The customer strode in and asked where Huckleberry Finn was. He was almost chortling as I handed him the book. “This will get them reading.” Curious, I asked what he was talking about. Gleefully, he explained what he was planning.
It turns out he has twin 11-year boys who are too smart for their own good. They were given Kindle Fires for Christmas (it was from the grandparents who live 1,500 miles away, don’t get me started) and they’ve discovered they can fake read. These boys, Dustin and Tom, set up their device with a book and show their Dad what they’re reading. Then their father goes back to what he’s doing and the kids Google the book and look up key plot points to discuss at breakfast.
The Dad had had it. He was determined that all three of them were going read Huck Finn if it kills him. I cannot write what he actually said, except to say he needed to contribute fifty cents to the swear jar. While I loved his enthusiasm for getting his boys to read, I was dubious about his methods. Nothing sucks the joy out of a reading venture than being told, “We’re going to read this and we’re going to like it.” I lobbied that perhaps this venture could start out just as the father wanting to share a book with the boys, not force it. Elizabeth overheard this strategy and came over with a Flying Pig favorite, A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears by Jules Feiffer. He loved the idea of a funny book to start things off. Next we gave him My Side of the Mountain to have as the second book, then come right in with Huck Finn.
The father has vowed to keep us posted about how his reading plan progresses, and when I hear more, I’ll repost. I can’t wait to see how the first week goes.
Mark Stein teaches third- and fourth-graders in South Burlington, Vt., at a great little parent-cooperative school called The Schoolhouse, which both of my nephews have attended. Mark’s class just finished reading A Wrinkle in Time, and the kids were debating which genre—science fiction or fantasy—best fits the book. When they reached an impasse, Mark suggested calling The Flying Pig.
“I told the kids we would call a local independent bookstore because, in addition to keeping our money in Vermont when we shop there, we can be certain of reaching people who are passionate about books.” You have to love a teacher who instills in nine- and ten-year-olds an appreciation for the value of community and the deep love of books.
After the kids decided what questions they wanted to ask a bookseller, Mark put the classroom phone on speaker and called the bookstore. There was no call ahead, no set-up, just the real-time, real-world experience of calling a store for information. This is a great experience for kids, by the way; there is, as you may imagine, a huge range of competencies when it comes to children phoning commercial establishments — but that’s another blog post.
When one of our staffers answered the call, the children asked her where we choose to shelve Madeleine L’Engle’s novel. She replied that we shelve the series in our middle grade Fantasy/Science Fiction section (we combine the genres for middle-grade books, but we give adult and YA science fiction a separate section). She added that we also carry A Wrinkle in Time in our Newbery Award section, and that sometimes, the series can even be found in our younger Classics section, especially when we have the boxed set on hand. That gave the class a lot to chew on, both broadening the number of book categories and not settling the initial question with finality.
The kids had one more question for us: Did we have the next book in the series? Mark said, “The kids are so excited about A Wrinkle in Time. And now they’re excited about being part of the process of getting hold of the next book. It’s a powerful thing,” he added, ruminating, “to be part of the acquisition of a book.” I’d never really thought about it that way, but I understand what he means — and I really admire that he’s deepened the way the kids are thinking about where and how they decide to add a new treasure to the classroom library.
This past year I have noticed a real surge in a certain type of bookstore customer: the grandparent, usually grandma, with a grandchild. As the economy has tightened, it seems more and more grandparents are providing childcare. And a favorite activity is coming to the bookstore.
Every Tuesday, a grandma I’ll call Nono comes in every morning with Addie, who is about two and a half. I usually see them at the coffee shop when I pick up my iced latte, they are there having a hot chocolate and a snack. I love the ritual of this day.
I spoke to Nono about her Tuesdays. She said she picks Addie in the morning and has her until about three. And every week, Nono asks Addie if she wants to go to the library or the bookstore. Happily for us, she almost always wants to come to the store.
I’ve noticed two things about grandparents and their grandkids. The first is, oftentimes, when there is more than one child, the grandparents can seems a little more flustered by the kids than their parent. I attribute this only to not being around kids a lot. Most adults who don’t have children actually hear every word the kids say. They hear all the “mom” “mom” and want to attend to each utterance. This can make for a long day for a care provider. Smart kids know they can get a lot of attention by doing this.
The second thing I’ve noticed is grandparents don’t often say no when a child expresses interest in a book. They are thrilled to share a story. What I hear a lot is Nono telling Addie stories about her child. “When your mom was little she loved Maybelle the Cable Car.” It’s just lovely. And usually, Nono buys a book, or two and sometimes three if they’re paperback. Sometimes older kids will “forget” the rules of the house and say it’s okay to get a book when they know full well they can’t. There’s nothing I can do about this even if I know the house rules. But if I see this happening, I might guide the purchase to something affordable.
There is something special about the grandchild/grandparent relationship. And I, too, love Nono’s Tuesday.
I have to admit, being closed for a week has been bliss. I didn’t go anywhere or actually do anything amazingly fun. But the joy of knowing I didn’t have to work was very enjoyable. Now that the store is open again, I find myself making lists like crazy about what needs to get done this year to have a better sales year and generally, more fun. Yes, this year I vowed to have more fun at work. I think, too often, fun can get lost with the daily routine of ordering, receiving, planning events, paying bills, etc.
So, just how am I going to this? Well, I’ve got a multi-pronged approach that mostly involves staying focused on what really matters, which is enjoying books, customers and authors. I’m going to try to not let anxiety get the best of me. It’s all too easy to worry about every little thing. Did that order get sent? Have the orders been shelved? Am I ready for my frontlist meeting? Here’s the thing: the orders almost always get sent, shelving is seldom vital (necessary, yes, but it doesn’t have to happen the minute the books are on the back counter) and meetings are still productive if I haven’t totally prepared.
When it comes to author events my new approach is to actually enjoy the event. We were really fortunate last fall to have some truly extraordinary authors come to the store. I found myself, and the staff, all too often, caught up in the persnickety details of event planning, rather than focusing on the fact that someone whose work we love was coming. It’s not every day Judy Schachner comes to the store and tells a room full of rapt Skippyjon Jones fans that she’s going to dig up his body from the garden and put the bones back together. If I had been too worried about the room set-up or if we had enough books, this bizarrely lovely moment might have been lost. Basically, I want events to mean more.
The more events mean to me, the more likely I am to speak passionately about them to customers, and that passion has a ripple effect with everyone I talk to about an event. An event is not a reason to be anxious, it’s a chance to bring an experience to customers. I remember after our event with Judith Jones, people were wiping away tears because they were so moved by her. This is why we have events. Yes, selling books is always a plus, but to move people, to introduce them face to face with an author they’ve loved since they were kids or to see the look on kids’ faces when they meet an author for the first time, this is the gift of owning a bookstore.
Of course you still have to work at events: actually get authors, promote the events, order the books, etc. But without the joy, really — what’s the point?
Every year we close the store for one to two weeks after the holidays. This year we are only taking this week off. Our Christmas was so busy we thought it best to be open for folks to use gift cards and bring visiting family into the store and then close. Some readers might think we’re crazy, but in a rural town we have a little more latitude to be more human than a larger store in a big city where there are expectations of being open 362 days a year, closing only for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Our town is such that our customers actually applaud us for just shutting the doors and giving staff a real rest and allowing people to have quality family time. Commerce is not the driving force of our decision to be booksellers. It’s about connecting with people and helping them find the right book. And after the Christmas season we had, shuttering the doors is the only real way to recharge our batteries.
Because we are closed this week, we are also going very light on the blog posts. Nothing says a true vacation then actually having nothing hanging over our heads. I encourage readers to revisit the Who’s Winning Awards in January and make some predictions for the upcoming ALA Midwinter announcements.
During the holidays, lots of little kids came shopping with their parents. This can make it hard for the parents to shop for them. So, if we have time we’ll try to divert the child while the parent runs around gathering things that get rung up on the sly, wrapped and bagged before the little one has any idea what happened.
One technique I found very helpful in distracting little ones was asking what was on their list for Santa. One little girl gave the best answer ever.
“I only have three things on my list: a stroller for my baby doll, a real live dog, and a PlayMobil castle that has everything a real castle has.” It was all I could not to laugh. I imagined the castle coming with a moat, horses and some marauding townsmen. The mom and I made eye contact and I asked, so which is she getting? The stroller for the baby doll was the practical gift. “We’ve got allergies and space limitations,” the mom said.
So every time I imagine this lovely, articulate five-year-old strolling around her neighborhood with her baby all tucked in snug in her new stroller, it makes me smile.