Author Archives: Josie Leavitt

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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Fun Books for Heat Waves

Josie Leavitt -- July 22nd, 2014

The temperature is hitting in the low 90s here in Vermont, and much of the country is also suffering from the first wave of hot summer weather. People stream into the bookstore and the first thing everyone says, “Oh, it’s so nice and cool in here.” Most folks in my neck of the woods don’t have central air-conditioning, so a store that’s 25 degrees cooler than the parking lot is a good, good thing. People seek a different kind of book during a warm stretch and come in with specific things in mind to help them beat the heat.

nancydrew Generally, the first thing people seek are books that “are easy to get into” and “page-turners.” Clearly, the summer heat has effected the brain of the average reader. It’s like the reading experience is as short as the season, so every book must be a winner. Or, maybe everyone only has room for one book in their beach bag and they want a good story. Even the kids say the same thing. Except they cut right to the chase. “I want something fun to read.” They have no judgment about what they need, they just know they want a pleasing book.

So, this got me thinking about when I was a kid and what was fun for me to read during the long hazy days of summer. I was one of those kids who skipped the middle grade section and went right for the adult horror books. Stephen King, Peter Straub and Mary Higgins Clark were hugely popular with me. I think one of the reasons I only read horror books in the summer was because it was light so much longer, so there was less chance of reading a truly scary part of a book in the dark of night. Some kids like to be scared these days, and honestly, with some dystopian novels being serious nightmare fodder, kids don’t really seek out horror books.

It seems a lot of kids this summer are coming in wanting funny or realistic books that aren’t sad, The greenFault in Our Stars being a notable exception. I love that kids are not leaving the middle grade section too soon. They are craving stories that mirror their lives. This might explain the popularity of the Middle School series by James Patterson with various co-authors, including Vermont’s own Chris Tebbetts. These books, like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, offer up a humorous take on the very challenging middle school time. What’s good about these is they shows the challenges of those hard years with accessible characters who make it all seem okay. Mostly, because none of the character’s exploits are actually happening to the reader. 

There is something delightful about a mystery in the summer. You have time to unravel the plot and guess who might be guilty of the crime. The Westing Game is always a popular favorite. The Great Brain series is old-fashioned fun, and believe it or not, there are still lots of kids who haven’t read Holes yet. The newest addition to the mystery section is Varian Johnson’s The Great Greens Heist which is just flying off the shelves. It’s also funny to me that the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books surge in popularity this time of year. 

So, readers, what do you gravitate towards in the summer? And, booksellers, what books are you recommending this summer?

Credit Where Credit is Due

Josie Leavitt -- July 21st, 2014

I think it’s safe to say that bookstores and credit departments feel like they have an antagonistic relationship sometimes. We both need each other, so being friendly makes more sense. But often the issue of money and paying bills can be fraught on both sides. I have a friend who works in the credit department at a snowboard company and he shared with me some of the things that make him crazy. It was illuminating, to say the least. “If people would just be nice to me when I call about their owing us $10,000 for custom boards, it would be delightful.” He finds customers to be sometimes rude, evasive and generally unpleasant. I can say that I’ve often found some credit reps to be rude and sometimes unpleasant. So, below is a list of things that I think could change the nature of the credit rep/bookstore relationship for good.

- Sending reminders with the statement attached is actually very helpful for me. But do not threaten, directly or implied, that if the check doesn’t get processed by the last day of the month, I’ll go on credit hold.

- I will strive to pay my entire bill by the due date. I know there are stores out there that never miss an end of month bill. But I remember Avin Domintz (former head of the ABA) leading a 2% Solution workshop years ago who suggested taking as long as possible to pay your bills, up to 60 days, to stretch your funds. While I don’t agree with that strategy it brings up the next point.

- Not all publishers will put you on credit hold if you’re two weeks late. Know who these are and pay accordingly.

- Who is your credit rep? Get to know him or her. I am getting to know my Random House rep because I asked her if her workload doubled with the Penguin merger and she said, “Pretty much, yes.” We had a lovely chat and now I’m not afraid of taking her calls because she’s fun. I think credit reps can be demonized because we are at odds with what they represent: our ability to pay bills and the shame that comes with having a hard month and needing to juggle who to pay.

- Be honest with your rep. Rather than avoiding calls or emails, take the bull by the horns and do one of two things: actually pay the bill you’ve been forgetting to or tell them why you can’t pay the whole thing. Offer up a payment schedule and know that you might be on hold for a bit.

- Credit reps can send statements that include all available credits. Baker and Taylor comes to mind as the chief offender here: the monthly email reminders do not include any of the credits. Why? Surely this is easily accessible account info to include.

- This brings me to the thing that bothers me the most: emails that say how much I owe for everything I’ve purchased and not just what’s due by the end of this month. Please don’t make me do math every time I need to pay. If we’re talking about what’s due for July, then don’t include all my open invoices (which can sometimes be things that aren’t due for another month or two) in that email.

- Do not make me send an email every time I want credits applied to my account. Of course I want you to apply the credits! No bookstore is ever going to say: No, please don’t use my credits from returns to pay all or part of my bill, let me write you a check for the entire statement balance.

- Another thing to add to that: do not send me a statement with credits and debits that aren’t tallied up. Again, let your spreadsheet tally things up for me, so I don’t have to add up all the open invoices and then subtract the credits. Having to do that work for you is irritating and it’s often the part of the task that gets interrupted because we all get called away from our desks so much.

- Be nice to your credit rep. They have a hard job. They’re under the gun to collect this money and more often than not, they are extremely reasonable if you actually speak kindly to them and offer a solution. And, they have more control over your books getting shipped out than anyone else. So, it’s helpful to treat them with respect.

- Lastly, pay your bills on time and this won’t even be a problem. But, should you over-extend or have a big school delay their payment to you or you’re waiting for the event returns to get logged in the publisher’s system, be patient and honest.

As more and more publishers merge and we’re writing bigger checks to fewer companies, it’s going to be vital for all of us to have strong relationships with the credit departments. I know I’m planning on spending much of my day today making sure I’m all ready for the end of the month.

 

Beach Books and More!

Josie Leavitt -- July 18th, 2014

It looks to be a great weekend for going to the beach here on the East Coast. I’m actually planning to zip up to a friend’s house on the lake and read, swim and generally have fun by not working. I always like to do a thorough check of the galleys that await before I go away. I noticed an envelope on my desk that was soft and inviting. There is always something exciting about the seasonal promo mailings. What does the publisher think we’ll use or need? Will it be helpful? These are clearly subjective issues, as everyone has different tastes, but I think it’s easy to agree that we could all use a beach towel or two, and maybe a beach bag to tote around our books.

beachbagWhat I didn’t expect, and honestly, have never seen before was a towel that is also a beach bag. Call me simple, but I marveled at this delivery from Hyperion for Jennifer Donnelly’s new book, Deep Blue. The envelope sat on my desk, from yesterday’s mail,  I opened it and at first I thought it was a nifty beach bag, but then Sandy suggested that it did something. A bag that does something? I opened it up and it turned into a towel, and back again. Okay, this is clearly simple fun, but still, I was delighted. And it holds a lot.

Then seemingly in a parade of beach things, we got a towelsdelivery from Scholastic suggesting that I needed to lounge by the water. Their package came with many things. A beach towel, sunscreen (how did they know I was out?), a water bottle ,and a bag. Okay, that is a full set of fun things needed to not only enjoy the summer, but to enjoy it safely. All the necessary items are included, down to a book. Sure, I might complain about reduced co-op funds being available, but getting promo items that are not only useful but fun is always a lovely thing.

sunblockAll these beach-going items are making me consider what books to bring to the lake this weekend. In addition To Catch a Falling Star, I’ll be bringing some adult novels with me: the new Sarah Waters galley, The Paying Guests, and also the new Chris Bohjalian, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. What will you be reading while you, hopefully, lounge by the water?