Author Archives: Josie Leavitt

If You Can Find It, You Get a Free Book

Josie Leavitt -- March 27th, 2015

Sometimes there are days when no matter how hard I try, I just cannot find a book that is supposed to be in the store. First the search is solitary: I just know the book is somewhere in the store, then after many minutes of searching, I ask a fellow bookseller for help. Then the two of us brainstorm just where the book could have gone. It gets to the point that one of is searching with the phone in a pocket so we can roam more freely and still get work done.

Such was the scene on Tuesday. Here’s the background: a customer ordered a book, the phone detectivenumber we had was out of order so we set the book aside on the counter with a note to research the number. The research led nowhere, so we kept the book on the side counter. Books do not make it on the special order hold case until we’ve contacted the customer in some way. Usually, this system works quite well. We all last saw the missing book on Thursday of last week. Then it was gone. We hadn’t sold it to anyone and we only had the one copy in the store so it was still very likely it was in the back of the store by the register or the office. The customer who ordered the book called Tuesday asking for it. We took her number, corrected her customer file and told her, quite honestly that the book was in the store but we couldn’t find it.

The call from the customer mobilized Laura first to start searching. When she couldn’t find it, I got obsessed. We almost always find books after searching this hard for them. I started enlisting customers’ help. I told the two groups we had in the store that if they found the book we would give them a book of the same value, free. This one mom had her kids looking. It was actually funny how many people in the store were just standing back from the shelves scanning the books. And here’s the crazy thing: not one person found the book. No one could find it. We even pulled the counter from the back wall to see if it had fallen behind it and the wall. It hadn’t. It’s been three days and we still can’t find the book. We checked every single special order being held, in case it was accidentally tucked in the wrong place.

It got so bad I asked every customer who came in the rest of that day to look for this book and explained the free book offer. Customers were very helpful and not one of them found it either, but they did have new perspective into one of the most frustrating parts of my job: looking for books. So, here’s what I know. The replacement copy has come in but we still can’t find that book. I have not given up, as I know on some level, that book is still in the store, and honestly, I’m not going to completely relax until it’s found.

Getting on the Family Calendar

Josie Leavitt -- March 24th, 2015

All bookstores struggle with getting people to attend events. Whether you’re a large store in a big city or a small store in a rural village, there is always pressure and anxiety about who will come to author readings. I hate poorly attended events, not for me, but for the author. I want all events to be great experiences for the author who might have come a distance to share him or herself with our community. It is impossible to predict how many people will not only come to an event, but sign up to coming beforehand.

This is where the family calendar is king. If an event makes it on the family calendar, then it’s very calendarlikely folks will actually come and not just think about going. The family calendar runs the lives of everyone I know. It has to. Families are so busy these days with children’s sports, play dates, tutoring sessions, etc., that there’s very little wiggle room for spontaneous additions. This is why getting a bookstore event inked in the calendar in advance can mean greater attendance for store events – making it to the calendar means someone in the family has committed to going to it.

In less than two hours last night we had upwards of 12 people RSVP for an event with parenting expert Vicki Hoefle on April 6th. (And three more people have signed up since I began writing this post.) We did not run an ad, nor did we do a radio spot. In fact, we spent no money at all. All we did was write up a modified press release for the event and post it on our local Front Porch Forum. This is the description of what FPF is from their website: “Front Porch Forum is a free community-building service. Your neighborhood’s forum is only open to the people who live there. It’s all about helping neighbors connect.” Its simplicity is genius. Its reach is vast and its cost is delightful.

The FPF goes to everyone nightly. It is often the only email people read because it is so local and it’s about your town and people you know. It’s not just about commerce or announcing tag sales, but it can help solve mysteries. For instance, everyone in part of my town heard a massive BOOM last weekend and many folks posted to FPF about it wondering what it was. Was it a train derailment? A frost quake? Ice shifts? Earthquake? Turns out someone had a party and set off a cannon. Yes, a cannon. Without the back and forth conversation that can happen on the forum, we’d all still be wondering. In the meantime we all learned a ton about big noises that can happen in winter.

Posting is simple: text only, no embedded images or links. We emailed our event listing in the morning and it was added to yesterday’s forum. Our announcement was towards the end of a rather long forum with lots of posts, but everyone read it through, as evidenced by how many people RSVPed. That kind of response is so gratifying. And the beauty of this is while you can only post to the forum in your neighborhood, other people can post your text to theirs for you, so you can cover the entire county for free if you have enough friends.

Knowing now how many folks signed up in one night is a great indicator of how successful the event will be. We will run the post three more times until April 6th and hope to fill the store and use the money we saved by not paying for advertising on bringing in more books.

Pencil Perfection

Josie Leavitt -- March 23rd, 2015

Elizabeth and I have had the bookstore for almost 19 years and we generally agree on most things we bring into the store. We’ve even said, quietly at the end of a long day when we’re dreaming a bit on what else we can do, “Wouldn’t art supplies be great?” Secretly, we both have a passion for art supplies. Why I’m not exactly sure. I can’t draw at all, but there’s something about a sketch book and nice pencil that delights me. Elizabeth is much the same, and she can drawCombine our love of all things arty, paper, pencils, crayons – heck, even good coloring books – and a brutally long winter where warmth never seems to take hold on sunny days, and you’ve created theIMG_2779 perfect storm for the great arts supply arrival.

As the sideline buyer, Elizabeth is responsible for bringing in some of our bestselling items: all of our cards, do-dads, toys, artsy things, and more. I am responsible for receiving these when they come in if she’s not there. I set about to receive two or three different sideline orders on Friday. They were all art supplies. At first I loved the idea of so many great pencils, pastel crayons, sketch pads, etc. But then I quickly became overwhelmed. I kept thinking, through my laughter, where are all of these going to go? I do not do displays, except the most simple ones. My skill is not in making things look pretty or necessarily funstuffinviting to the eye. Elizabeth dons her ubiquitous elf hat (we have a longstanding joke at the store that when Elizabeth stays late to rearrange sections, she’s “elfing”) and can make just about anything look good and suddenly people are buying whatever she’s put out.

I texted her a photo of what had come in. Partly to tease her but also partly for guidance. I was utterly overwhelmed. These boxes are all writing implements or sketchbooks. That felt like a lot to me. I was getting confused about how to group them and where they should go.  Elizabeth came in at two for her shift and we all had a good laugh. Then later that day and well into the evening (elfing is hard stuff that takes concentrated time with no customers) she texted me photos of the our new sections with handmade signs that say Spring into Creativity. And we are apencilselling them! How can we not? They all look so inviting. Doesn’t everyone loves the possibility of creation, of taking a blank page and filling it with lines and shadows to make a picture? And what better way to create young artists than with easy (and very affordable) and fun supplies?

Here’s the only thing: I took one sideline meeting a month ago when Elizabeth was out sick. What did I order? Pencils!

The Delight of Discovery

Josie Leavitt -- March 13th, 2015

It’s not often that changing sections of the bookstore actually occurs to me. Usually, this is Elizabeth’s area of expertise. I often joke that if it were left to me, we’d have exactly the same set-up we had the day we opened. The other day I had a moment of inspiration about graphic novels. I must confess, that this year is the first year I’ve really gotten into graphic novels. Why I’ve resisted them for so long is beyond – they’re wonderful, but that’s another blog post. Graphic novels had been in a spinner case towards the back of the store where we have the fantasy, sports, action adventure and young adult sections.

IMG_4236I got this idea looking at a case of books and thinking, “Hmm, I haven’t sold any of these in a while.” Graphic novels have been selling well, but people are always asking if we have them, which tells me they’re not seeing them. So I did an even swap for the action adventure books and the graphic novels. And everything fit in their respective new sections. There is nothing more frustrating than swapping out a section only to realize that I’ve misjudged and there isn’t enough room and then I have to re-shelve everything back where I started.

I liked how things looked. Putting graphic novels in the same area as fantasy seemed like a good fit. The thing with organizing a bookstore is working hard to have similar sections next to each other so that serendipitous browsing can happen. The delight of discovery should be a goal of every store. My thinking behind this shift will hopefully bear itself out. Just as graphic novels seemed to have a solid home, I felt equally strongly about the action adventure books. Kids who like the Alex Rider or the young James Bond series might also enjoy a rousing sports book. Again, put similar books where like-minded readers are likely to find them. This also works for people shopping for these kids. They might see a graphic novel on their way to get another book and think, “Maybe I should try that for my daughter.” The real beauty of the switch is having enough shelf space to face out more titles, which also translates to more sales.

I will check back in a month and let everyone how this switch has been in terms of increased (hopefully) sales and customer feedback. If your store has moved a section and it really worked, please share your success story in the comments. I’m always curious.

Looking Bad Because of Vacations

Josie Leavitt -- March 10th, 2015

There is a rhythm to every day at the bookstore and much of that is determined by when the deliveries come in. These boxes, especially on Tuesday and Friday, have our distributor orders that often contain customer’s special orders. Our customers know this schedule and they notice when things are amiss.

It’s been a hard winter for predictable delivery schedules. Ingram’s Tennessee warehouse was closed for days because of ice. Baker and Taylor’s New Jersey center was socked in by snow, as was Bookazine’s. In the meantime, the weather up in Vermont was just really cold, but not stormy, so people wondered why their books weren’t coming in. People tried to be patient, but grew tired of explanations about the warehouses and their weather situations. They were seeking books to survive the brutally cold winter, so just as their need for books was at its height, we were hindered because of global warming.

The problem came when the weather seemed to be better and books still weren’t coming on the expected schedule. Why weren’t the books coming in? Our regular Fed Ex and UPS  drivers were on vacation, vacations that were well deserved and not begrudged at all. These people work extremely hard in jobs that are not easy. But when the regular man (we don’t have any female drivers) isn’t there, the timing of deliveries is off, sometimes, way off.

We are lucky enough to normally get our shipments by 12:30 (sometime as early as 10:30). This allows us to receive them quickly and call all the special order folks before they need to pick up the kids at school. Generally, we’re not as busy in the morning as we are in the hours between three and six, which allows us to haul through the receiving and focus only on that. In essence, this early unpacking of orders really does allow us to provide next day book delivery. However, when the deliveries come later in the day, it pushes everything back.

This might not sound like an issue, but in fact it’s one of the largest issues we face. When my Fed Ex deliveries show up at 5:15 we have lost the battle of being able to provide overnight delivery. There is no way we can get everything unboxed, received, sorted, shelved and more importantly, we cannot call the special order customers. We’ve talked about this as a store and decided it’s just rude to call someone at five to six, often during dinner,  and tell them their special order is here, but we’re closing in five minutes, so you have to wait until tomorrow anyway. So, books the folks expected on a certain day are now coming in a day later. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but it is. And it’s utterly out of my control, which is the truly maddening part of the whole thing.

All this really serves to do is make appreciate my regular drivers all the more, which is why, come Monday, I’ll be leaping for joy to see Bart and Ray again.


Visiting with Old Friends

Josie Leavitt -- March 9th, 2015

The girl walked in, no, she practically skipped to the counter. Her smile was broad and her bright eyes were sparkling. At first I thought she was just having a wonderful day, but no, she was coming to pick her book. The book she’s waited two years for: the final book in the Clementine  series by Sarah Pennypacker. The funny thing is when Bridget got the last new book two years ago, she was a fourth grader. clementineShe has been waiting ever since for the latest and last installment. Now she’s a sixth grader who is older than the target audience for the series about the antics of third grader Clementine.

Here’s the thing: Bridget didn’t care. Bridget wanted to see how the series ended. She paid with her own money, and hugged the book as we got her change. Honestly, she wanted to say goodbye to her book friends, even if they were younger than her, and not something she would pick up now.

It was a bittersweet moment at the register. We could see this child struggling with growing up and not being ready to fully embrace the sixth grader she has become and wanting the comfort of the younger Clementine and the innocence of a third grader’s problems.

I love that Bridget honored her need to read this book. She wasn’t afraid of dipping back into a younger book. Her happiness at spending time with these beloved characters eclipsed anything else. And the real joy with this transaction came when we all overheard at front shout a whispered, “Yes!” as she hugged the book one last time.



Not All Change Is Good

Josie Leavitt -- March 2nd, 2015

I haven’t ranted in a bit, so the time felt right for a fresh bit of ire. Let’s talk about book covers for a minute, and publishers’ need to keep changing them. I understand sometimes the need for shifting a book’s image once the paperback comes out, but the re-doing of covers of books that have been out for years in paperback often leaves me flat or just plain scratching my head. Here’s the thing: I could no more design a book cover than I could perform surgery. It’s a complex process that requires infinite skill and artistry and I’m in awe of what book designers can do. And so often, I’m stunned by the genius in the covers. But as a bookseller who has to field question after question about why a beloved cover has changed, not being able to offer an explanation is maddening.

princessacademyTake for instance Princess Academy  by Shannon Hale, a book that I adore and sell well at my store. The old cover is on the left. I looked up the age range for this edition of the book and it says ages 9-11, which strikes me as young, since the protagonist is 14. However, the font is mature, and fitting for a fantasy about princesses and an academy, even a makeshift one. It all seems very real and somewhat serious, and the girl looks intelligent and seems like she can take care of herself. She doesn’t look like a 14-year-old, though, which was my only complaint about this cover.

When I heard they were redesigning the newprincesscover, I was expecting something that looked even older. Instead, the new cover is even younger. The font is almost cartoonish and Miri looks even younger. Certainly she doesn’t look like a 14-year-old, more like a 10-year-old. And the light coming from behind the her, illuminating the seemingly hallowed halls of the Academy, somehow remind me of Harry Potter and Hogwarts. I looked up the age range on this new cover, fully expecting it to be the same as the other cover and was very surprised to see that it’s listed as actually older, for 10- to 14-year-olds. This doesn’t make sense to me; everything about this cover skews younger. I understand why things need to be updated, but sometimes I wish publishers would ask booksellers’ opinion before they change covers.

IMG_4166While the changes in Princess Academy are relatively minor, sometimes there’s a massive change in covers that I just don’t grasp. I loved the Nancy Drew books when I was a child. The iconic yellow and blue paper over board covers, with their slight sheen, always had me excited for the next mystery adventure. It never occurred to me that these covers would change, but change they did. Gone is the bright yellow and the deep blue, to be replaced with muted russets and murky blues. In the old cover, Nancy is taking a clock apart. She looks active and smart. She looks like someone who is capable and somewhat fearless.

IMG_4165The new cover shows Nancy’s face in profile with her long scarf leading down the road to the motor home. This imagery has led more than one customer to comment that it looks like her scarf is wound up in the vehicle thus possibly replicating an Isodora Duncan-like possible death. This new Nancy looks like she needs help to cross the road, let alone being able to solve a complex mystery. She’s not dressed for mystery, she looks like she’s ready to hop in a convertible and go for a spin on her way to the flapper dance hall.

In my very non-scientific poll, not one customer, young or old, has liked the new cover. Some of that is nostalgia, of course, but the reactions are pretty visceral. The new cover with its cursive title, doesn’t match the interior font, which has not changed. As one customer said, “The title font isn’t having a conversation with the rest of the book.” But the thing that’s making people nuts is the passivity of the new cover and the lack of focus.

So readers, what do you think of the cover changes? And, has any cover redesign left you bereft for the old book?


Vacation Reading: How to Choose the Right Books

Josie Leavitt -- February 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Nerve-Wracking Things

Josie Leavitt -- February 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Flu Hits

Josie Leavitt -- February 13th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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