Monthly Archives: June 2009

What’s a Baby Worth?

Josie Leavitt - June 30, 2009

They are priceless, we all know that. But when a pregnant woman comes to the store for the first time and tells me she’s just moved to town, part of me thinks, Ka-ching! I know that sounds mercenary, but I’d always had a hunch that new families were good for the bottom line, and I was really curious how much money a new family can spend during a pregnancy through the first two years of a child’s life. Well, I was right. A new baby is worth just under a thousand dollars, actually $879.32 over two years.

How do I know this?  I found the perfect family to chart. Doug and Shannon are the young parents of Finn, a large, thoughtful, smiley 20-month-old boy, Guthrie.  They gave me permission to look up their purchases for this post. They only buy books for their son and twice a year for each other, so they are an excellent case study for purchases just for a new child. They started coming to the store in April 2007, when Shannon was three months pregnant. These young parents didn’t buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting — no, these guys bought twelve hardcover classics ranging from Where the Wild Things Are and Swimmy to Kitten’s First Full Moon and Olivia. They were in the store for hours, sharing their favorite stories with each other, wondering what their baby would like best. I liked them right away.

We didn’t see them again until December. They moved, actually closer to the store, and each was finishing graduate school. Oh, and Shannon had given birth in October. They brought the baby on their next visit. Together, they bought Christmas books for Guthrie. Again, all hardcovers, except for Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. They came back at Valentine’s Day. This time, not for the baby, but for each other. Doug came in on the 12th of February and bought both Barack Obama books for Shannon as well as two Valentine’s cards.

April brought Guthrie out and about for spring. He was now six months old and really getting into board books. Judging by how many Sandra Boynton books they bought that month, I’d say he had discovered his first favorite author. Shannon also bought the Nursing Mother’s Companion.  May and June brought more visits and more Boynton purchases. Guthrie was now old enough for story hour, which he attended occasionally. July brought a few discipline books and How to Raise a Successful Child. August saw more Boynton and one of my favorite recent board books, Oliver Finds His Way. Guthrie knew us now, bursting into a wide grin when I waved to him and played peek-a-boo behind the shelves.

November, and Guthrie was just over one, and was starting to assert what he liked. The purchases shifted from hardcover classics and Boynton books to Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, I Wish I Were a Pilot, and Richard Scarry’s Day at the Airport. A non-book item was purchased: a spoon made for kids in the shape of a bulldozer. I heard later that Guthrie would only eat with this. December, both Doug and Shannon came in alone and bought each other a book after much thought.

This spring Guthrie started getting some stuffed animals and went back to loving Boynton, especially the Some Swell Cow stuffed animal. Interestingly, in April the parents bought a travel book: NYC with Kids — the first family trip! In May, fresh from the big city, Guthrie came back to Vermont loving Maisy books.

Throw in a book about Going to the Dentist and My Big Boy Bed in June and you can track this boy’s whole little life — what he likes, what his parents hope for him, and how thoughtful his parents are with each other other and their son.

This is why I go to work every day—so a small child can wave at me whenever he sees me around town, because my store and I are part of his life. It’s not about the money (though the money is necessary). It’s about watching a child grow up and being a vital part of his life by providing books to the whole family. 

Summer Folks

Josie Leavitt - June 29, 2009

My store is in a tourist area and we see a sizeable bump in our summer sales because of them. We don’t have the increase in population that the Cape or Martha’s Vineyard sees,  but we do get an influx of new folks to the store that make summer our next best sales period right after the Christmas holidays. 

The summer people are different from our regulars in a few ways. First, they are on vacation, so the entire family comes into the store, not just a parent, and each needs a book, or two. This can make for a store that’s noisy, bustlng and sometimes understaffed. I love the challenge of a large family coming in with three to four kids ranging in age from five to thirteen, all needing new books. It’s like a never-ending book talk some days. The pace of the day is frantic, fun and often filled with many discussions of books read and loved over the year. These folks tend to visit while they’re just passing through. They bounce out with their stacks, burbling about which book to start first.

Then there the kids who are going to camp. It seems no matter how long or short a camp stay is, it requires at least one book. These kids are great. They are eager to read (for the most part) and I must find the right books, not only for them, but for trading with bunkmates. We have one girl, Greta, who comes every summer before she heads off to her camp in Maine. She goes for six weeks and each week gets five books. That’s thirty books we need to find for her in an afternoon. Thirty books for one voracious reader is a challenge that often requires the help of the whole staff. The reject pile really just consists of what she’s already read. She’ll try anything, mostly. I love this kid.

Then there are the kids who just want to read what’s on their summer reading list. They come in downcast, handing me the list, "Is there anything good on this?" In most cases there are several books. We talk about each one and they choose the one that seems the most "un-boring" as one child said the other day. As we get further into summer the book chosen will the shortest. Their honesty is refreshing. What’s good and short? Gotta love that directness.

I don’t love all the summer folks. There are some who literally snap at me when I’m making change. I can say, without hesitation, this kind of behavior I can do without. It makes me wonder how these people must treat the staff at their local bookstore. They tend to say "No" with a wave of the hand to every book suggested and we never, ever have what they’re looking for. They are a challenge and I seem not know the best way to deal imperiousness. So, I wait for them to leave and do my best to provide excellent customer service.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. Summer is a time when handselling needs to be an art. Kids come in and say, "I want an action adventure mystery that’s funny." While I enjoy the specificity, it can be tough to always hit it right. But when someone on staff shouts out, "Ooooh, Science Fair!", while I’m still thinking, and we’re handing the kid just the right book, which she then proceeds to hug, I’m having a great summer day.

‘Adventures in Cartooning’ Is an Eye-Opening Read

Alison Morris - June 26, 2009

One of my favorite books to come out this season is Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost (First Second, March 2009). What I love most about this book is that it is not a dry how-to book. In fact, it hardly reads like a "how-to" book at all, most of the time. (You can read the first several pages of the book on the web site of First Second to see what I mean.) This is the entertaining story of a brave knight who rushes off to rescue a princess from a fire-breathing dragon. But along the way, yes, a magical elf just "HAPPENS" to teach the knight (and, in the process, this book’s readers) to the basic principles of creating comics. Or at least, that’s how it feels when you’re reading it — like the plot is first and the lessons here are very much secondary.

For this reason, Adventures in Cartooning is a great book for kids who enjoy comics, whether or not they also happen to be budding artists. Even the most pencil-shy, "I hate drawing/I’m a terrible artist" types will enjoy reading the entertaining story on these pages, AND they may just become better readers of all types of books for having done so.

Did I just say that the simple act of reading this book could make kids better readers?? Yes, I did. And by "better" I mean more critical or more intentional readers. Here’s why:

Comics, particularly ones written for kids, are primarily visual. Their panels contain more visual clues than textual ones, so you’re required to actually LOOK at what’s happening in a panel in order to absorb the information it contains. When a reader begins to understand just how comics and/or graphic novels are crafted, they’re then able to see, sometimes VERY clearly, the tricks a comics creator uses to advance a plot and establish characters. They notice the subtle tricks an illustrator can use to slow things down, speed things up, change the mood of a scene, increase the tension in a story. (Read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for an in-depth introduction to these types of trickery.)

Writers of non-illustrated stories use tricks to do all of these things as well, but their tricks or devices are often much more difficult see, because they’re textual, rather than visual. This means a lot of people go through life barely recognizing that these tricks exist in the first place, let alone learning how to spot them or employ them. Introducing readers early on to the idea that there is a craft behind the telling of ALL stories is one way of lifting the veil from their eyes, and Adventures in Cartooning does this beautifully, and with panache. For that (and for the number of times I laughed out loud while reading this book!) I applaud James Sturm and two of his former students at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt.: Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost.

While I’m applauding this trio I’m also going to do something I should have done MONTHS ago: post photos from Gareth’s and my trip to CCS last November, when we appeared as "guest lecturers" before the current crop of CCS students. That post will appear here next Friday and give you a peek behind the CCS scene, so stay tuned!

Promotional Emails: Do’s and Don’t’s

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 25, 2009

First, the bad news: we read fewer than 10% of the email promotions we receive. The good news: sometimes even an unread email leads to sales. (More on that in a bit.)

Just like everyone else in this information-overloaded world, booksellers are inundated with page upon page of electronic mail to assess and dispatch. Our inboxes are overflowing, and the problem just keeps getting worse. So how do you, publishers and authors, better your chances of getting read and building buying momentum via email?

There are a few tips that hold true in our store, so we’ll share them and let other booksellers share their approaches to the glutted-inbox dilemma.


In a subject header, less is sometimes less.

I admit it. I am less likely to open an email titled New Spring Releases than one with specific titles or authors: something like New Lowry, Wittlinger, Lockhart, Broach + more would get me to open that email. New Spring Releases makes me feel overwhelmed; this email is from only one of hundreds of publishers. I can’t read every new release email, and reading just one seems pointless. Plus, if I’ve met with my rep, I’ve already bought the new spring releases. So that email header needs to make its appeal in a more interesting, specific way. Even It’s a Dog’s Season (highlighting all of that publisher’s dog-related books, for example) would be better than a title that subconsciously screams, "Yet another of the same email we send every month."

Inject some personality into the subject header.

June 18th’s email brought us a message from our Penguin rep, Nicole Davies, entitled, DK and Penguin offers…Puffin Classics...Oh happy day! That little "Oh happy day!" made me chuckle, and I opened the email. Admittedly, the word "offers" made me sit up and say howdy, as my grandfather would have said, also. The word "offer" coming from a legitimate publisher will always get an email opened, if not acted upon.

Don’t inject too much personality.

I know, I know. How picky is she going to get? you complain. Well, here’s the thing. Like most of you, we respond to lively, funny, fresh language—but chafe at cutesy, effortful, or over-the-top attempts to get our attention. Library Journal, a wonderful review magazine, used to send out emails with three rhyming phrases meant to capture that issue’s main articles of the day. For reasons not entirely clear, those rhymes started to irritate me; I think it was because they tended to confuse, rather than clarify, the email’s content. For example: Successful chicks, baby pix, Austen mix or Gay books treat, RA complete, Lit hits the street. Yes, you may think they’re kind of cute now, but day after day? It’s similar to the way Carl Kassel’s halting, drawn-out style of reading limericks on "Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!" actually makes the limerick harder to follow. Maddening. (I love the man’s radio voice except for this, by the way.) Speaking of maddening, I’m going to contradict myself a little here by saying that LJ abandoned that rhyming scheme a while back, and though I was hugely relieved to have some clarity, I was also a tiny bit sad that the subject header’s spirit had been broken, possibly by curmudgeons like myself. (I guess there is just no pleasing some booksellers. Harumph.)

Think like a bookseller, not a publisher.

All good ad campaigns focus on the needs of the consumer instead of the vendor. Booksellers are grateful for timely reminders of special offers (especially that second reminder three or four days before an offer expires), book-themed handouts they can give to customers or use as buying references (Great ideas for Father’s Day, Best of the Backlist for Summer Reading, etc.), and round-ups of regional books releasing that season. You’ll get a better response from your email blasts if you try to approach them from our point of view as overbusy retailers. If you don’t already do this, perhaps talk to a few booksellers to find out what they’re looking for, or have reps think to ask us at meetings.

Avoid attachments

Unless you are attaching something along the lines of the as-yet-unseen cover of the third Hunger Games book, or something that needs to be signed and returned by the bookseller, we may skip (or forget to make) the extra effort of downloading, opening, and reading that attachment. If the attachment IS important (affidavits), subject headers indicating such would really help. All caps in this case are helpful instead of annoying. If a subject header says: IMPORTANT: BOOKSELLER AFFIDAVIT ATTACHED, I’ll be opening that puppy.


Subject headers should introduce a title or author, not make a claim.

Whet our interest with the book’s subject matter, not your certainty that the book will sell in our store. Not to be unkind, but we pretty well know what will and won’t sell well in our stores. Also, human nature leads even the most accepting of readers to automatically suspect unproven claims. Something that links the author with the store is effective: Possible title to carry / Vermont author was perfect, if not colorful. It was modest; "possible" indicates the author knows enough to know that we can’t sell every book, and "Vermont author" sealed the deal; we’ll always look at books from people in our state, because we love supporting local authors. Truly professional authors spend their precious "get our attention" the subject headers on less bluster and more plain information.

Do not use subject headers like this: Guaranteed bestseller just released! or Move over, John Grisham! Generally, there is an inverse relation between the size of the claim and the actual success of a book. Also, avoid words like "important," as in "an important new work." Literary importance is earned over time and is conferred by readers, not authors. Basically, do not evaluate your own book. Just tell us what it is about, in as brief and interesting a way as possible.

Today, we got an email with this title: New LGBT Children’s Book "Oh The Things Mommies Do!" That header gives me enough information to figure out whether or not I wanted to open the email and learn more. (I did; always interested in new LGBT titles for families.) Another recent, perfectly practical header was this: New book: Carve Your Own Road – Do What You Love & Live The Life You Envision. It’s enough to get us to open the email if we carry advice books, to take a further look, but also easy to delete if that isn’t our metier. No exclamation points (the one in the first example is part of the book’s title, so is exempt from the subject header prohibition), no exhortations, no attempts to tell us why we would be idiots not to read the advertised book. Instead, a simple alert to a new title and its subject matter. Perfect.

Do not address your email, "Dear Gentlemen…"

In addition to being an outmoded form of address for feminist reasons, your email is overwhelmingly likely in this field of children’s bookselling to be read by a woman. The men are vastly outnumbered, sorry to say. So you would most likely be inaccurate, as well as distressingly sexist, to adjure only "gentlemen" to purchase your book.

Let your book stand on its own merits instead of trying to ride the coattails of successful books.

Do not compare your own book to Harry Potter, The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, or any other published title, for that matter — especially to claim that it’s that book’s equal or better. Authors and publicists who
o this route actually undermine their books. Since it’s very unlikely for a new author to outdo bestselling blockbusters and titans of literature, booksellers trust that if that is the case, established review sources will bring it to our attention. These claims read as amateurish, even desperate, attempts to get the attention of buyers, who are savvy, well-read experts in their fields. Such comparisons not only make the book less credible, they make it less likely to get read. You must trust that if your book truly is good, it will get read and be appreciated. This is not to say you shouldn’t believe in your book ardently or do your best to get the word out, but do it with dignity, honesty, modesty, and a realistic sense of the marketplace.

It’s probably best to forget attachments.
No bookseller I know ever opens attachments from an unknown source; we’re all virus-wary. I’m afraid that, no matter how good that flyer or teaser of a first chapter is, it won’t get read as an email attachment unless it’s sent from someone at a publishing house who knows the bookseller and personally recommends it—and sometimes it won’t get read even then. Even worse, booksellers often delete (without opening) any email with an attachment from an unknown source. Without an attachment, an email has a better chance of being opened.


Do let us know about local (or national) media coverage of your books

It’s so helpful to know when your book will be featured in the newspaper, on the radio, or on television. A very brief message with a clear subject header to this effect often leads to a beef-up in our stock. One of our customers, Bill Schubart, is a local author and fantastic, uber-professional promoter of his book, The Lamoille Stories. His subject headers are simple, clean, and informative: Upcoming Publicity for The Lamoille Stories by Bill Schubart. Seven Days Review & VPR. He even sent out a copy of his commentary on Vermont Public Radio that focused on the importance of supporting local bookstores. His emails are relevant and speak to our needs as booksellers, not to his needs as an author. That’s effective promotion.


I promised at the beginning of this post to explain how an unread email can still sell books. When a subject header gives us enough information, we make a note of that book even if we haven’t read the accompanying email. We have even been known to add its proffered book to a distributor or publisher order right then and there (mainly if we’re already familiar with the author, or a trusted rep who knows our store has sent the email). It would at the very least lead us to look up the book on one of the store databases, where we can take a gander at the cover and read any reviews. For instance, the subject header New book: Kerplunk! Swimming Holes in Northern Vermont (not a real title, sadly) would immediately go to the ordering shortlist and its credentials checked out pronto.

By the way, I hope none of these Do’s and Don’t’s columns make anyone feel embarrassed. Every single person reading this column has made rookie mistakes or misguided efforts in some field or other, including and especially me. And booksellers don’t have enough room in their brains to remember who sent what email they just deleted. You can make your mistakes in comfortable anonymity, as long as they aren’t giant enough to stop us in our tracks and take notice. This blog offers such a wonderful opportunity for communication between booksellers, publishers, editors, marketers, publicists, and authors that it seems useful to raise the questions of what, from our end, is most helpful and effective. Please weigh in with your thoughts.

Worst Review Ever, Twilight Fun, and Cakewrecks

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 24, 2009

I find the best websites when I’m procrastinating working productively. Usually they come courtesy of another writer friend, via email or Facebook links — seductive little snippets with irresistible headlines. So when Lisa Yee (Absolutely Maybe) pointed some fellow writers to a cathartic website aimed at easing the pain of bad reviews, I had to check it out.

The Worst Review Ever blog was established by YA author Alexa Young (Faketastic) in a spirit of self-preservation and camaraderie with her fellow writers. It provides hilarity and healing for beleaguered authors licking their wounds from scathing reviews — reviews found on Amazon, Goodreads, blogs, and even (occasionally) from professional review publications. Any negative statement in a review is felt with outsized sensitivity by writers (whose job, after all, requires a degree of sensitivity); it is like someone pointing out that one’s baby has a smashed nose or mutant feet.

Where else can you find horrifying (and horribly funny) wholesale pans like this one-liner, which calls a book by a well-respected YA writer "[a] candy-coated turd." Or provides another author with his nightmare of a reader response: "The plot sees [sic] to drag on and on with only one every [sic] slightly exciting section in the middle that also fizzles out." What makes it feel perfectly okay to laugh at these is that the authors themselves have sent in the reviews. There’s a kind of power in taking the bad reviews and using them for one’s own purposes.

Young goes one further in the empowerment train: she follows each "worst review" with quickie author interviews, asking where, when, and how they encountered the review and what they did about it. Then, to keep it all in perspective, she jauntily invites readers to rate how bad it really is: "And now let’s rate [sad author]’s pain:

1 star = That wasn’t so bad
2 stars = Yeah, that would hurt
3 stars = Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!
4 stars = Beyond harsh, cruel, and unusual punishment
5 stars = Definitely the WORST. REVIEW. EVER."

It’s a fisherman’s pub, an adventurer’s lounge where the participants can brag about their narrow escapes, compare scars, laugh in the face of tragedy, and be bought beers by their compatriots. And the one who gets the very worst review ever, each season, wins a prize—which I think should also include a gift certificate to an independent bookstore. Ahem. These are authors, after all, and they need books. *cough**cough* Just sayin’.

A while ago, I linked in ShelfTalker to Twilight the Musical, an amateur film. So how could I resist when a recent friend, Misrule‘s Australian blogmaster, Judith Ridge, alerted me to this enticing entry: Buffy vs. Edward (Twilight Remix). See? You know you want to watch it. Very funny, and a justifiable time-suck, given your profession as a bookseller/author/children’s lit fan/publishing house person/etc.

Finally, there’s Cakewrecks, one of my all-time favorite places to go for some actual, take-you-by-surprise belly laughs. The main part of the website is devoted to egregious errors in professional cake decorating, photograph after photograph of hideous frosting foul-ups, lettering gaffes, and strange concoctions that reduce an innocent viewer to incoherent babbling: "My eyes! My eyes!"

You will not believe some of the atrocities therein. Here’s just one, and it’s not even that bad by Cakewrecks standards:

Blogger Jen Yates, writes: Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. Plenty of adults have it these days, and this vintage photo from Jessica E. may explain why:

Ah, yes: the great clown massacre of ’77.

Can you handle more creepy clown cakes? Go here.

But the site also celebrate fabulous cakes, too, in entries called Sweet Sundays. A recent entry showcased confectionary paeans to children’s literature, including these familiar figures:


The best part of Cakewrecks is Yates’s hilarious commentary, tucked modestly in between the photos. She’s a sharp, concise, playful, terrific writer whose site has won numerous awards: 2008 Bloggies: Best Writing of a Weblog, Best New Weblog, Best Food Blog; 2008 Weblog Awards: Best Food Blog; and 2008 Blogger’s Choice Awards: Best Humor Blog. Andrews McMeel is publishing a book in September born from the site: Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong. I already know I’m going to love it and leaf through it as often as I do James Lilek’s Gallery of Regrettable Food (please don’t let this book go OP, Crown! I’ll order more right away), or Wendy McClure’s collection of Weight Watchers recipe cards from the 1970’s (the pictures are grotesquely riotous, but as with and Regrettable Food, the best laughs come from the accompanying commentary. Think David Sedaris eviscerating — and celebrating — poor taste and misguided good intentions, and you’ll have a sense of how funny these writers are. All three have made me cry from laughing at one time or another. All in all, not bad payback for an afternoon’s procrastination.

When Customers Bleed

Josie Leavitt - June 22, 2009

Let’s face it, bookselling is fairly routine. We restock books, we order books, we take special orders, we have story hour and sometimes we staunch the flow of blood on a customer’s head. Admittedly, the staunching happens only very rarely, but when it does, it reminds you that our customers can get injured at the store.

I feel I need to explain about the blood. A very fit woman in her early thirties tried to leap over the flower bed onto our deck rather than walk around to the stairs. Well, she didn’t quite make it and wound up clipping her head on the toy store’s metal sign.  She came into our store with blood flowing down her face from a gash in her head that was apparently spurting blood. (Why she didn’t go the toy store is beyond me — they were two feet away.) Ironically, I was not at work yet; as a former EMT who ran the local rescue squad for five years, I could have helped her out. As it was one of our staffers has been a doctor’s wife for over thirty years, and she leapt in to help the ultimately fine, but very shaken woman. Our other staffer, a truly wonderful bookseller, was outside getting air, as the sight and smell of blood make her sick. All the right things were done. The bleeding slowed with the help of Darrilyn applying pressure to the wound. The woman’s husband came to take her the to doctor for the stitches I’m certain she needed. Darrilyn cleaned up and went about her day.

Now, it’s not every day that people gush blood in the store. Usually the injuries revolve around a small child who gets an eentsy paper cut (you know, the ones we all pretend we can see) that feels instantly better with a Snoopy Band-Aid.  We’ve had some other injuries: once a toddler gashed his eyebrow after falling on the corner of a very sharp wooden spinner. This winter we had a thirteen-year-old girl faint dead away from a stomach bug. Her mother was with her and took her home. The girl was fine and literally bounded into the store every day for a week to let us know she was doing all right.

Sometimes other things happen that are gross, but must be dealt with. A potty-training accident in picture books. Not the worst thing, but it’s got to get cleaned up. Oftentimes the parents are embarrassed and just flee the area, leaving me running for paper towels and cleanser. Once we had a little boy who was mad at his mother’s (a really good customer) leaving to go to the car for her wallet, decide right now, on the floor, would be a great time to move his bowels. She was mortified, but she cleaned it up and sadly we never saw her again. Little kids spit up, have whoopsies, amazingly smelly diapers and go boom practically once a week. These things happen and our ease as booksellers at their occurrence makes everything go smoothly and helps to put the customers at ease.

These few more serious injuries make me realize that not everyone on staff is comfortable, or willing, to really help in an emergency. This got me pondering: what should I, as the owner, do about this? Well, I’ve decided to work with our local rescue squad on offering a free CPR/First Aid training for all the local merchants. (The businesses would pay for their staffers to go.) I mentioned this to two staffers and one said she wasn’t really interested and the other asked if it was mandatory. I was stunned.

But the more I think about it, the more it seems that this training needs to be mandatory. I don’t want a customer to have a heart attack, or for a baby to choke and have the staff just stand there after calling 911.  Basic first aid and CPR seem like smart things for every frontlne bookseller to know.

There are liability issues to consider. They are covered under the Good Samaritan Doctrine, which according to Black’s Law 7th edition is: "A statute that exempts from liability a person (such as an off-duty physician) who voluntairly renders aid to another in imminent danger but negligently causes injury while rendering the aid. Some form of good-samaritan legislation has been enacted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia." Every state has a different view of this, so please know the law before you rush out to help the car accident victim in front of your store. Because if you pull someone from a car who is not in imminent danger and you paralyze them, you can be sued. Be careful, be smart and talk to the folks who trained you on CPR and First Aid.

I’m very curious what other folks do in their stores. Please let me know what your policy is about First Aid/CPR training for your staff.

And the Award for Best Bookstore Cat Name Goes to…

Alison Morris - June 19, 2009

Here’s a random fact I stumbled upon recently: Recycle Bookstore West in Campbell, Calif., has a store cat named Isbn. Yes, Isbn, as in ISBN. How clever is that?? Without a doubt, this is the best name for a bookstore cat that I’ve come across as yet in my many years of bookstore travels.

The photo of Isbn below is one that appears (along with some very favorable reviews!) on Yelp, but others can also be found in the Flickr accounts of Klara Kim and meowhous.


A year ago I blogged about Veruca, the tortoise that makes his home at Rivendell Books in Montpelier, Vt., and who also happens to sport a great book-related name. Have you had or known a pet with a great bookish name? If so please immortalize them here and (in so doing) offer inspiration to other book-loving would-be pet owners.

The Fine Art of Reading Customers

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 18, 2009

Training staffers to read customers’ signals can lead to much better, more successful experiences for both customer and bookseller.

In Robert Altman’s delicious film, Gosford Park, Helen Mirren plays Mrs. Wilson, the impeccable head housekeeper of an English country manor. Toward the end of the film, Mrs. Wilson reveals the secret of her efficacy to a young lady’s maid: "What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation…. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves."

While retail is certainly not servitude—though it can feel that way sometimes, har har—it is a form of hospitality. Tto be a good retailer means to be a good host, sensitive to the needs and anticipating the whims of the customer.

After nearly thirteen years of bookselling, we’ve gotten a pretty good handle on what customers, wittingly or not, are trying to say to us—not only with their words and tone of voice, but with their body language. This kind of "reading" comes more naturally to some folks than others, and certainly is refined through experience. So it occurred to us that bookseller colleagues might welcome a little tip sheet for staffers who might be newer to retail or just not as attuned to the signals customers telegraph. The examples below aren’t comprehensive, but should serve as a basic guide to the kinds of things we encounter on the floor, at the register, and after the sale.

On the Floor
A customer’s approach into the store is immediately telling. If someone walks in the door and strides toward you or the checkout counter, she’s obviously on a mission and knows what she wants—and a bookseller had better be ready to ring up that gift card or find that special order, pronto. If someone comes in and goes immediately to a particular section, he knows where he’s headed and probably wants to browse there without help or interruption, at least for a while. A quick hello suffices there. If customers come in hesitantly, looking around, this is likely a first visit and needs to be handled with just the right balance of welcome and space: you want to establish contact so they know whom to ask for help, but not smother them with the kind of boutique-y attention that sends many customers (myself included) running for the door.

As a general rule, we like to greet customers with a quick, friendly hello when they walk in, then let them settle into the store before offering help. Your hello tells them you’re there, paying attention, available if needed. (That initial contact from a salesperson has also been shown to reduce shoplifting.) A customer’s hello tells you even more: a brusque or hesitant reply generally means, "Please leave me alone to browse. I’m not ready for / interested in personal interaction right now." It’s really important to let these customers be. Like many of us, they prefer to browse on their own and feel hovered over if salespeople are overly solicitous. Body language signal: a turned-away of the body or head indicates a desire for distance and independence. Crossed arms are a definite "leave me alone" sign. Most of these customers, once they’re comfortable in the store and secure in the knowledge that you are not going to stand over them, will relax and let you help them if they need it. (One caveat: customers who avoid eye contact and won’t engage even to say hello might merely be socially awkward, but an avoidance of sales clerks is also a hallmark of many shoplifters, so just be alert.) We try to make sure we connect with every customer two or three times: once when they come in, usually once during the browsing process, and a sincere "thank you" when they head out, whether or not they’ve made a purchase.

Though we generally leave customers alone to browse, our job is to notice when customers need help, and respond quickly to that need. Even the most independent shopper might want help finding a title; in fact, these shoppers are the most likely to leave a store if they don’t find what they’re looking for quickly. They’re not thinking, "I wonder if they have my book in overstock, or in another section, or can order it for me?" They’re thinking, "Not here. Go elsewhere." So how do you know when or if you should check in again with someone? Their behavior gives you a clue: someone scanning the shelves up and down quickly is not finding what he or she wants. The same is true of someone who goes back and forth between two or three sections; something is missing, and our job is to help them figure out what it is.

We train our staffers to offer help after a few minutes, but from a distance. "Let me know if you’d like help finding anything," we might say from behind the counter or as we pass by, arms full of books to shelve. Call it customer psychology, but if you really want to be asked for help, get busy doing something else, and the people will flock to you with questions. (It’s some form of Murphy’s Retail Law: the customer will want the most help when you are least able to provide it, and vice versa.)

Body language is huge when you’re recommending books to customers. They will literally lean toward you and a book when they’re interested, and lean away or step back when they’re not. Kids are particularly funny about this: kids (especially ages 6-10) who don’t know you, and who are not yet as schooled in politeness as most adults, may actually silently refuse to take hold of a book you’re showing them if they aren’t intrigued. When this happens, I either move on to the next recommendation or, if it’s a great book I’m pretty sure the child will love, I reassure them that they don’t have to commit to any book they take a look at, and that they might find it worthwhile to read a page or two of the proffered title. I also let them know that these are just suggestions, and that they certainly won’t hurt my feelings if they decide not to get a book I’ve recommended. "You want the right book at the right time, a book you’re in the mood for," I tell them, and—the pressure lifted—they usually are willing to take a look at whatever book with an iffy cover but terrific insides I’m trying to hand them.

Some people only want one or two choices to choose from; others want personal shopping assistance for as long as you can give it. When customers have reached their fill of recommendations, you’ll see their gaze start to wander and they will seem distracted. They’ll start nodding and saying "uh-huh" to your every sentence; they’re being polite, but really, their minds have gone elsewhere. They cannot absorb another book. This is your cue: find them a place to sit with the little stack of books, suggest they make their yes-no-maybe piles, and let them be.

Noticing customers’ body language will help you gauge their interest and comfort level and adjust your own sales behavior accordingly, backing off or stepping up when appropriate.

Handy tip—if a customer, child or adult, is vacillating between two books, try this: take the books, shuffle them behind your back, and then say, "Pick a hand." (Sometimes, a child might resist, thinking they’ll be stuck with the one they pick; if this happens, reassure them that they don’t HAVE to take the one they choose.) When the book they’ve chosen is revealed, watch their expression and ask, "Did your heart sink or leap when you saw this one? Did you kind of want the other one, or is this the one?" Usually the answer is suddenly clear. This little game works 99% of the time to help make the choice. The other 1%, a child will say, "I don’t know. They’re both the same." And that’s when you help
lly say, with a mischievous smile at the parent, "Then I guess you should get both!" Or offer to put one on a wish list for their next visit.

At the Register
Nothing drives me crazier as a customer than being ignored while waiting to be rung up. Once people are in line, they’re generally done browsing and ready to get going. Employees should be aware of this; it’s so easy to make quick eye contact with people in line, smile, and say, "We’ll be with you shortly." That simple act does more to stop the sighing, fidgeting, and tapping of impatient people than just about anything else you can do short of shoving the people ahead of them out of line.

If you notice a really impatient person (again, the heavy sighing and tapping of a foot or fingers will be your obvious clues), you might check in with them quietly while you’re helping someone else, asking "Are you in a hurry?" When they inevitably say yes, offer a solution: "Would you like me to ring this up and wrap it while you’re doing some other errands nearby?" or, "We’re open until six if you’d like to come back." Often, kind-hearted customers ahead of the rushed customer will hear this exchange and offer to let that person ahead in line. When that happens, I often joke, "Flying Pig triage," which usually gets a tension-relieving chuckle, and I make sure to thank the person who’s generously let the other customer cut in. That’s a win-win situation; everyone feels good, acknowledged, helped or helpful.

After the Transaction
While no one likes waiting in line, and most people telegraph at least a little impatience while waiting their turn, once they get up to the counter, they often become expansive, even chatty. This is when your inner retail host has to be most graceful—you want this time with your customer, because the relationship is real, because you’ve seen their kids grow up, because you know their dogs’ names, because you are a community member with ties to many of your customers and an interest in all of them. (Well, all but that one imperious, entitled customer you wish would find another bookstore to terrorize.) You need this time, but you also must be aware of those waiting for your attention, too. Again, being aware of the bodies around you and what they’re communicating is the key to keeping a balance between enjoying catching up with a customer and risking alienating the goodwill of the next person. If someone is chatting with you for too long, oblivious to the people behind her, your own signals can help: make eye contact and nod to the next person in line, reaching out a hand for their book to ring up, while saying something like, "It’s always so great to see you!" to the person you need to nudge along. Whatever you say and do, of course it must be genuine; fakeyness, even for a good cause, is always a huge turn-off and easily scented.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s the staffer who lingers too long, chatting with a customer who is actually trying to get out of the store. Feet give away a person’s intentions; if a customer’s feet are pointing toward the door, then even if their body is turned toward you, they’re on their way out. They’re chatting but secretly want or need to to get on with their day. If you can help your staff read the feet, you can avoid the pitfall of being friendly past the natural expiration date of the interaction.

Addendum: Kelly, one of our very well-read staffers (and I mean that in both senses of the term ‘well-read’), just mentioned another body-language signal savvy booksellers should note: the lingering goodbye. This is related to the ‘tricky follow-up question.’ Let’s say a customer has come in seeking a particular book that you happen to be out of. You place it on order for the customer, and let them know when it is likely to arrive. Some booksellers stop there. But unless that customer immediately heads right back out the door, he or she wants something else. A lingering customer is hoping to find something to take home. That’s your opportunity to ask, "Are you in the middle of a book right now, or would you like a recommendation?" This is the tricky follow-up question; you don’t want to be sales-y, but you are sensing a need, you are in fact a bookseller, you are surrounded by great books, and your customers love to read. There’s nothing to lose by trying to meet that need. It may turn out that your follow-up conversation leads to the customer remembering an unread book on her stack at home. That’s fine, too. She will leave feeling like she’s had a terrific customer service experience when there is no expectation hidden in the invitation for her to buy another book. And she’ll be back.

Booksellers and customers out there, what signals do you wish the person on the other side of the counter would pick up on?

The New Literal Mind

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 17, 2009

I’ve noticed a strange trend among grandparents these days, and sometimes among parents: the tendency to reject a book for not being specifically, literally representative of their child’s world. "Oh, he won’t read that," they might say. "It’s a city book, and they live in the country." Or, "Oh, no, she’s got a little SISTER, not a little brother. Do you have something with a little sister?" (Yes, we do, but maybe that book is a little less wonderful than the one with the little brother.) Or, most disheartening of all, a whispered, "I don’t think he’ll really be interested in that," when the child’s skin color on the cover does not match the child’s skin color in real life. (I’ll add here that only white customers make this kind of comment; customers of color — even if they were so narrow-minded — wouldn’t have the luxury of limiting their children only to books about kids like themselves; there just aren’t enough. But that’s a separate post.)

Do these adults think children won’t make the leap? Whatever happened to imagination, metaphor, curiosity? To encountering the unexpected, or trying on new lives through the windows of a book? In my experience, that’s in large part what books are for. As a child growing up in the sand-colored deserts of Arizona, I loved reading about kids in New York City, or the swamps of the south. I did enjoy the odd book about my own landscape, in part because there were so few of them, but if I’d limited myself to books about kids like me in a setting like mine, I’d have likely been bored, for one thing, and grown up with a very narrow world view, for another. In fact, thinking about it, the only Southwest stories I really loved were Native American stories, which fascinated and enchanted me. I was living my life; the magic of books lay in getting to live someone else’s.

As we all know from reading to children, and having been children ourselves, something inside us needs stories that expand us. Children are already open to so much more than most adults; they don’t even notice characters’ skin color—they’re in it for the story. And they’re always, always hungry for something new and fun and interesting and meaningful.

Most days, I have the energy to gently encourage these literal-minded customers to give farther-afield books a chance (and to give their grandchildren a little more imaginative credit). Once in a while, though, I cave, and hand Grandma the book she really wants, with a character that has her grandson’s name and lives her grandson’s life. That happens when I can tell a customer is so set in her way of thinking that whatever I say will fall on (metaphorically) deaf ears.

The increasing literal-mindedness is showing up here and there in children, too, and it disturbs me. It used to be that naming your new stuffed animal was practically a sacred rite of passage in plush parenting; now, if the tag on the creature doesn’t provide a pre-fab name, we’re seeing kids at a loss, calling their new dog "Puppy" and their new cat "Kitty." What happened to Alexander Sassafrass and Robbily Susan? I find myself getting this mischievous, mad gleam in my eye and finding a way to steer that family toward Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

We have many missions as booksellers, but it’s a strange world when one of them is the need to defend children’s curiosity and imagination against the instincts of some of their most loving and well-intentioned guardians. On those days, I just want to see kids playing outside somewhere, absorbed in the microscopic world of bugs and fairies or forts and treehouses, tattered book lying open on the grass, icy glass of lemonade sweating in the sun. Or, if they’re city kids, playing in the stream of a hydrant, giggling and squealing with their friends, and sharing stories.

I’d love to hear some of your most effective tactics for getting adults to trust children’s open-mindedness and willingness to visit lands and lives beyond their own.

What a Great List

Josie Leavitt - June 16, 2009

I am impressed. Last week when I asked for summer reading suggestions, 31 people offered some truly wonderful suggestions. Click here and you’ll be able to see the whole list.

It would seem that just about everyone suggested The Hunger Games — clearly this was the most popular book on the list. This book is a smart choice to have a reading list because the kids will be excited to see it on the list and even happier to read it, especially with the sequel coming out in September. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was equally popular. There were 87 books on the list, and 57% of the authors were women. This is the striking difference with the school lists I’ve gotten this year. I’m not sure what this means other than it makes me happy. So often these lists are the "classics" and that usually means male authors aside from Austen and the Brontes.

This list is exciting. It’s full of great modern characters that kids can relate to, and isn’t this what a reading list is supposed to do? Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains was another book populating many lists.  Every book by John Green was on the list more than once. Finally, someone is paying attention to young adult males who actually like realistic fistion. Historical fiction was nicely represented as well. Sometimes what’s lacking in school lists is balance. It’s either too skewed to to classics, with nothing published after 1970, or it’s a land of science fiction and fantasy.

Our small sampling made me wish I was a student at this school of reading. I would have been overwhelmed by great choices and read far more than the required number. Please feel free to comment on the list, if there’s something fabulous that you feel is missing. We can continue to grow the best summer reading list, ever.