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It Might Be Getting Busy Soon

Cynthia Compton -- December 9th, 2019

“So, I guess you’ll be getting busy soon?”

I looked up from the stack of wrapped stack of packages that I was tying together with tulle, cordless phone cradled between my raised shoulder and ear, and smiled quickly (without teeth) at the customer standing in front of the register, who was blocking the line of folks with full arms waiting to check out. My staffer at the register was quickly scanning books and bagging items, and everyone else was busy on the floor, so I’d handle this one myself, as soon as I left this voicemail:  “Hi, Camilla – it’s Cynthia at the bookstore. Your titles are in, and I’ll keep them behind the counter for you. Send me a text back at this number if you’d like them gift wrapped before you arrive. We’re open from 9 am until 8 pm, no, 9 pm…. oh, we’re here all the time. Just come over when it’s convenient.”

“We ARE getting busy, and I’m glad you could stop by. How can I help shorten your gift list today?”

“Well, I’m just looking. Getting ideas, you know. Looks like you have lots of stocking stuffers. Maybe I’ll come back for some. So, are you going to be getting a lot more new stuff in before Christmas?”

“IT’S DECEMBER 8TH!” I wanted to scream. “You have 16 sleeps until Santa. Just how long do you need to generate an IDEA?” Fortunately, all my thoughts remained silent, and I made a conscious effort to relax my shoulders and put a smile into my response:

“Well, probably. You know us, we’re always full of surprises, and things are selling SO QUICKLY, we’ll probably be ordering right up until Christmas Eve. Tell me, what kinds of things are your kids interested in right now?”

“I don’t really know. They are so busy. They don’t really have any free time. So, what’s really hot for kids this year? What’s the “must have” thing?”

“Free time. Unstructured time. Screen-free time. Parents to talk to who have time to listen, and make an effort to do so. Unfettered access to books, and supplies for building and creating. Outside time, without a scheduled sporting activity. Friends of all ages – not just cohorts of their artificially grouped school schedule. Meaningful volunteer or service work. Time for spiritual practice, meditation, or contemplation. BOREDOM.”  I didn’t say any of those things aloud, but my brain shouted all of those answers simultaneously, loudly enough, I thought, to drown out the strains of the Justin Bieber Christmas album that I had indulgently allowed the staff to stream in the store today. (Side note: two keys to staff productivity are unlimited snacks and a choice of music. Both are cheap and reduce turnover.)

“It’s a great year for variety and individual interests. Lots of great new titles in middle grade to show you – your kids are at Creekside, right?” I threw out the name of the closest middle school, knowing that I would probably be corrected, but I desperately needed to move this interaction along.

“Yup. Good memory. One in sixth grade, one in eighth. My son is in 6th, but he doesn’t really like it.”

FINALLY, there was I could grab onto, and I moved around the counter and gently touched her forearm. “I’m sorry. Middle school can be rough. Is there a specific problem, or is your kiddo just not liking school right now?” I began walking her slowly towards the Young Adult section, mentally listing all the great books about transitioning to junior high, and wondering if I could sneak a copy of New Kid from behind the gaggle of moms who were standing in front of the graphic novel shelves without getting drawn into their conversation and a series of book recommendation requests, all of which could be handled capably by the staff on the floor.

“Oh, no, he’s doing fine. But I don’t know – he’s just moody. He likes video games, and sports,  and his friends, but not much else.”

“That sounds like he’s pretty well rounded, and very much in 6th grade. Good for him. How about if I show you some of the popular books with boys in his grade, and you can look through a stack? Feel free to make a list – here’s a clipboard – or I’ll text you a list with links to our website if you like.  I began pulling a quick handful of titles, and scooped up three plush llamas and a ukulele from the bench in middle grade to offer her a place to sit. “Why don’t you perch right here for a minute, and browse through these?”

After depositing the stack of books on her lap, I scurried off to reshelve the random merchandise, stopping in the music section to smile at an uncle (it’s ALWAYS an uncle) deliberating between the drum set and toy saxophone as a gift, and hopped over the line of small firetrucks on the floor, which were being carefully arranged in neat rows by a three year old and her older brother. “No, SAM! It is the long firetrucker first, and then the squirter. Do it like THIS or you can’t play any ever with me and my store.” I bent down on one knee to inspect the parade, and winked at Sam. “I LOVE this line of trucks, and I feel really safe from fire right now. Thank you. When you’re done with the parade, could you send the trucks back to their homes on the shelves? They don’t listen AT ALL, and I know you will be a good team to have in charge of them.” As I stood up, I glanced at the front door, where a van from a nearby assisted living facility had pulled up next to the sidewalk, and was unloading residents with walkers and wheelchairs. I shoved the train table nearest the door to the wall with my foot, mentally calculating both the room that they would need and where we could put the folding chairs – as I heard the back door open and the familiar thump of boxes from our UPS delivery.

I looked back to check on my customer, who was snapping pictures of the proffered titles with her smart phone. As I relieved a grandmother of her towering stack of picture books  and headed toward the register, where the phone was ringing again, I nodded quickly at the stack in her hands and called “Oh, good! You found some things that work! Hooray! I’m so glad you stopped in.” 

“Yes, I might be back. I like to get my shopping done before it gets busy.”


Falling in Love with ‘Birdsong’

Meghan Dietsche Goel -- December 6th, 2019

Longer picture books can get a bad rap in the marketplace where short and funny has come to dominate, and highly engaging early chapter books and graphic novels offer full-color experiences for readers ready for lengthier stories. But there’s something about longer, more complex picture books that I truly love. Whether it’s a longer page count or just a longer word count, the best examples allow for the passage of time in evocative ways and allow their stories to meander and unfold in all their fascinating specificity—the kind of specificity that sometimes gets lost in their shorter, punchier cousins. To help make the case for lengthier narratives, I’ve actually created a section separate from the general picture books, featuring those that offer just a little bit more.
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On the Book in 2039

Kenny Brechner -- December 5th, 2019

Inevitability, that alluring progeny of passivity, is a card often played from the bottom of history’s deck through a sleight of hand. A deft example of such a play has appeared recently in Alix Harrow’s New York Times op-ed from the future, Books May Be Dead in 2039, but Stories Live On.

Given that Harrow’s absorbing interest in the supple adaptability and power of stories is everywhere on display in her excellent debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, it is apropos that she employs these themes from her book in Books May Be Dead in 2039, but Stories Live On. Another given is that Harrow loves books, and her essay’s depiction of a world that has just barely moved across the threshold of their demise is imbued with a disarming affection for the deceased.
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Reconnecting with Community

Josie Leavitt -- December 3rd, 2019

The last two Saturdays I’ve worked at the bookstore. Working at the store is like spending time with an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. The glow of friendship feels far larger than the petty irritations that can come with familiarity. Pulling shifts this time of year greatly increases the chances of me seeing customers I miss and meeting new ones who touch me. I was not disappointed.

There are myriad reactions from customers when they see me working. Some people still don’t know I’ve retired from bookselling. They see me at the register and exclaim, “I haven’t see you here in ages!” I gently tell them that I retired and we carry on. A few customers came in and expressed comfort in seeing that I am well after dealing with early stage breast cancer in 2018. Many customers, all women, touched my short hair and said how good it was to see me and that they liked the short hair better. I was reminded how deep the sense of community runs at the Flying Pig.

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Counting Our Blessings

Cynthia Compton -- November 27th, 2019

It’s time again, fellow bookish tribe, to gather around the table and avoid sensitive topics of conversation in favor of fellowship and pie — and to give thanks for the many things we are grateful for. Before you pass the cranberry sauce and set up the Scrabble board, I want to pause and offer these thoughts of gratitude and accompanying petitions for the year to come:

….that while we may not be “booming” in the bookstore business, another year has passed and we are still here. Our bookstores are at the hearts of our communities, and provide an important reason that other businesses and homeowners choose to rent spaces and buy houses, and we continue to offer the haven of the third place to our fellow citizens. May we fill that role with dignity and full understanding of its importance, and may we wear the title of bookseller with pride.

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From Mick Jagger to Susan Cooper

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 26th, 2019

Growing up in Los Angeles, I was used to celebrities. Harvey Korman came to our school plays (booming his lovely loud laugh at every comical line), and Michael Landon’s daughter was in my Spanish class. Bridget Fonda was my classmate, as was Engelbert Humperdinck’s sweet daughter, Louise. Most kids at my all-girl’s school seemed to be the daughter of somebody famous, or seemed destined to be famous themselves.

We were scholarship kids, my sister and I, and while our mom was also a talented actress, she wasn’t famous. But celebrities were all around us and were normalized because of that giant crazy swimming pool called Los Angeles. In middle school I once sat at a Malibu beach house dinner table having a burger with just Mick Jagger and my seventh-grade best friend Alex, another famous actor’s child, while her nanny puttered about in the kitchen. That was just the way it was, and no big deal.

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The Sound of Music in the Retail 4th Quarter

Cynthia Compton -- November 25th, 2019

Long days in the shop followed by longer evenings at offsite events have left me just exhausted the last few weeks, and I’m sure my fellow retailers understand. It seems selfish and shortsighted to complain, of course, for the long cold stretch of January will make us wish for a calendar this full, or at least make me forget about aching feet and a constant sense that I have forgotten some task, neglected some special order, or failed to tell a staff member about where to find the extra printer ink cartridges. A few nights ago I came home and fell into bed too tired to even read, and instead indulged in some Julie Andrews therapy, and fell asleep to the classic film The Sound of Music. I woke up humming parts of the score, which I’ll invite you to sing along with me (I might have changed a few words, with apologies to Oscar Hammerstein):

Raindrops on boxes of plush dogs and kittens,

Carrying trash out again without mittens,

No-invoice-boxes the UPS brings –

These are a few of my least favorite things.

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A Master Class in Intention (and Misdirection) with Jon Klassen

Meghan Dietsche Goel -- November 22nd, 2019

Jon Klassen joins a class of third grade art critics.

Take a close look at this painting. Do you see a king and his leonine pet, a costumed lad’s accidental run-in with a lion, or someone trying to steal a crown? If you could turn the page and create the next scene without any context, what would you consider? I don’t know if you can tell, but that lion seems like he’s trying to say an awful lot with his eyes. And where one viewer might just see a royal portrait, another might see an image pulsing with the threat of a coup or even murder in the offing—which were some of the theories debated by one group of third graders at a recent event with Jon Klassen at the Blanton Museum of Art.

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The Holiday 20 for 2019

Kenny Brechner -- November 21st, 2019

My annual task of producing The Holiday 20, DDG’s annotated picks of the season, 20 books in 10 different categories, is such a longstanding annual tradition that even writing about the task here in ShelfTalker has become a bit of a seasonal tradition. Danger lurks therefore. In treading back over familiar ground one might easily step upon the toes of the past if one doesn’t take care. Glancing back I see that I have previously compared the task of sifting through the year’s books for the Holiday 20 to such things as cleaning out the attic and preparing for a long hike. This year will be different, though, because it is ironically all about being haunted by differences. Indeed, The Ghost of Holidays 20 Past has joined us to hold me accountable for how this year’s list has parted ways with its forebears.

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Wishing for Silent Days and Nights

Cynthia Compton -- November 20th, 2019

Our store is getting busier, and I’m sure that yours is, too. Lots of regular customers have stopped by with their children to fill out their holiday wish lists, and parents return in the evening hours sans kiddos to start or finish their gift shopping. We love to see all these families, of course, and it’s gratifying to be part of their annual holiday traditions. Some kids keep lists “on file” with us, so that we know just where they are in a favorite series, and some send us notes or text us* about books they want to read. Some parents (on our advice) snap pictures of their children’s bookshelves on their smartphones, or send emails to their children’s classroom teachers for clues about books that their kids are really excited about. Grandparents often carry in lists clipped from newspapers, magazines, and printed out from websites, with titles carefully circled based on age recommendations from the lists. All of these methods are great, and demonstrate not only commitment to keeping their kids excited about reading, but an ongoing partnership with us to be their personal bookish elves.

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