Author Archives: Josie Leavitt

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.

Misreading a Book

Josie Leavitt -- January 12th, 2015

I was at a party over the weekend and several people were talking about Sarah Waters’ book The Paying Guests. Everyone loved it (if you haven’t read it yet, go get it and prepare to get lost for a few days reading) and we all spoke about parts of the book we loved when my friend Hillary just started laughing. The book isn’t a comedy, by any stretch of the imagination. I asked her what was so funny and never expected her response.

It seems Hillary read the back of the book prior to starting it. Here’s where the funny comes in. The 9781594633119back of the book has blurbs for all her other books. Hillary read only the review for The Little Stranger, which is a ghost story. She started her reading with that overlay in mind. “I’m a reading a ghost story,” Hillary thought as she started The Paying Guests. Well, not so much. But here’s the really interesting thing: she read through the entire first part of the book (almost 200 pages) expecting a ghost story, so she kept finding one. In her mind she could very easily see how the rundown house could become a gothic haunting. How perhaps every creak on the stairs was a deceased brother coming back to give a message to his sister. Of course, she didn’t share this at the time, she just kept that to herself silently wondering when the ghost was going to reveal him or herself. This made for an unsatisfying read because the thing she kept wanting, ghosts or supernatural occurrences, never happened.

It was until she got to the end of the first part and the two women became lovers that she realized, “Oh, this is a love story, not a ghost story!” Needless to say, when she shared this at the party all of were laughing very, very hard. This brought up a very interesting discussion about how what we think a book is going to be can be at odds with what the book actually is. And then this got me thinking about how I talk about books with kids. Am I saying too much about the book? Am I focusing on one thing and sacrificing other information that might for a better reading experience?

Kids are very good at reading the blurbs on the jackets, and most kids’ books don’t have reviews of other books on the back, but still it got me thinking about what we say about books before people start reading them and does that color the reading experience. In some cases, clearly, that’s an issue, but in others it’s not. I think the less I know about a book, the better off I am, because sometimes I latch onto a detail or idea about the book and spend my time as a reader looking for that detail, just as Hillary was looking for ghosts.

So readers, I’m curious: how much do you like to know about a book before you start reading it?

How to Turn Kids into Readers

Josie Leavitt -- January 5th, 2015

As the first week of the new retail year begins today, I had some thoughts/wishes for the year. There are always conversations that occur at the bookstore that make me realize helping children become readers is hard work. Not just teaching kids how to read, but creating patterns where books are vital to their lives. I realized that there is a lot of shame with reading and our job as booksellers is to mitigate that shame with joy. Continue reading

Holiday Round-Up

Josie Leavitt -- December 29th, 2014

This is the last Monday recap for the year. The last week proved to be busy, fun, and creative. We saw more people come shopping than ever before. In speaking with other merchants in Shelburne, everyone reported sales were up this year over last year.

I think this is from the combination of factors, but the chief thing I attribute it to is the group advertising the shops in the village did together. mBuying ad time as a block of stores, rather than just one or two, helped build momentum for Shelburne stores. The beauty of my town is if someone comes for just one store, because of the ads they were made aware of the other stores and stayed in town longer for their shopping. People would come to our store with bags from other stores around town and that was a lovely sight. Continue reading

Feeling the Love: Week 3 Recap

Josie Leavitt -- December 22nd, 2014

This has been a tremendous week for the Flying Pig! Sales are way up, we have most of the books folks are looking for, and if we’re out of something, we are able to help folks regroup, and people are leaving the store happy with their purchases. As we head to the final days before Christmas, things have gotten hectic, harried, and fun and we’ve gotten unprecedented media coverage that has led to record-breaking sales.

- Let’s start with the huge news: The Wall Street Journal is featuring our store in a travel piece set to run on December 27 about how seven bookstores across the country are anchoring their city.  We got this news late Thursday afternoon and Elizabeth smartly emailed press releases about it to all the local TV stations, two of whom came with crews on Friday morning. The pieces aired Friday night and Saturday saw a massive influx of new shoppers to the store. One mom said to her daughter, “Forget Barnes & Noble: we’ve found our new bookstore!” I’m not sure anything has made my retail heart soar more than that.

In a non-scientific survey of customers, about 60% of Saturday’s shoppers had never been to the store before. All signed up for our frequent buyers club and took copies of our newsletter. The best way to get new customers is wow them once they walk in and we seem to have done that, so it was a very busy weekend, full of great compliments and happy people.

- The other enormous news for the week was the Elizabeth’s book, Tap Tap Boom Boom, was tapselected by the New Public Library as one of the top 100 books of the year! It’s a great list and we couldn’t be happier for Elizabeth’s book to be included. This news was also a large part of our press coverage. I spent much of Saturday ringing our “we need register help bell” twice to indicate there was a book she needed to personalize. It was fun and great to see Elizabeth wearing her author hat at the store and making people’s holidays by being able to personalize books for customers. Even one of our shyer staffers got into ringing the bell twice for Elizabeth. 

- One of our co-workers who just loves working the hustle and bustle of the holidays had to go to California to be with an ailing family member last Monday, so we were down one vital person until after the New Year. This is hard, but points up the family nature of the bookstore. It’s not about retail, it’s about heart and doing the right thing. We text her updates and of course she’s thrilled for us, but sad to missing such a fun week.

- Book deliveries are still a problem. One of our largest distributors continues to have what would normally be overnight shipments arrive two to three days later, which has forced us to adjust who we order from. We did get deliveries from Fed Ex on Saturday and UPS on Sunday, so clearly they’re working hard to clear the backlog from the storm a few weeks ago.

- I’ve noticed this year that people don’t seem as frantic as they have in years past. There is some flexibility with book choices and we are working hard to get creative about books and suggest things that someone would love, even if it’s not their first choice. I do love this part of the holiday: thinking outside the box and delighting someone with an unexpected choice that turns out to be perfect.

- Elizabeth has done a great job of bringing in some last-minute unique sidelines that are wowing folks. One in particular are the cards, prints, and hand mirrors of a local artist, Jess Polanshek, who Elizabeth blogged about in February. I am stunned at how quickly all of her work is selling. It is truly unique and I’m so happy people are responding to her art.

- As we head into the final days before Christmas and the last two days of Hanukkah, I feel like the marathon is almost over and I’m so pleased with how we’ve run the race thus far. And I’m really enjoying the appreciation of customers who are all being so gracious about telling us how much our store means to them.

Retailers, how was your week? Any surprising sales trends?

Everyone Gets Punchy This Time of Year

Josie Leavitt -- December 16th, 2014

‘Tis the season for booksellers and customers to get a little loopy from the pace of the holiday season.  Here’s how you know the season is in full swing:

- We laugh more. This is a great defense mechanism and one that makes work a little more fun. Instead of panicking at the UPS man whose cart is so full with book boxes his tires are actually going flat, we just start laughing at the enormity of his delivery. We chuckle through receiving 20 massive boxes, trying to call all the customers who have gotten their special orders, shelving all the books and restocking the shelves that are now looking bare. Laughter helps in so many ways, even if it’s not totally appropriate and we’re just laughing because someone made a silly noise while eating a cookie.

- Book requests from customers get very specific this time of year and can be challenging. Someone came in yesterday and asked for a book “…about a cheetah who teaches an adult something special and doesn’t die at the end.” She had the good grace to chuckle a bit when asking this. I’m not sure if my face betrayed my total lack of ideas, or if she knew this was a tough request. (We never found a suitable cheetah book, but I did convince her to shift gears and get My Family and Other Animals  by Gerald Durrell.)

- This time of year booksellers are always hungry. Most booksellers tend to get to lunch far later than they should on a regular day, but during the holidays, when lunchtime is a busy time at the store, we push lunch back even more. Yesterday, Elizabeth and I didn’t eat lunch until just after 5 pm. This is not good. Going that long without food just means that you’re brain isn’t working as well, so requests of cheetah books seem unnecessarily difficult and amusing. Plus, my stomach was growling loud enough that customers heard it and told me to go eat!

- When there’s a lull, it can get silly. For some reason, I’ve been delighting in throwing balls of paper at unsuspecting staffers. I try to bounce one off someone’s head into the recycling. They’re so shocked they just stand there looking indignant, which just makes me laugh even more. No one has yet thrown paper at me, but I would welcome it.

- There is never enough coffee.

- I wouldn’t have it any other way. As hard as a this season is for retailers, it’s also fun. Sure, it’s exhausting and the level of detail is painstaking, but there is something really exciting about selling so many books and knowing that there are going to be some very happy people on Chanukah or Christmas opening books that are perfect for them.

Second Week of December Recap

Josie Leavitt -- December 15th, 2014

As we enter the last 10 days before the holiday, it’s time for my recap of the previous week.

- Sales continue to be great. We are ahead of last year, even with the snow (and school snow days) and are continuing the trend of folks spending a lot more per purchase than they did last year or even the year before. Yes, we have lost some customers to the e-book world, but the ones who are buying physical books are buying heaps of them. Customers are finding that they can get a lot of shopping done at the store whether it’s for books, toys, games or stocking stuffers. We are happily wrapping and giving out sugar plums by the pound.

- Who knew that Pioneer Girl  by Laura Ingalls Wilder would be the hot book of the season that is 9780984504176utterly unavailable? I’m sure the publisher, South Dakota Historical Society, was taken by surprise as well, judging by the late date of the reprints.- Shipping issues continue to plague us. One distributor seems to have at least one box (if not two) go missing with every delivery. Theses errant boxes do eventually show up, but often it’s after someone’s deadline for their special order. Customers are not as understanding about these shipping issues as they could be. Of course, this makes sense because they all have deadlines, too. Another shipper seems to get our primary warehouse deliveries to us on time, but ones from our secondary warehouse take up to a week longer to arrive, which is several days later than normal. So, Elizabeth has spent a lot of time on the phone trying to sort this out and get things reshipped.

- One of our staffers, who loves the craziness of holiday shopping, had to go to California for her ailing sister. Darrilyn’s last workday of the year was Saturday. Being down one person is hard enough, but to lose someone who absolutely thrives on the chaos that is the holidays is a tough blow for the store. She and I created a tiny competition among the rest of the staff for who could sell the most of their five favorite books. Her top book is Being Mortal and it’s currently beating my top book, Nuts to You, by a tiny margin. But with 10 days left to go, it’s anyone’s game. And we’re all selling Darrilyn’s choices with gusto.

- When one staffer goes down, the others step up. Short of cloning ourselves, there’s not much to be done except pick up extra shifts. Everyone has taken at least one of her shifts so we’re essentially covered, but it’s going to be a challenge this week until David comes back from college and helps save the day by working December 20th through 24th.

- Th first big snowstorm of the year took not one day but two to finally get out of town. The first hit caused us to close early on Wednesday because the roads were looking really bad. The second blast of the storm caused so much tree damage at my house that until all my neighbors helped clear the trees, the snowplow man couldn’t come. Staffers who live in Burlington were able to come in at the regular time. I wasn’t able to get there until after one. We were all just grateful that didn’t happen on the weekend.

- The only thing that I’d like to change about this season is the music. We are stuck on the same bad five CDs and I’m starting to lose my mind with Barbra Streisand’s version of Jingle Bells.