Hutchinson, kept apologizing for the store “being in disarray.” I assured her I was used to pre-event chaos. And I have to say her idea of chaos was my idea of calm, everyone bustled about with purpose but not in a frenzy. Despite this, she still managed to show me around the store.

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Requesting Author Events with Grids

Josie Leavitt -- August 4th, 2014

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The book world runs six months ahead of the calendar, which is why we all order our Christmas books in July and why our event proposals for winter 2015 are due in the coming weeks. In the old days (yes, I just said that, I think after almost 18 years, the old days were sufficiently different and far enough away that I can get away with that) , an event proposal really boiled down to begging reps to send authors and illustrators to us. It seemed there was more possibilities then because things felt more flexible. Now, everything is computerized: stores fill out event grids on Edelweiss and hope tohear “yes” back from someone in the publicity department.

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