Monthly Archives: July 2011

Book Talks and Sales

Josie Leavitt - July 8, 2011

In my post Strategies for Summer, I mentioned that we were going to try Thursday morning book talks. Well, we had our first one yesterday and, I must say it went great. One of the things I loved about it was the range of books each staffer picked.
JP, the staffer whose idea it was, had the best attitude about it. She was all about keeping it relaxed and flexible, which was a perfect counterpoint to my angsting about no one showing up. We’ve only started promoting the talks, and I was fearful that there would be no crowd. Turns out we had two people who were thrilled to hear the book talks.
JP and PJ were the two staffers who did the book talks. JP is a seasoned book talker, having been a school librarian for 20 years. PJ, is our youngest employee at 2o,who has convinced herself that she’s terrified of speaking to groups. PJ saw that there were two very friendly people eagerly wanting to hear about books and she wasn’t scared.
I worked the register while PJ and JP and were book talking. As I listened, I was blown away by how well they were doing.  The book talks were lively, informed and did a wonderful job of talking about the books without giving the plot away. Best of all each woman made everything sound so enticing.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the fact that these two customers bought three of four books PJ recommended and two of the four that JP book talked, seemed like really great numbers to me. And while these customers are from out of town, they signed up for our online newsletter, took a paper newsletter and vowed to shop with us online. We served cheese and crackers and a good time was had by all.
Who knows what will happen next week? I can’t wait to find out.

Should We Protect the Grown-Ups?

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 7, 2011

As a children’s bookseller, I’m used to dancing the delicate line between guidance and censorship, championing readers’ freedom and respecting/honoring their choices while also trying to steer young people toward books that will most resonate with who and where they are personally and developmentally. Basically, I’ve had fifteen years’ experience doing gut-checks on readers and books when I’m asked for help. What I never expected was to find myself needing to do the same for adults, with adult reading.
Recently, I become enamored of an adult nonfiction title called Shameless: How I Ditched the Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure, and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner, by Pamela Madsen. It’s the story of the author’s midlife crisis, her growing realization that somewhere along the way, she’d lost an important piece of herself: the full sense of her identity independent of her societal roles. Most notably, her sense of self as a sexual being. A successful fertility advocate and happy wife and mother, the author had her act together but felt that something big was missing, and she set out to find it.
I love this book as an adult book-group choice because it addresses so many issues familiar to women in our community’s book groups: sex, marriage, motherhood, aging, weight, body image, identity, shame, fear, courage, risk. Even better—in terms of fodder for discussion—is that it’s wildly controversial; I guarantee you that no group of readers will all be in agreement on the nature of the path of self-discovery on which Madsen embarks. (That’s a convoluted way of saying she gets sexy, big-time, and in unconventional, sometimes uncomfortable, ways.) The book is direct and fearless and does not always portray the author in the best possible light. Whether or not you agree with her methods or conclusions, there’s no denying that the memoir takes on a goodly number of personal preoccupations likely to be on the minds of American women over the age of forty. Book group gold! Right? Well, sort of.
While the reaction of individual readers I’ve recommended this book to has been almost uniformly appreciative (one woman did feel guilty even leafing through it), my book-group success has been mixed. I have one book group who wants the author in Vermont yesterday to talk about Shameless; another wants to string me up by my thumbs for recommending such salacious “trash.” Now, I understand that not everyone wants to spend his or her book group time reading and talking about sexuality, but what’s got me puzzling is the intense discomfort of this latter book group.
I was told about a burst of shocked and angry emails that flew fast and furiously after Shameless was announced as the next read. What struck both me and the book group member who talked to me about these emails was the reaction to its very topic — as though sexuality should be recognized as too taboo, too charged, to serve as an appropriate part of a book worth reading and discussing. At most, I expected people to say, “It’s not my cup of tea.” What I wasn’t prepared for is the sense that I should be censoring recommendations to adults, the sense that I would somehow be disturbing the fabric of the universe by suggesting that women might be interested in reading about the experiences of a peer who made different choices from the ones they themselves might make.
I’ve noticed this also with politics, religion, and other hot-button issues: a discomfort (among very well-educated people) to discuss dissenting ideas. Fear of disagreement. An end-run around controversy. Have I been desensitized by my college years at UC Berkeley, or by spending the bulk of my life in large, liberal cities? Is it just me, or has America swung a bit backward on the pendulum, toward Puritanism and discomfort with ideas different from those held by the reader? Heck, maybe I’m expecting us to be western Europe. Whatever the case, I’m surprised. I guess that’s the nub of what this blog post is about: wondering if we are all seeing a creeping increase in closed-mindedness. Do we want every book to be a mirror of ourselves?
How is this related to children’s bookselling? Well, dear readers, I suppose my mind travels down this path: If we adults are so averse to controversy, so alarmed by that which might prove to be uncomfortable, how will we raise our children to think critically, to discern, to debate, to wonder and explore?
And do I now need to worry not only about what I recommend to kids, but to adults?

Laugh of the Weekend

Josie Leavitt - July 5, 2011

A longtime favorite customer published a book last week with a very local publisher. The book looks lovely. The publisher threw a massive book launch at the Inn at Shelburne Farms (see a previous post to see how beautiful it is). Mary, the author, is a stately older woman, who was basking in the glow of more than a hundred friends celebrating her book release.
The store’s copies of the book were delivered the following morning by 11. Mary had already called at 10:30 to make sure we were getting our copies that day. Something has changed in Mary. Gone is the book-buying Mary. She has been replaced by anxious local author. Please understand, I love Mary. She’s been a good customer and I’m thrilled for her book.
As with many brand-new local authors, she calls every day to see how we’re doing on stock. She came in Saturday to check the placement of her book. Elizabeth had smartly faced out our stack of 10 in the Vermont section which is right by the front door. Honestly, better placement is hard to find.
Well, Mary came in and saw the case and asked Elizabeth if she might have better placement. Elizabeth deftly handled the situation by saying that after our event it would move to the register. Elizabeth asked Mary what she’d like to see, and Mary said with dead seriousness, “Well, I want someone standing there by the door, holding the book.” And then she smiled impishly.  I burst out laughing.
Honestly, I’m still laughing.

Strategies for the Summer

Josie Leavitt - July 1, 2011

Last week, we had a really productive staff meeting. The meeting had two parts: the reality part, and the brainstorming part.
The reality part of a staff meeting is where I share with the staff some of the money facts of the store. I think it’s really important to let your staff know how the store is doing, or if you have a monetary monthly goal in mind. We necessarily set these kinds of goals because I feel like so much of the store being busy is out of your hands. So, I set a challenge for everyone to sell two extra books a day. I read somewhere that a bookseller’s goal was to sell five extra books a day; I loved the idea and am freely copying it.
The challenge of selling two extra books per person is actually fairly complex. You just can’t say to a customer, “buy an extra book today, would ya?” This is where the art of handselling comes to play. By listening to a customer you can tell if they are jealous about getting only their kids summer reading books. All it takes is asking them if they’d like a book for summer. And more often than not, simply by checking in with a customer more than once can change a transaction for the better. People will often say they don’t need help when first asked, but after a few minutes, when asked again nicely if they need help, they will often say yes and then tell you what they’re looking for.
We’re also viewing summer as Christmas, not just for increased sales, but for the fact that some of these customers we’ll only see once. While we can order most any book and get in often the next day, that doesn’t seem fast enough to someone on vacation who’s desperate to read “that book now.” Our job is to do our best to get that book, but if we can’t we should always suggest another title instead. There are plenty of times when someone really only wants a particular book, but many folks are just eager for a really good book. It’s our job as booksellers to make another book sound just as appealing. This is a skill. First, the bookseller has to understand precisely what the customer is seeking and secondly, be able to come up with another title that fits that bill, and thirdly to be able to talk about it with passion.
At the meeting we brainstormed different ways to get customers in the door. How do we create an event that will draw in people on a regular basis. One staffer, JP, suggested having summer reading book talks. We all agreed that this was a great idea. So, once a week, starting next week for an hour, we’ll be offering our suggestions for summer reading for any and all who want to come.  We’re working with a local lunch cafe to provide light refreshments, so we’ll promote his food and get a massive discount.
I have no idea how many people will come, but I love the idea of having to prepare for a booktalk each week. It will just make us all better booksellers and it’s fun to talk about our favorite books.