Author Archives: Josie Leavitt

Kids Say the Darndest Things

Josie Leavitt -- October 22nd, 2014

Yesterday, three groups of kindergarten kids came to the bookstore to learn about community. They were visiting several stores, and even the bank, as they ventured forth from school to see what’s in the village. I looked out the front door of the store and saw the kids crossing the street like ducklings, all holding hands and walking in pairs. They entered the store, 15 or 20 at a time, in three shifts, and each class brought a new level of unintended hilarity.

The first group came in and I was ready to read some stories about communities. One great thing about owning a bookstore with an author was being able to read her book Tap Tap Boom Boom to them. Then they got to meet Elizabeth and that was pure delight. Here’s what I learned with kindergartners: they are gloriously random. When asked if anyone had been to the Flying Pig before many hands went up and the following things were said:

– I have a pig at my farm. And a baby dog.

– I like bacon.

– One time, when I was three, we had a dog.

I realized I had to get them back on track, but another little hand went up.

– I’m allergic to dogs.

Okay then. I’m not sure how teachers handle this stream of consciousness every day. The next class was really good about staying on topic, but the last class started with one shy boy raising his hand almost right away. He was nervous, but clearly needed to share.

– If you use scissors, you have to put them the right way when you’re done. Because (he was miming cutting with his hands) if you don’t, it could cut up all your paper.

And lastly, my favorite part of having kids come to the store is asking them to guess how many books we have. The answers started small, with 25 being the most guessed. Elizabeth explained that one shelf in the picture book section had at least 100 books, so they shifted their numbers up, to 101. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any cuter, one boy shouted, “Infinity!” and I was completely done in.

These classes come twice a year to us and every time I marvel at seeing so many little ones in the picture book section. I’m so used to seeing kids with their parents, that seeing them all together, 15 of them filling the picture book section with room to spare, touches me and reminds me that these are the next generation of readers. As they were leaving, one little girl said, “I love books!” I felt proud to be part of their world.

It Pays to Save Energy

Josie Leavitt -- October 17th, 2014

Something bookstore folks don’t really ever talk about are light bulbs. We are so dependent on them for everything at the store. Obviously, all retail places need them, but you don’t realize how much until you lose two in one section and suddenly your young adult section is as dark as a cave. And it always seems that bulbs go bad in one section all at once. This past week or so we lost not one, not two, but five! Two were from young adult and the rest were scattered about the store, causing small pockets of dimness.

Confronted with needing to buy a replacement case of bulbs (at a usual cost of almost $100), Elizabeth went to our local lighting store, and started placing an order for our usual 50 watt halogens, when our lighting rep suggested trying the new LED bulbs. We had tried them years ago and found the light to not have the retail pop or sparkle of the halogens: things were bright, but dim and the same time. It’s funny how bad lighting can make things look dingy. Frank was touting the wonder of these new LEDs so much, and we totally trust him, so she ordered a case and got spare halogens to tide us over. I got a call that the case had come in yesterday, so I zipped over to pick them up, credit card at the ready.

Frank handed me the case and said, “These will change your life.” I’ve never thought a light bulb ledcould that, so I nodded and smiled. He handed me the bill and I saw the first line. Total cost per bulb: $29.99. I thought, wow, this better change my life at thirty dollars a pop. It came to just about $180 for the case. Then Frank, who was clearly waiting for the big reveal, said, “Keep reading.” I scanned the invoice to discover that yes, these bulbs were that expensive, but because they’re energy efficient, putting out the same brightness as a halogen bulb, while only using 14 watts of energy, the state of Vermont gives you an energy credit for buying them. An instant rebate in the amount of $150 was applied and I tucked my credit card back in my wallet and gave Frank $25 in cash. I saved just over 83% on the case of bulbs. I left there smiling from ear to ear.

I replaced all the bulbs immediately and I must say, not only are they brighter and make the books more sparkly, they give off far less heat, so the store doesn’t get nearly as warm. We will slowly switch out all the old lights to the LEDs and use the money we saved to buy more books.

They Don’t Need Me (And That’s a Great Thing)

Josie Leavitt -- October 15th, 2014

I returned to work yesterday after a rare 10-day vacation. This is not normally news, but I never go away for this long. The break was much needed and my staffers were all too happy to fill in my shifts for me so I could go away worry-free. It was delightful to get away and know that the bookstore was in good hands. I got very few work-related calls while I was gone – always a sign that things are running smoothly.

I walked in the store and was struck by how lovely it is. It’s so easy to take the store for granted when you work day in and day out. But to be greeted by our flying pig display table filled to the brim with Halloween books, and the cart of delectable autographed books, I was filled with an intense love of the place. The bright blue walls, the colorful rugs, our upholstered cubes dotting sections all combined to have me just fall in love with the place again. Then I looked at the displays and saw all the new books that had come out in my absence. October is always a grand month for new releases, and this one has not disappointed. Yummy books for adults and children filled the face-out cases. The first phone call I fielded was someone asking if we had a certain title. I hadn’t heard of the book, so almost said no reflexively. Of course we had it – in fact, we had two.

The beauty of a great staff is they get things done. Elizabeth had done a wonderful job on the Eileen Christelow event (see yesterday’s post to learn more). And I was sad to have missed that one. Nothing is more fun than a packed event with tons of kids all having a great time. I did little of the event planning, and wished somehow that I could have zipped back for it. We got a lot of teacher orders while I was gone, some big and some small. All were handled with speed and accuracy. In fact, the only teacher order mistake was mine, which I discovered when I came back. Somehow I had misquoted an invoice and still am not sure how I made a $20error. Things ran so smoothly with me gone, I wondered, in jest, if they actually needed me. Of course they do, but it’s a delightful thing to know that I’m not indispensable, because now that I’ve had a proper vacation I’d like to go away more, but not till after the fun and hustle of the fourth quarter.

A Visit to Bunch of Grapes

Josie Leavitt -- October 10th, 2014

I’ve been on Martha’s Vineyard all week at a writing retreat. Yesterday I took a break and ventured to Vineyard Haven to do a little sightseeing. Of course, I didn’t really get much farther than the bookstore: Bunch of Grapes. I have never been to the Vineyard before, but I remember so well hearing about the devastating fire on July 4, 2008 that forced the bookstore to close. They relocated across the street in an old livery stable, and the store is just lovely.

I love bookstores with character. Bunch of Grapes is welcoming and full of the old livery beams that were used for horse stalls that add height to the space and give it a unique feel. The store was bustling with staffers that morning. I asked Karen, who seemed to be in charge that day, why so many staffers were working and she said, “They’re training.” It seems that the summer crew has gone and there was a new crop of booksellers learning about the store – it was one person’s second day! – and getting ready for the fourth-quarter rush. They were a very nice bunch, but with the exception of Karen, none had worked at the store longer than a month. I must say, for folks in training, these staffers were all busy and really seemed to know what they were doing. This speaks to a very well-run store with a great training program.

photo 1Bunch of Grapes sells some unique items. The one that really caught my eye were the book bird houses. They were simple and elegant and made out of old books. I asked Karen about them and she said they sell really well, and I can see why. Some were of children’s books, and some were made out of adult books. I love the note next to them: Don’t pick up by the perch.

When I visit other stores, I always look at how they display books and sidelines. I must say, Bunch of Grapes has a very clean, uncluttered feel and everything is very nicely displayed. They pack a lot in their space without it feeling crammed. Their kids’ section was lovely and 3photo 2I love the sideline case. The puzzles look so good together and it’s smart of them to have their own place.  I also really enjoy seeing what books other stores feature. Their picture books display has some of my favorites and some I wasn’t familiar with. Lastly, I covet their display table in the front with adult books. It’s large enough to really feature a fair number of titles, and it’s really just an antique table, and the arrangement of the books really works. photo 4Such a simple and effective way to highlight almost 20  titles. And the stacks of books are just the right height, not too many to feel overwhelming and not too few so customers wouldn’t feel comfortable taking one off the stack. I love traveling and going to other stores, but my favorite part of traveling is returning to my store and seeing it with fresh eyes.

Tips for Successful Teacher Nights

Josie Leavitt -- October 6th, 2014

Last week I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Karen Rosenthal, children’s events coordinator for RJ Julia Booksellers, about working with schools. The panel should have had four of us but because of illness it was just me and Karen. I have to say, I couldn’t take notes fast enough when Karen was talking how RJ Julia plans, organizes, and runs it two very successful yearly teacher nights.

Teacher nights are a wonderful way to bring educators into a store. But often it can be a hit or miss karen_2propositions that require a lot of effort. Karen made it all seem not only doable, but very profitable and a great a way to build good will. She starts by saving all the publisher promotional items – bookmarks, pens, posters, doodads and whatnot – throughout the year. Then she contacts reps and asks for tote bags to put the swag in, and reps are all too happy to help out. Every attendee gets a bag. They have an ongoing raffle during the night that seems to generate a lot of buzz with the teachers.

RJ Julia has two teacher nights a year. The autumn one, usually in November, is a general night. Teachers are invited for an evening that starts at 5:00. Promoting them is done largely through the existing teacher email lists, the store website and in-store promo. They serve wine and cheese (wine is vital) and do their best to make it feel like a night out for the teachers. Timing of teacher night was something we’ve all struggled with. Four is too early, seven is too late, etc. Karen hit on 5 p.m. as a good time because it gives the teachers time to finish up at school and still get home by seven for their family dinner. Teachers are encouraged to sign up in advance, but it’s not required. The staff takes a quick poll of grade levels among attendees and then quickly booktalks new books, both in hardcover and paperback, for those levels. Then they let the teachers browse while they pull the raffles. All purchases made by teachers that evening, for themselves, or their classrooms, are discounted 20%. This makes the evening all the more fun and teachers tend to buy more for themselves, Karen said, than their classrooms.

The spring teacher night is one where they bring in publisher reps who talk about their books; last spring’s topic was the Common Core and it was packed. Karen asked two or three reps to come in and speak about their books and how they can be used to fulfill various requirements. Kate Sullivan from Random House was at the panel and said for her schedule it’s best to plan four to six months ahead. All the reps in attendance said that they were more than happy to come to a store a do a teacher night with enough notice.

Teacher nights are such a good way to work with all the local schools, public and private, that all stores should really do them. Karen’s very practical tips make it seem easy. And, to bring educators into the bookstore, rather than only having them order via email or phone, is an easy way to build community. The teachers get to see the whole store as they shop in all the sections and they make connections with other teachers they might not know. It’s a win-win for all involved, plus it’s a great way to give away all of the promo items that bookstores are fairly drowning in.

Bookstore staffers, how do you organize your teacher nights? and teachers, what kind of teacher night works best for you?

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.


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.