Monthly Archives: April 2012

Reading the Numbers

Josie Leavitt - April 11, 2012

I have finally gotten a chance to really look at the year-end numbers for book sales in 2011 as published in last week’s Children’s Bookshelf article: Facts and Figures 2012. I’m fascinated by the frontlist and backlist breakdowns.
The hardcover frontlist is chock full of sequels, fantasies, and young adult books. The dearth of picture books really surprised me. Just under 20% of the list were picture books, but in the backlist hardcover list, picture books comprised almost 60% of the top 104 bestselling books of last year. I have been puzzling over what these numbers mean to my store and my customers.
Clearly, sequels were all the rage. Books that folks were already familiar with populated the list. Almost 66% of the frontlist hardcovers were from a series. This tells me two things, which are sort of opposite sides of the same coin. The first is that folks weren’t taking many chances and trying brand-new things, or conversely, they so loved the earlier books that the sequels were met with glee. I think the numbers reflect a combination of both. The sequels last year were big and hugely anticipated, but I’m still taken aback by their total dominance. I have no data to back this theory up, but I think the frontlist bestsellers represent teens and preteens buying their own books, or at least dictating what books to buy.
It seems to me that the backlist hardcovers are leaning much more towards classics, perhaps the nature of backlist. These strike me as gifts for babies and could be the basis of a young person’s library. Dr. Seuss books and those by Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein and Sandra Boynton were heavily represented. I couldn’t help but think: baby showers. This is great news for booksellers. A backlist bestseller list that is so heavily titled toward picture books means lots of new readers. I am heartened by these numbers. The fact that Goodnight Moon sold over 500,000 board books means half a million babies got a classic and got started on the road to loving books. It’s our job to keep that road populated with great books, new and old. And what a fun job it is.

Easter Fun

Josie Leavitt - April 9, 2012

We don’t often close for a whole day, so when we try to take good advantage of the time off. Yesterday, our family gathered in Burlington for a lovely Easter

The set up at the table.

meal with our nephews, their friends and some folks from the neighborhood.
Elizabeth’s holiday tradition is to set up the dining room table for pysanky with egg dyes, wax

My nephew, Jake, works on his egg.

squares, kistkas (the stylus used to trace your design on your egg) and lots of newspaper and votive candles. Kids, who had been out in the yard with massive water guns, were quietly focused on their egg designs. The joy of the creation is always so much fun to watch. Laughter follows almost every dye bath. Often an egg is hard to get out of the dye bath and it can roll away, with a fair amount of speed. This year we used raw eggs, not hard-boiled, so the level of risk was heightened.

I don’t do the eggs as I have no facility for this kind of work. Plus, I’m a klutz, so I watch from the living room and laugh.

 Every year, this day just makes me so very happy. The laughter sounds far after the eggs are done. “This egg is not taking color!” “My egg is cracked.” Is something burning?” The comments are just as funny as the rolling eggs. I hear, “Whoops” a lot. Sadly, sometimes I leave Easter and shake my head wondering why we don’t have more Sundays off. But, the eggs are beautiful and the leftovers are a great way to get through a Monday back at work.


“I Want to Live Here”

Josie Leavitt - April 6, 2012

Two lovely boys, ages seven and ten, came to the store yesterday and I wanted to clone them. They were enthusiastic readers and honestly, just some of the sweetest kids I’d had the pleasure of meeting.
Sadly, these kids were just visiting Vermont on their school break. They were with their  family who make it a point to go from independent bookstore to independent bookstore while on vacation. They were the second family this week who were touring stores in New England. These families always make my day. Sloan, the teenage boy from Monday, is what these two little guys will grow up to be. Pure, happy book-lovers who could easily spend hours in a bookstore. Their is a patience that these kids have in bookstore that is so pleasant to see.
What charmed me the most about Johnny and David yesterday were their comments to their parents. I overheard several times from each of them, “I want to live here and read all the books!” When a ten-year-old states that he wants to live at the bookstore, you know you’ve done something right.
Over the years we’ve had many children say they want to live at the store. Readers of all ages are comforted by the possibility of being surrounded by books. But one young reader took her need to be with books farther than we had ever considered. When we were in an our old store, a very serious eight-year-old told us she wanted to be buried under the store in the crawl space.
Personally, I just want folks of all ages to feel comfortable in the store, in whatever way makes them happy, even if it’s a scary crawl space.

“He Won’t Read Books About Girls”

Elizabeth Bluemle - April 5, 2012

In her March 30 essay, On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women, in the New York Times, author Meg Wolitzer talks about perceived disparities in the evaluation and reception of fiction by men as opposed to women. Without getting mired in the debate — people get very uncomfortable very fast on the topic of gender discrepancies, disproportionately allocated awards and keynote speaking gigs, etc. — I will say that our culture does have some entrenched ideas (habits, really) about differences between men and women, and it affects our children from an early age. I know we’ve blogged about this before, but it’s a big issue and it’s not going away.
I’m not saying there aren’t differences between men and women, some hardwired and some culturally and environmentally acquired. But we do a huge disservice to our children and their ability to grow into compassionate, thoughtful, empathetic adults when we steer them away from things we think of as “belonging” to the other gender. If The Hunger Games had featured Katniss on the cover instead of a gold medallion against a black background, sales to boys would have been fractional. This is a frustrating truth. And it’s our fault. We steer kids—no, we steer boys—away from stories they might respond to from a very early age.
So often at the store, we hear parents say about a great book, “Oh, he won’t read that. It’s about a girl.” Really? By accepting and perpetuating, pandering to, this mindset, we are basically saying — to ourselves, each other, the boys, and most damagingly, to girls — that it’s okay not to have in interest in the experiences of HALF THE HUMAN RACE. I mean, it’s not even possible not to be interested in what half of the world does and says and thinks. And we wonder why there’s an empathy problem in our culture….
It’s true that many boys will resist books with girls on the cover. That’s partly because there is some undeniable difference in boys’ and girls’ interests (I’m certainly not suggesting that all boys will like all books about all girls). But it’s also partly because we train them from an early age to think that books about and for girls are not relevant or worthwhile to boys. I’m here to fly the flag of opposition to this and say, as you already know: a great story with fantastic characters will speak to readers across gender lines. We adults who put books into the hands of children can’t give in to the lazy, absurd pink/blue dichotomy that afflicts toys and baby clothes.
Forgive me if I’ve shared this anecdote before but I love it: I’ll never forget this sixth-grade boy from my school librarian days in New York City. Each class from second through eighth grade came into the library every day for a half hour of silent reading. They plucked their book from their class shelf, curled up in child-sized wicker chairs with cushions, and settled in to read. (To my mind, this daily reading diet remains the strongest, most effective literacy program I’ve ever seen in a school.) Anyhow, this boy—a typically masculine kid, smart, funny, popular with his classmates—had chosen Little Women as his book at one point. His male classmates tried to tease him unmercifully about reading what is inarguably the most femininely titled book in literary history, but he shrugged it off, utterly unconcerned. “You’re missing a great book,” he said dismissively, and buried his nose back in the adventures of Jo, Meg, Beth, Amy, and Laurie.

When Strangers Visit

Josie Leavitt - April 3, 2012

My store is in a small town in Vermont. There is no food except pizza that can be delivered to work. So yesterday was a lovely surprise.
A father and son came in and made our day. The son, Sloan, was looking at colleges with his very well read father. They were on a tour of a local college when they split from the group and sought out a bookstore. This is what they do when they travel. Their goal is to go all 50 states by the time Sloan is 18. They have 10 to go in a year. They also stop at bookstores in all states. And only indie bookstores.
I loved them. Kelly, my co-worker, and I, spent the better part of an hour recommending books to the Dad that we loved that he hadn’t read. It was almost like a contest. It felt like he had read everything. We went through all our favorites. The guy had read all of them. It was unreal: Dorothy Alison, yes. Christopher Moore, yes. Michael Chabon, of course; every Richard Russo book; even Gerald Durrell. Sloan was just as well-versed. They didn’t like mysteries, but were just as partial to women authors as men.
We switched gears and suddenly we found some books these guys hadn’t read. The Human Comedy, Ceremony, The Sherlockian, Never Let Me Go, Perfume and Unbroken, to name a few. Each book had to really be pitched. The man was fussy, but not in an irritating way. He was the kind of reader who can anticipate the moods he might be in for the rest of the trip and get books to complement them.

Sloan and Kelly with the lobster rolls..

They had mentioned that they were going to Maine ostensibly to look at colleges, but really to have lobster. Kelly told them that real Mainers eat their lobster cold and they looked horrified. Both of them expressed their desire to eat hot lobster with lakes of melted butter. Kelly then told them where to get the best lobster roll – just up the street at the deli inside the local liquor store.
They left with three bags of books. We wished them well on their journey and I told Sloan that, should he come back to school at the University of Vermont, he should come back and say hello. He smiled broadly and left to drive to Maine with his dad. Or so we thought. Half an hour later, he returned with two lobster rolls for me and Kelly.
I’m not a fan of lobster, but I had a bite of the roll and I must say, it was delicious. In the whole time we’ve been open, only one other customer has brought me food, and her family owns a diner down the road. But never have first-time customers, in fact people who will likely never shop at the store again, gone out their way to bring us food.
What a lovely way to spend a Monday.

Another Reason Local Is Better

Josie Leavitt - April 2, 2012

I read with great interest a Seattle Times article on Sunday about Amazon. The article, “Amazon a Virtual No-Show in hometown philanthropy” (read article here), was posted by a friend on her Facebook page. To summarize: Amazon, a Seattle-based, massive corporation, gives practically nothing to Seattle-based not-for-profits.
While Jeff Bezos rightly claims that part of what Amazon does well is run a good for-profit business, which employs many people, there is no sense of urgency in sharing some its massive coffers with the less fortunate in Seattle. Bezos was quoted in the article about how he can best help the underprivileged by saying “Amazon’s e-book reader, the Kindle, might be seen as a low-cost, efficient way to distribute books worldwide to the underserved.” I couldn’t help but be struck by the inherent ill-logic of that statement. I might be naive, but I can’t help but wonder how many of the underserved book reading world have access to stable internet connections to download their books, oh yeah, and how are they going to pay for new books? I’m hoping at least the Kindles will pre-loaded with titles. But then there’s the pesky issue of electricity. Really, I could go on.
The overriding thing that struck me about this article is here is a company that brought in over 45 billion dollars (yes, that’s billion with a B last year) and has given next to nothing in its home base where it employs more than 9,000 people.
Every independent bookstore I know gives copiously not just to its community, but to many others. When Tropical Storm Irene devastated the southern part of Vermont we had several author events that were fundraisers for the Irene Fund, essentially ensuring that we made little or no money on those events. But we wanted to do more. Currently, we’re selling a book about Irene and the entire list price of that book goes to help rebuild homes destroyed in the flooding. Matt Bushlow of Vermont’s Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF) explains: “When the River Rose: Stories of a Vermont Town’s Flood, Recovery, and Rebirth, is a benefit for ReBuild Watebury, a nonprofit whose mission is to help residents in the Watebury area rebuild homes that were damaged or destroyed after the floods. 100% of the funds go to ReBuild Waterbury. No money at all goes to CLiF [or to The Flying Pig]. We created this project as a way to give back to our hometown. We coordinated the team that produced the book, and we have acted as its publisher. National Life Insurance Group donated most of the printing costs.”
This truly is a local effort bringing many organizations together to help benefit our neighbors.
In 2012 alone we have donated over $1,500 in books and gift certificates to more than 30 organizations ranging from the Boy and Girl Scouts to literacy organizations, the orchestra, the arts groups, the local women’s shelter, all the local libraries and just about any local class that’s raising money for its own charitable giving, etc. And we are not unique. All indies I know do this, and more in their towns. We do this not to curry favor with any one group (although having a Girl Scout come right to the store with a cookie order form is a lovely perk), but to support the people and causes we know.
Charitable giving is important, especially with the economy as shaky as it is. One of the reasons we will almost always give something to children who ask for a donation is so they learn at an early age that helping is what you do. Often the kids will come to us and ask for a gift card to go in a basket that they’re raffling off to raise money for a cause their class is supporting. So, we are helping them to help others and that’s a great thing. I can hear the skeptics out there saying, “But they’ll probably spend more than the amount of the gift certificate or that gift certificate won’t get redeemed.” To which I say, I can do nothing about that. That doesn’t change the fact that we’ve given x amount of money in books away. And as discussed last week (see our blog about gift certificates), 94% of our gift cards get redeemed, so we are giving away the products as intended.
We also participate in our communities by giving our time. We regularly do things with the schools. This Thursday Elizabeth will be reading picture books to the second graders during Racism Awareness week at the local school. Last week she read to the littlest kids at the Children’s Center pre-school because they asked if she would.
All indies host free-to-the-public author events that provide cultural enrichment to attendees. There is nothing more exciting for me as a bookseller than seeing the look on kids’ faces when they meet one of their favorite authors. Some kids start shaking, sometimes there are happy tears and always there is appreciation and thanks for our having brought this author to our town.
Again, the Flying Pig is not unique in this, I cannot say this enough: every independent bookstore does this. We support the people in our towns. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. We don’t expect kudos for it, although thanks are always nice. We do it because we live where we work and we have relationships with the people and organizations that enrich our town.
So, the next time you’re looking a sponsor for your Little League team or for someone to take an ad in the community theatre program, remember who you ask, who happily says yes, and remember to shop there.