Monthly Archives: July 2013

They Grew Up at the Store

Josie Leavitt - July 10, 2013

This whole week has been Old Home Week for me at the store. I’ve seen three kids who I’ve known for the entire 17 years we’ve been open, or, in one case, her whole eight years on the planet. There is something lovely to me about reconnecting with these young people who have such fond memories of the store. These are the kids who walk in and I leap to hug them because I know they’re only home for the summer or they’ve just grown up so much.
Young Helen came in the other day with her mom. What I liked about this, was the mom, Melissa, just sat in a chair and looked at books while Helen first bought earrings, then books. Helen strode confidently up the counter, put her genuine Louis Vuitton wallet down and regarded the earrings. Her mother must have heard me thinking that that couldn’t be a real LV wallet, because she practically shouted, “It’s not a knock-off. It’s from her grandmother.” Why an eight-year-old needs such a nice wallet is beyond me. But what further amazed me was it was full of cash, not birthday or holiday money, but $67 of the weekend’s limeade stand take. Pretty impressive.
After the earring purchase I tried to get caught up with her mother, which was only moderately successful, until I told Helen to go pick out not the agreed-upon one horse book, but two. (I cleared it with her mom first, I never suggest getting more books than I know will be allowed.) Helen clearly is a shopper. After picking out her books she came right behind the counter to watch the money part. She was well versed on how to swipe a credit card in the machine. Honestly, I was surprised to not find a black American Express card in the LV purse. There is something amazing about watching kids grow up. I’ve known her mom well before she got pregnant with Helen and she loves to hear that. And I love that Helen picked out her horse books and clutched them to her chest with a broad smile.
The following day I was at the restaurant next to the bookstore and saw 17-year-old Julia bussing tables, home from boarding school for the summer. It was early enough in the shift that we could talk. I remember this young woman when she was a grunting eight-month-old who would sit on the floor of the old store while her mom picked out books. The old store building is now a deli and Julia said she just can’t go in there. “I sat on that floor and grew up in there. I just can’t go in.”  Then she totally surprised me by adding, “I still have No-Man.” I have to admit, I got a tiny bit teary when she said that. No-Man is actually a three-foot stuffed animal based on Raymond Briggs’s book The Snowman. That she still has it, and clearly still loves it, was simply wonderful. And then she said, “I still think of the bookstore as your house.” She called the bookstore Josie’s house for years because she honestly thought I lived there. To go from that to talking about where she’s thinking of going to college just about blew my mind. 

Then the final young adult came in at the end of the day. Virginia walked up to the register asking for journals and we started chatting. When she was younger, Virginia and her twin sister Kate would walk to the store almost every week during the summer to get more books. She had just graduated from college. Her response to my shock at that (why does it seem like college takes kids two years these days?, or is it just my perception of time?) was classic and very kind. “I know, I’m old, right? Can’t believe it either.” We both laughed. I asked what she’s doing now and her deadpan delivery almost caused me to spit my coffee out. “I’ve triumphantly moved back in with my parents.” We just laughed and talked about books and jobs and the economy. She bought 12 small Moleskine journals for her backpack trip in Canada. As she was leaving she added, “I miss being able to walk here.”
Whether they’re becoming independent shoppers or they’re home for the summer, seeing them in the store and sharing fond memories with these young people just reminds how much the bookstore is a part of the fabric of their lives whether we know it or not. For so many kids, the neighborhood bookstore is the first place they go to by themselves. So, today, when a kid comes in with a ball of sweaty money, I’ll remind myself that this could be the very first time they’ve paid for something themselves, and hope in 10 years to see them about to leave for college, and reminiscing about that.

There’s No Crying in Retail

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 8, 2013

If you’re having a hard day at the office, you might be able to shut your door for a little privacy, or take a long lunch, or hide out in the bathroom for five minutes. In a small retail store, if you’re the lone clerk on a shift, your headache or heartache has to wait. Or not.
At the end of the day the other week, I was alone at the store. It was about eight minutes after closing time, but I’d had customers right up until the last minute and hadn’t had a chance to grab our “Open” flag from its outside standard and lock the door behind the last person. I was at low ebb, exhausted from a couple of weeks of my dad being in the midst of a medical crisis. (He’s fine and back home now — yay! — or I wouldn’t be writing this post.) That and another medical scare in the family had left me pretty spent. On top of it all, we were four staff members short, with two folks on vacation and another two recently having retired from bookselling.
As we’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, running a bookstore isn’t a job involving a whole lot of peace and quiet. It’s more like constant triage in a E.R., though happily without the life-or-death consequences. It’s still a busy day, full of chasing down details, answering innumerable questions (few of them predictable), dealing with any number of personalities (some of them challenging), and putting out small fires. The variety makes bookstore life fun and interesting, but you do need energy to carry it off.
So there I was, heading to the front of the store to lock up, when the front door bell jingled and a woman and young boy walked in. My body responded before my brain did, sending traitorous tears springing to the backs of my eyes. I almost never mind staying late for customers, but I just didn’t have it in me that evening to deal with one more question, one more need, one more anything. “I’m sorry,” I called up the aisle, “but we’re closed.” I’m fairly sure my desperation and crabbiness were thickly evident in my throat. Then I looked up and recognized Cheryl, a lovely customer. “I know we’re late,” she said apologetically, “but we wanted to say goodbye to our favorite bookstore people before we move to Colorado next week. I’m not sure we’ll have time to come back in before we go. We’re also really hoping to get a few thank-you gift cards for our friends.”
Here is where I need to share another truth about retail: if you’re having a bad day and let it show, you will let it show at the worst possible time, or to the worst possible person (i.e., the person you least wish to dismay in any manner). So of course my grumpy self met, not a jerk or insensitive yahoo I could have at least felt less guilty about, but one of the kindest, most thoughtful people on the planet. She made space in her crazy-busy last week in Vermont to come to the store and say goodbye. And she spent $150 — a significant sale at any retail shop, but especially welcome at a small independent. And she gave me a big hug.
There’s a lesson in all that, of course. I think it has something to do with opening one’s heart and being welcoming despite one’s petty moods, etcetera. I’m not always in the mood for those lessons. Sometimes I feel the universe spends a little too much time doling out these kinds of game changers that make you feel like a heel, or an idiot, when it could be expending that energy on world peace. Oh, wait. On second thought, maybe that’s exactly what it was doing, in a very small, very indie way.

Reasons to Love an Indie

Josie Leavitt - July 3, 2013

It’s obvious, of course, to speak about independent bookstores on the eve of Independence Day, but it makes sense. While our nation’s independent spirit is celebrated with fireworks and cookouts, most indies are closed to enjoy some time with family and friends. I thought I’d share my thoughts on why indies are such great places.
– We know your dogs’ names.
– We welcome every request, even when you’re not sure what you’re looking for.
– If you’re having a bad day, we very well might give you a sticker.
– We love that you continuously introduce to authors we’ve not read.
– We will patiently talk with you until you find the right book that suits the mood you’re in.
– We will take your special order at the supermarket.
– We love to meet your babies.
– It makes us happy that your children grew up in our store.
– We will send a condolence card when someone in your family passes away.
– We will encourage you to use the library.
– We will always want to talk with you about books.
– We will enjoy meeting your extended family when they visit, on July 5th.
Have a happy and safe holiday!

A Curiously Good Book

Josie Leavitt - July 2, 2013

I don’t usually write about adult books in this column, but every once in a while I just have to. It’s not every day that a customer I’ve known for the entire almost 17-year life of the bookstore writes a novel. Stephen Kiernan has been shopping at the store forever. I’ve seen him go from Polk Award-winning journalist to a wonderful non-fiction writer. His first two books, Last Rites and Authentic Patriotism, were great sellers for us. We hosted launch parties for these books and celebrated with him.

A week from today, Stephen’s debut novel, The Curiosity, comes out. I read a lot of curiousgalleys, my staffers read a lot of galley, and we’ve all come to the conclusion that this has bestseller written all over it. Beautifully written, with a unique idea, this book is just, well, damn good. Told from different perspectives (this conceit only works when those voices all sound unique, and they do here) it’s a complex story about scientific discovery, love and greed. A man has been found, frozen in Arctic ice, by Dr. Kate Philo, who has worked on reanimating smaller things found in the ice. Moral questions come into play: should she reanimate him, what are the consequences and what happens when Kate falls for the man she brought back to life, and how long can he live, and what are the motivations of all involved when the media circus starts.
This book reads like a great film, so it’s not surprising the film rights have already been snapped up by some very smart producers. Here’s what amazes me: I’ve known Stephen for years, his eldest son even worked for us one summer, and I had no idea that he could write so beautifully. Fiction and non-fiction are extremely different animals, and Stephen has shown versatility with both. The Curiosity grabbed me from the first page and I was riveted until the last. I cannot wait to celebrate this achievement with him at our event for him in August.
In the meantime, I will happily sell this wonderful book and watch, hopefully, as it hits the bestseller list.

Impromptu Book Club

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 1, 2013

As is common in summer, several groups of families and visitors overlapped at the Flying Pig at the same time the other day. It was immediately clear who was local and who was from out of town. Sometimes we can tell when tourists aren’t familiar with small, personal bookstores; they are surprised and sometimes initially uncomfortable when we call out a greeting, then warm up when they realize we aren’t going to hover obsessively nearby while they browse.
One of the families – parents with their two daughters – was from a big city in the west, and they seemed to be having a rough day. Their older daughter, 11 or 12, was in a bad mood and taking it out on the rest of the family: scorning her father for trying to recommend books to her, complaining about every aspect of their Vermont trip, ridiculing her little sister for showing enthusiasm about anything. It was hard to want to initiate conversation because her behavior was so off-putting, but I wanted to try to break through her bad mood and help her have a better day. My experience with kids is that, even if they seem crabby and difficult — maybe especially when they are crabby and difficult – they are still hoping to connect to something or someone in a positive way. So I did my best to be friendly and kind and show her books I thought she might like. Can’t say I succeeded in completely turning her day around, but I did my best. At least she and her sister did find books they wanted to read.
Meanwhile, three kids ranging in age from 10 to 12, unaccompanied by grownups, were also in the store. They spent a lot of time in the fantasy section, which is near the cash-wrap area, so we could hear a lot of their conversation. They were a well-read trio, and helped each other recall titles and authors. They were having fun, testing out some of the toys (and informing us of a little bin of bouncing balls that had gone flat). At first I thought they might be siblings close in age, but it turned out they were just pals who had biked to the store. We got into a lively conversation about books we loved, and they kept exclaiming enthusiastically about new titles they wanted to read. “We biked over here without our wallets,” said the 12-year-old girl. “I thought it was going to be fine coming in without our money, but this is hard!” She said it good-naturedly. All three kids were so relaxed and cheerful, I kept wishing some of their good juju would transmit itself to the girl who was having the tough day.
I couldn’t bear for them to leave empty-handed, so I went to the office and pulled out six advance reading copies. I showed them the books and invited them each to choose one to take home and read. “Pick a book,” I said. “We’d love your opinion. No time pressure; just read whichever book strikes your interest and come back and let us know what you think of it.” Their eyes were huge with the unexpected delight as I left to go help some of our other customers.
About 15 minutes later, they came over to me. “We have a plan!” they said. “What we’re going to do is, we’re going to start our books July 1, and then when we’re done, we’re going to have a book club and tell each other about them. And then we’re going to come back here and tell you what we thought.” They were as excited as kids getting ready to build a fort. “We want to show you that we’re worth this,” said the 12-year-old girl. How touching is that? How appreciative and earnest and wonderful! And how cool is it that my job allows me to be Santa Claus now and again?
Exchanges like that always renew my own enthusiasm for bookselling – especially children’s bookselling – and make me wish that all kids’ days could be as easily enlivened by that simplest of items, a book.