Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Romance of a Real Book

Elizabeth Bluemle - March 10, 2011

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters where Michael Caine’s character initiates flirtation (okay, yes, with his sister-in-law; not the point here) with a book of poetry. It’s an intimate gift, it’s a risk, it’s personal. It’s romantic. He urges her to read the poem on page 112, e.e. cummings’ poem with the famous lines, “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” It moves her and seduces her.
GI Jane is an action movie about a woman trying to break the gender barrier in Navy SEAL training. A series of harrowing experiences pits her against the tough, deeply skeptical Command Master Chief, whom she eventually saves in real battle conditions. At the end of her training, she finds that he’s left his own well-worn copy of a poetry anthology in her locker. Circled in red is D.H. Lawrence’s “Self-Pity:”

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself

This is the poem the commander started every training season with; it was the poem he aimed scornfully at the lone female recruit on her first day. Now, it signifies his admiration and gratitude. No gift could have been more meaningful to its recipient.
I’m sure you get where I’m going here. There is just something about a book passed from one set of hands to another that enhances, even transcends, its contents.
Somehow, I just can’t think that either of the above-mentioned gifts would have packed the same punch if the poem had been emailed, printed out and handed over, or sent as an e-gift. A book has its unique heft and weight and texture; it changes over time, edges softening, pages acquiring evidence of its history with a reader (fingerprints, a drop of spilled orange juice, marginalia). Receiving a book from a new love interest, especially a book from his or her personal collection, is as intimate as receiving a worn piece of clothing, and often more revealing. The book even smells like that person’s life. Best of all, he or she has held it! With those beautiful hands!
Today, a customer came in for a book she is giving as a gift to someone she has a crush on. It was a book of essays on art. “Do you think it’s too… obvious?” she asked. I loved the question, loved particularly the fact that, because of what an exchanged book signifies, the answer to that question could actually be yes.

Kids and Credit Cards

Josie Leavitt - March 8, 2011

Okay, I don’t generally think it’s a great idea for children to have credit cards. But sometimes kids get credit card gift cards, and that’s adorable. Picture a little five-year-old new reader paying with an American Express gift card. Maybe it was my mood, but Sunday, there was nothing cuter.
Two sisters came in during a fairly intense snowstorm and slowly picked out books. The older sister was trying in vain to help her younger sister, but all I kept hearing was, “That’s too scary.” “That’s too hard.” I admired the older sister’s attempt to find a book. I felt like she was a young bookseller who was just missing the mark.
After the little one finally found some books, she came up to the counter. Picture Cindy Lou Who approaching the desk and asking in her cutest Who-voice, “Do you take American Express?” I tried really hard not to laugh, but couldn’t suppress a grin.  I told her we took AmEx and she skipped back to her parents and said,”I can pay for these!”
The whole family came to the register and each sister paid for her stack separately with her own American Express gift card. The card gets rung through the credit machine like a real credit card with receipts, that have to be signed. So, here’s our new reader, little Cindy Lou Who, being asked to sign her name. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go, but it went well with the laser focus of someone signing the deed to their new house, complete with a tiny flower at the end of the signature line.
I was charmed to bits.  I think maybe training a child so young to use a credit card is probably not a great idea, but these girls respected their budgets and their parents were not the types to run out and get these kids real credit cards — in fact they were somewhat bemused about the entire transaction.
Good thing for me, both kids had money left on their cards, so I’m hoping to see them again.

A Censorship Issue

Josie Leavitt - March 7, 2011

Well, after almost 15 years of having the store, it has happened. A customer asked me to remove a book from my shelves.
This has never happened before. We’ve had people move books they thought were objectionable, but never has someone looked me in the eye and said, “Are you the owner? I want you to remove this book because it makes fun of childhood sexual abuse.” I apologized that she found the book objectionable and gave her a refund.
The book in question is My First Dictionary: Corrupting Young Minds One Word at a Time by Ross Horsley. Does this book cross the line of good taste? Sometimes, sure it does. But honestly, so do lots of humor books. Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, and parts of it made me cringe. I try to warn customers that sometimes it’s a little bleak. There are some letters about abandonment and parental drinking that seem particularly cruel.
The customer went on to say, “This book is not appropriate in a children’s store.” To which I countered, half my store is made up of adult books. And besides, one person’s unhappiness is not enough of a reason to pull a book. If that were the case we’d never sell Goodnight Moon, Love You Forever, or Harry Potter because plenty of people have issues with those books. And I’ll be honest, I really bristle at the phrase “it’s not appropriate in a children’s store.” Well, parents shop in children’s stores and often the “objectionable” books are well out of reach of kids.
This brought up  a larger issue. When does curation of a collection cross the censorship line? I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded buyer who doesn’t reject a book because it’s objectionable. I don’t buy certain books because I don’t think they’ll sell or they’re not a good fit for my customer base. Is that act one of censorship? Now I’m wondering about all my buying.
I will order anyone anything, even if I hate the topic or the book. That’s not my place, to judge someone’s book buying.  Obviously, my goal in stocking my store is not to have books people find offensive and therefore won’t buy. But some people find David Sedaris and Mary Karr objectionable, and I love them and will continue to stock and recommend their books.
So where is the line? I have puzzled over this ever since the customer left and I still don’t know.

The Magic of Publisher Dinners

Elizabeth Bluemle - March 4, 2011

Egmont scored a elegant coup in using the gorgeous Mexican Cultural Institute in DC during Winter Institute as a venue for its party celebrating Walter Dean Myers and Pam and Jon Voelkel.

Today I received my first (very early!) invitation to a publisher dinner at BookExpo America in May. These dinners are so wonderful, one of the highlights of a bookseller’s year. A publisher will bring phenomenal authors and illustrators to some delicious restaurant with a quiet room (or a rooftop garden, or a museum, or a boat, etcetera) and invite a group of booksellers to feast with them. Some of these dinners are quite small and intimate; others are full-scale parties. Before the economy tanked, some of these festivities were outrageously elaborate. Whatever the size or venue, they are pretty magical. Publishers invite store owners and book buyers to these dinners. The featured authors and artists are scattered around the room or table(s), and often shift stations between each course to give all of the booksellers an opportunity to become acquainted with them. It’s such a terrific opportunity to hear behind-the-scenes inspiration and anecdotes about the making of books, and to get to know the three-dimensional people behind the stories we love. It certainly gets us fired up about the great books and authors featured.
It takes a while for a new store to start getting invitations, since the groups are often limited to 8 or 12 booksellers. As a rookie store owner back in the mid-1990s, I was lucky enough to have found a mentor in the magnificently sharp, funny, brilliant (and well-read) Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass. Before I’d ever even heard of publisher dinners, she was the one who put a quiet bee in a few important ears suggesting that Josie and I be included in a dinner or two. Every bookseller should be so fortunate to have a Carol.

Carol Chittenden, Book Mage

Back then, we had a tiny store in a tiny town of 3,500 (as opposed to our current small store in a small town of 6,000), and certainly didn’t do enough in sales to attract the attention of any publisher. But when Carol speaks, people listen, and her thoughtfulness earned us chairs at some pretty lofty tables, which led to meeting bigger-name authors from all over the country, which led to some really successful author events, which kept us in the eye of those publishers. Had Chitts, as we like to call her, not taken us under her wing, I’m not sure how long it might have taken for us to have a seat at the table, as it were, in the bookselling/publishing world.
So publishers, as you gather your lists together for those BEA dinners, I invite you to think about asking your sales reps and longtime bookseller contacts to point out one or two up-and-coming booksellers you might otherwise overlook. It’s a generous gesture that means more to those new owners and buyers than you’d ever imagine — inspiring and energizing them and earning you a sweet spot in their hearts — and just might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The Technology Trap

Josie Leavitt - March 3, 2011

As more and more customers come in asking me when I’ll start selling e-books, I find myself wondering what does that mean for me and my store. These are regular customers who have embraced the Shop Local ethos and want to support my bookstore while they buy books a new way. These are customers who have e-readers and also continue to buy books. But is their buying an e-book at my store ultimately going to help my business or hurt it? We all know that Amazon has done with e-books what they do with bestsellers: they deeply discount them, so deeply that few can compete with the prices.
However, this week with Random House’s announcement that they will sell e-books on the agency model, the playing field changes dramatically for the better. Honestly, I’m not sure yet what this actually means to me, just as I’m not sure what e-books will do to the indies. As an independent bookstore, I am struggling with where e-books need to fit in my store model. Google Books makes it easy to sell e-books if your store has an American Booksellers Association Indie Commerce website, but if you don’t have one, then it gets more complicated, as Google Books hasn’t rushed to embrace having affiliates.
Do I try to offer the very book format that might well be the end of the book as some doomsayers theorize? Or do I cede this market share to the places people have already been trained to go for them? This is the question of the year for many booksellers, and I grapple with this daily. It’s so hard to know what to do. I still offer books for sale on my website and there are still a myriad of places where people can buy books. How important will e-books be to my bottom line? I just don’t know and that is the question that worries me every day.
So, booksellers, readers, and other folks who enjoy this blog, please weigh in. What do you see as the future of e-books and independent bookstores? Can the two co-exist happily, or is the relationship already too fraught to succeed?

An Easy Promotion Idea

Josie Leavitt - March 1, 2011

Booksellers lament, quite frequently, about how publishers could do more to help the indies. We need more co-op money and more promotional efforts that actually work. While stickers and tattoos are lovely, sometimes we need something that helps the bottom line. I do not intend this post to be an ad for Penguin, but they’ve come up with a program that works for booksellers and the publisher.
Penguin has started a great new program called the Penguin Dozen. This is a program that runs for a full year, starting March 1st. Bookstores that sign up commit to buying 20 books a month of the featured picture book character. When I first heard of the program I thought, great, 20 books a month I don’t need. But then I read the promo materials again. We’re talking The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Winnie the Pooh, Skippyjon Jones, Ladybug Girl, Spot, Llama Llama, Madeline and more.
These are books I sell anyway and they’re good books.  Now, this is  a promotion I can get behind. I order 20 books (they can be paperback), and set up a display in the picture book section featuring the character’s books. The great thing about this promo is it just reminds me to keep my backlist current with these characters. I’m not ordering 20 books I don’t need, and this is why this will work for me. To keep the promo fun there is a dedicated website for the Penguin Dozen. Each character has his or her own page full of activity sheets, fun ideas for parents and children to do together. My sales rep, Nicole Davies, has forwarded a year-long backlist order form with ISBNs, titles and price. Really, this couldn’t be easier. And that’s why it works.
– I don’t have to do any paperwork. This is huge. I emailed my rep and she took care of the details. I was even reminded of the two backlist deals that I could take advantage of to save even more money on this promo. So, I cut and pasted ISBNs and ordered books I was embarrassingly out of, saved money, and fulfilled my monthly obligation for eight months of the Penguin Dozen all the while saving money doing ti.
– I want these books. And often, there’s a new title coming out, so I’m likely to need backlist to help sell the new title.
– Part of the plan gets me two free costume rentals. This is an enormous savings of big shipping costs. While the costumes usually can be rented free, the shipping for the oversized package can set you back a couple hundred.
– Planning a year ahead makes me a better bookseller. Our 15th anniversary is coming up in September and having some character events is a great way to kick off the fun.
– It’s easy. I cannot stress this enough. This is as good as picking up an extra 3% discount when I order 5 copies of a book I know I’ll sell. Easy co-op works really well.
– My sales rep is doing all the work. I know this sounds selfish, but all I’ve had to do is make an order, and that’s fun. Oh, and I had to make a phone call about reserving the costumes. I think I can handle that level of busyness.
– Other publishers are making co-op easier, and that is so appreciated.  I believe that the easier co-op gets, the more we’ll order and ultimately sell. And that’s good for everyone’s bottom line.