Monthly Archives: January 2008

Oh, the Power of the Handsell!

Alison Morris - January 9, 2008

Those of you who doubt the importance of handselling or the power of wee indie booksellers, sit up and take notice! Consider the case of A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban, previously mentioned by yours truly on this very blog. This book might have lounged in relative obscurity in our store, selling a copy or two to those lucky few customers who happened to glance at our shelves and find its spine appealing. But because a couple of us read it early on, loved it, and championed it to the rest of our staff and to our customers, we managed to sell more than one or two last year. In fact, we sold well over a hundred.

How did we work this kind of magic with a novel by a first-time author? I’ve put together a handy timeline for you, so you can watch the handselling magic unfold.

6/29/07 – I order four copies of A Crooked Kind of Perfect when I buy the Harcourt Fall 2007 list from my then-Harcourt sales rep, Zoe Lawler. I might have bought only two copies or skipped it altogether, as the book is by a new author whose talents I know nothing about and for whom there’s no sales record on which I might otherwise be able to base my decision. But the book sounds appealing, and Zoe says good things about it, so I bump the number up a bit. Four it is.

6/20/07 – My summer intern, Elizabeth Wolfson, and I attend a New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council meeting, at which we hear Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, proclaim that A Crooked Kind of Perfect is one of the best books she’s read all year. I look at the galley, which has a completely different cover from the book I saw in the Harcourt catalog, and only barely make the connection between the two. (Note to publishers: this is why it’s best to finalize your cover designs EARLY. But you already know that, right?)

Approx. 8/7/07 – On Kristen’s recommendation, Elizabeth reads our store’s galley of A Crooked Kind of Perfect, loves it, and tells me so.

8/14/07 – Four copies of A Crooked Kind of Perfect arrive at Wellesley Booksmith. Elizabeth shelves them, turns them face out on the shelf, and writes a brief review of the book on a shelf talker to sit underneath the small stack.

8/22/07 – I fall in love with A Crooked Kind of Perfect, write a blog post about said love, write an additional shelf talker singing the book’s praises and put it up next to Elizabeth’s shelf talker. Two shelf talkers side-by-side? We’ve never done it before, but I can’t resist. I order more copies of the book.

AUGUST SALES: 11 copies

Approx. 9/10/07 –  Our gift buyer, Alexa, and I create a display that features Little Miss Matched socks and copies of A Crooked Kind of Perfect, the cover of which just happens to feature very similar looking socks. The display will migrate at some point and get rearranged quite a bit, but both books AND socks will be displayed side-by-side until after Christmas. My shelf talker moves over to this display, thus ending the twin talkers beneath the same title. The book is now displayed face-out in two places, with a shelf talker calling attention to each. I am now handselling the book to everyone within earshot.


10/4/07, 10/11/07, and 10/17/07 – I include A Crooked Kind of Perfect in three different book talks to three different groups of teachers and parents. Margaret, another of our wonderful booksellers, reads the book and also begins handselling it.

OCTOBER SALES: 29 copies

11/5/07 – Lorna reads the book, falls under its spell, and joins those of us on the "handselling this book like crazy" bandwagon.

11/20/07 – We include A Crooked Kind of Perfect in our store’s booklet of holiday recommendations for all ages. We put copies of the booklet in customers’ bags and hand them out to anyone browsing in the store. By this point almost everyone our staff is handselling the book with reckless abandon, either because they’ve read the book themselves or heard the rest of us raving about it. Meanwhile the book continues to sell itself from the two places where it’s still on display, face-out, with a shelf talker.


12/10/07 – Linda Urban sends us signed bookplates to put in copies of her book. I sticker them with store stickers that say "SIGNED BOOK" but write the word "bookplate" under "SIGNED" so that no one feels cheated. This is the first time I’ve gone to such lengths for a book with a signed bookplate. It feels good. And it feels like maybe everyone in town is picking up this particular book, because I’m having to restock it so often.

12/23/07 – Gareth and I visit his family in Montpelier, Vt., home of Linda Urban. We meet Linda for coffee. She and I hit it off immediately, "talk bookselling" for two hours, then "talk books" in Bear Pond, one of several great bookstores in Montpelier. I breathe a sigh of relief, because it’s always reassuring to find that the author behind a book you love is themselves worth loving. (It’s so jarring when you discover the opposite!) Here we are, looking chummy:


TOTAL SALES of A Crooked Kind of Perfect at Wellesley Booksmith in 2007: 138 copies (Go, us!)

Lest you think that this is a magical anomaly — that the type of thing that only happens for one book a year — stand corrected. Those book talks I gave back in October? They featured about a hundred other books, most of which got similiar treatment to this one throughout our holiday season. Some of them fared as well as Linda Urban’s little masterpiece, and some did not. The reasons for this vary: an unappealing cover on this one, a slightly more narrow audience on that one, a tougher topic on something else. But every year a lot of books that are NOT bestsellers everywhere still wind up on our store’s bestseller list, and the same thing happens at independent bookstores all over the country, with each store’s lists looking very different from one another.

Here’s a random sampling from the many, many other books that benefitted from a lot of handselling at our store this year, plus their sales numbers, so you can compare:

The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies (Houghton Mifflin, $16.00 hardcover) — 252 copies (It’s true, Jackie’s a local author and we sold 59 copies of her book in its first month at the store, when she did an event with us. But I promise you that most of the 193 additional copies we’ve sold since April were NOT the result of Jackie’s local connections. They happened because we talked this book up to everyone, put it on our summer reading list, and then eventually let word of mouth carry it onward. We sold 31 copies in December alone.)

Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry edited by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar (Candlewick Press, $21.99 hardcover) — 84 copies  (This is a $22 book and it sits in our
oetry section — two marks against it. Working in its favor is the simple fact that we all love it, it’s now my favorite shower or new baby gift recommendation, and we put it on our holiday gift list.)

Darby by Jonathan Scott Fuqua (Candlewick Press, $5.99 paperback) — 192 copies (It took Candlewick four years to finally bring this book out in paperback, but in that time they came up with a new cover for the book that, in conjunction with the shelf talker I wrote for it, has worked some kind of paperback sales miracle. This one was also on our summer reading list.)

Alabama Moon by Watt Key (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16.00 hardcover) — 158 copies (This is our second year handselling this book to everyone in sight. It was on our holiday gift list last year and our summer reading list this year. Sales to date: 228. FSG, can we see this book in paperback soon, please?)

Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan (Harper Collins, $5.99 paperback) — 81 copies (Shelf talker, summer reading list, a favorite among many of our booksellers. I describe it as The Secret Garden meets Annie meets Out of Africa. For some reason that usually does the trick!)

Wiggle and Waggle by Caroline Arnold, illustrated by Mary Peterson (Charlesbridge, $12.95 hardcover) — 75 copies (Quite possibly our most successful sales to date of a hardcover beginning reader book. The secret: A shelf talker written by Elizabeth, and a spot on our holiday gift list.)

Every Kid Needs a Marshmallow Launcher by Richard and Candice Elton (Gibbs Smith, $19.95 spiral binding) — 39 copies (We started carrying this book in November of ’05, so it’s not exactly new, but our sales this year eclipsed last year’s by a substantial margin, because one of our booksellers, Betty, decided it was the coolest thing ever and started putting it in the hands of our customers — 14 of them in December of this year.)

And the hits just keep coming…

Pre-Awards Paranoia

Alison Morris - January 8, 2008

The first two weeks of January feel a bit like "cleaning house" at the store, as we take down all the Christmas displays and decorations, examine our sales from the past year, pull books that haven’t sold in several months, prepare to do an inventory of everything on our shelves, and start fresh with everything in good, trim working order, with enough space to accommodate all the incoming spring books.

When it comes to pulling books to be returned to their publishers during these two weeks, though, I become (metaphorically) the worst kind of nail-biter, and a cynical one at that. As I look over inventory reports for each of our publishers deciding what books to weed, I become convinced that the titles I’m returning are going to win a major award when the ALA announces their "big ones" — this year it’s next Monday, January 14th.

Murphy’s Law and prior experience pretty much guarantee that this is going to happen with at least one of the books we’ve returned at some point during the year. That title that came in last January and we returned in June because it still hadn’t sold a single copy? It’s going to win the Caldecott Medal. That middle grade novel I originally ordered just two copies of, haven’t heard a peep about, haven’t had a chance to read, and haven’t seen any marketing for? You know that the Newbery committee is going to give it an Honor five minutes after UPS carts it away in a returns box.

It is painful beyond painful to have had a book on your shelves, have returned it (whether you knew it and loved it or not) and then have to scramble to get your hands on more copies in the awards day frenzy that wipes out every available book in your distributors’ warehouses and the publishers’ shelves. What’s hard is trying to explain to customers that you aren’t a "BAD" bookstore or a clueless bookseller, just because you couldn’t predict that, out of a pool of hundreds of potential winners, these 15 or so books will be the ones everyone would want come January and didn’t, therefore, order vast quantities of them before the big announcements. Years of *trying* to predict, failing, and winding up with too many extra copies of this book or that book have left me gun shy as far as making bold predictions goes. And as for the possibility of spreading things a bit thinner, imagine if I ordered 20 copies of each of the titles on this Mock Caldecott list (chosen at random from those that appeared in my Google search), for example. Our shelves would bulge at the seams, I’d be obscenely over-budget, and… well, you can guess the rest. Hello, unemployment!

Why not wait until after January 14 to return books, you ask? Because after January 14 we are busy, busy, busy with sales rep after sales rep, which leaves Lorna and me little time to spend on the big task of weeding the previous year’s leftovers. More importantly, Evelyn, our store’s accounting guru (and one of our owners!), has worked out some expert sort of returns schedule that we are loathe to deviate from. If she says it’s the week to send books back to Random House, we do.

Except maybe for that book — the one that I think *maybe* the Printz committee will have had their eye on. Or that title that, golly, I REALLY would love to see get *something*, as it’s about time that illustrator got some notice! Or… well, you get the idea. Just don’t be surprised if you see me chasing after the UPS truck next Monday. Or pleading with the Fed Ex guy. Or just bashing my head against the wall.

Props for Malaprops

Alison Morris - January 3, 2008

In mid-December I managed to escape the retail frenzy just long enough to spend a few pre-Christmas days with family. My cousin Morgan graduated Dec. 15th from a doctorate program in physical therapy at East Tennessee State University, and I wouldn’t have missed seeing her meet this monumental milestone. The bonus of a weekend at ETSU was its proximity to beautiful Asheville, N.C., home of Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House and the wonderful 25 year-old Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, which I visited twice — once on Sunday night and once (during daylight hours) on Monday. While I didn’t get to meet their children’s buyer or spend as much time there as I’d have liked, I was in the store long to snap some photos and observe a few of the finer details that makes them the unique and wonderful store that they are!

Publishers Weekly‘s "Bookseller of the Year" in 2000, Malaprops was featured last year in a "Bookselling This Week" article that detailed many of the goings-on that make them such an integral part of their community. While I didn’t get to observe any of their many events or programs, I did enjoy browsing the shelves in their homey space, which sports a number of cozy nooks, lots of entertaining posters, some rather inventive signs, and the sort of quirky details that makes a store both unique and lovable. The result is a space that’s anything but stale or stuffy — two traits that also appear to be lacking in the personalities of their booksellers, thank goodness.

Here’s how Malaprop’s looks as you approach it from the opposite side of the street:

Below is a shot of its eye-catching corner sign, which is barely visible behind the street signs in the photo above:

Malaprop’s upcoming author events (and books by those authors) are prominently displayed alongside their bestsellers in the store’s front window:

You know you’re making friends when talents like Barry Moser are willing to create a poster for your store. You can purchase prints of this one:

Yes, there is actually a bookseller behind the point of sale counter in this photo! He’s unfortunately obscured by the postcard rack in the foreground, but I swear he’s there, ably answering the questions of the customer in the long black coat.

Look at the far left-hand side of the photo above. See the cardboard cutout of a man pointing to his left? That’s Stephen Colbert, instructing customers on where to leave their bags while they’re browsing. (The sign reads "Stop! Baggage Check.") A brilliant use of a cardboard standee, if you ask me! There’s a better photo of it below:

Here’s a shot of the store cafe, which is on the opposite side of the store from the point of sale counter, facing the street.

It’s hard to find clever, affordable seating for your customers to utilize while browsing. I love the classic school desk idea, as captured here:

Here’s a shot of the YA section, behind a mixed display of YA and middle grade. I like that the section looks wonderfully full but still features a number of face-outs — a must-have if you ask me:

Below are, of course, the picture books:

Look at the lower left-hand corner of the photo above. The sign closest to it is the one captured much larger below:

It strikes a slightly-more-threatening tone than the sign that appears one shelf above it and a bit to the right. Here’s what it says:

I wonder if Candlewick Press ever thought they’d be spawning a phenomenon that would require the creation of signs like this one:

Also on the topic of signs, I love the sign that lists the Malaprop’s café’s list of Specialty Drinks.  My photo came out awfully blurry, but if you can see through the fuzz you’ll be able to read their list of offerings, which includes the Anais Nin (raspberry mocha), the Isabel Allende (cinnamon mocha), the Robert Frost (mint mocha), the Rita Mae Brown (vanilla hazelnut latte), the White Rabbit (white chocolate latte), the Gail Godwin (caramel mocha), the Deepak Chopra (white and dark mocha), the Tom Robbins (coconut mocha), and the Walt Whitman (macadamia nut latte). Since seeing this sign I have spent far too much time considering what drinks I would assign to different authors’ names. Anyone have suggestions?

I’m always intrigued by how stores choose to label their sections. Our assortment of books on topics like divorce, adoption, new siblings, death & dying is labeled and referred to by our staff as "Family Issues." I think we might be better off adopting Malaprop’s much more positive-sounding label for these books, which appears below:

I also like this Malaprop’s label better than "Teen Issues" which is what our teen non-fiction section has historically been called:

I also like to see stores using clever and informative bookmarks to keep their customers in the know. When we’re given signed bookplates I often go back and forth on whether or not we should actually stick them into the books, and if we do, whether or not those books then quality for a "signed copy" sticker. Perhaps we should just go this route and include a "Signed Bookplates Available with Purchase (while supplies last)" bookmark like this one:

And doesn’t it make you feel like you’re part of a special place if you pick up a book that announces itself this way?

In case you can’t read this one it says, "Sorry you missed this author (frowny face). Happily, we have SIGNED COPIES! (smiley face)":

When you first walk into Malaprop’s you are greeted by a "Staff Favorites" section that fills three entire b
kcases. If that doesn’t send the "WE READ BOOKS" message, I’m not sure what does. Here’s a shot of one of those three cases:

This store is home to one of the largest (and best) "regional" sections I’ve ever seen in a store. Theirs includes local guides, local authors, local history, Southern writers, and more. It fills the entirety of the space you see below, at the back of the store’s café:

In addition to a great selection of books, Malaprop’s offers plenty of entertaining and gift-worthy "non-book" items to fill out your purchase or add to someone’s stocking. Here’s a customer (my dad) laughing at one of the many items of merchandise on display, while another customer (my mom) gazes at another:

So, the next time you’re heading down to North Carolina with a plan of seeing this place (Vanderbilt’s summer estate):

Be sure to stop by this place as well:

Ushering in the New Year

Alison Morris - January 1, 2008

For several days now I’ve been waiting for inspiration to strike and tell me what to post in honor or celebration or at least recognition of the new year. Do I quote from a book about new beginnings? Do I share some quirky list of reading-related resolutions? Recap the highlights of the past year in books? Review something? Relate something? You see my dilemma.

At the eleventh hour I’ve come up with this: great writing. I want to give you great writing, as a reminder of why it is that we’re all in this crazy business of books, and why it is that reading is such a delight, such an indescribable pleasure when the words are right and the writer is even more so.

I’ve had no trouble settling on WHAT writing to share with you, as there is one book that I’ve fallen more in love with this past year than I have with any other (and oh, there have certainly been others). The book I’m referring to is not written for children, but it does feature writing by a man who wrote, without question, some of the finest books ever written for children. And, as I discover anew each time I read another book or essay or letter, he penned, some of the best material ever written for adults. I’m referring, of course, to E. B. White. And the book I’m about to quote from is a collection of his essays called One Man’s Meat (Tilbury House, 1942) — the book I was happiest to add to my home library in 2007.

First, a selection from White’s essay called "Progress and Change" published in Harper’s Magazine in December 1938, soon after White had relocated from NYC to North Brooklin, Maine. I’m including it just because I think it showcases White’s writing so incredibly well:

My friends in the city tell me that the Sixth Avenue El is coming down, but that’s a hard thing for anyone to believe who once lived in its fleeting and audible shadow. The El was the most distinguished and outstanding vein on the town’s neck, a varicosity tempting to the modern surgeon. One wonders whether New York can survive this sort of beauty operation, performed in the name of civic splendor and rapid transit.

A resident of the city grew accustomed to the heavenly railroad that swung implausibly in air, cutting off his sun by day, wandering in and out of his bedchamber by night. The presence of the structure and the passing of the trains were by all odds the most pervasive of New York’s influences. Here was a sound that, if it ever got into the conch of your ear, was ineradicable — forever singing, like the sea. It punctuated the morning with brisk tidings of repetitious adventure, and it accompanied the night with sad but reassuring sounds of life-going-on — the sort of threnody that cricket and katydid render for suburban people sitting on screened porches, the sort of lullaby the whippoorwill sends up to the Kentucky farm wife on a summer evening.

(Leaves you wanting more, doesn’t it? So go get a copy of the book!)

Next, a paragraph from "Compost" published in Harper’s Magazine in June 1940, included here because I like both White’s message and (of course) the way he delivers it:

The way to know the shape of things in advance is to listen to seers and mystics instead of economists and tacticians…. Part of the preparation for the perfect world society will be the recognition of seers. It will be required of the President of the United States that he read one poem and one parable or fable a day, in addition to the editorials in the Times. The brotherhood of man can never be achieved till the democracies realize that today’s fantasy is tomorrow’s communiqué.

And, finally, a couple paragraphs that rang (somewhat painfully) true for me this past weekend, as I tried to get a jump on marking catalogs and reading f&g’s in preparation for January and February’s onslaught of appointments with sales reps. These two paragraphs appear at the very start of White’s essay called "Children’s Books" published November 1938 in Harper’s Magazine, seven years before White would write children’s books of his own:

Among the goat feathers that stick to us at this season of the year are some two hundred children’s books. They are review copies, sent to my wife by the publishers. They lie dormant in every room, like November flies.

This inundation of juvenile literature is an annual emergency to which I have gradually become accustomed — the way the people of the Connecticut River valley get used to having the river come into their parlor. The books arrive in the mail by tens and twenties; we live with them for a few crowded, fever-laden weeks and then fumigate. Lacking shelf space, we pile them everywhere — on chairs, beds, davenports, ledges, stair landings. Some of them we tuck away in spidery cupboards, among the crocks and fragments of an older civilization. Turn over a birch log on my hearth and you won’t find a beetle, you’ll find Bumblebuzz, the chronicle of a bee. Throw open the door of our kitchen cabinet, out will fall The Story of Tea. Pick up a sofa cushion and there, mashed to a pulp, will be a definitive work on drums, tomtoms, and rattles. For the past three weeks I have shared my best armchair with the Boyhood Adventures of Our Presidents and a rather heavy book about the valley of the Euphrates. Mine is an uncomfortable, but not uninstructive, existence.

Here’s wishing you a year that’s comfortable, instructive, and filled with wonderful writing.