Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Great Season for Indies

Josie Leavitt - December 25, 2013

The holiday crush has ended and I’m left with one resounding thought: this has been a good year for independent bookstores. I feel like we’re having a resurgence as the pendulum is swinging back towards all things local, and this means bookstores with real people who are passionate about books and can help customers find the best possible book.
I heard over and over again this season, “You really know your books.” This wasn’t just said to me but to all the staffers at the Flying Pig. I’m certain this refrain was heard across the land at just about every indie bookstore. You don’t go into the bookstore business to make money. You go into it because you love books. People flock to bookstores during Christmas and Hanukkah for a reason: books make great gifts. I might not remember what toy I got when I was 10, but I do remember getting and loving Julie of the Wolves and The Great Brain. Books create memories.
A woman was in the store on Christmas Eve looking at horse books for her granddaughter when she saw a Billy and Blaze book she had never seen before. She asked me if that was a new title and I said no. The book was propped on the shelf. She touched her heart and took a breath. “I loved these books when I was little. I still think about this one image of Billy and Blaze riding in a field. Just the other day I thought about that image.” I handed her the book. “Get it for your stocking.”
An hour later I was ringing her up. She has a large family and her stack of books was massive. Tucked in amid The Unwinding, The Goldfinch, and other yummy hardcovers was a slender paperback of Blaze Finds the Trail.  

This is why independent bookstore aren’t going anywhere. So, dear readers, enjoy your newfound treasure and may your hardest decision this coming week be: what should I read next?

An Icy Shopping Weekend

Josie Leavitt - December 23, 2013

Every small business owner in Vermont spent much of the weekend obsessively checking the weather forecast. It kept changing from hour to hour. The Saturday morning forecast made it seem like the weather wouldn’t be bad until later in the afternoon. We had our hopes set high that the worst of it would hold off until the end of the day, as it had the day before when the first round of doom and gloom weather reports started rolling in.
I am happy to report that ice did not get the best of us, though it did create challenges. One of the biggest challenges was staying ahead of the ice buildup in the parking lot and walkways without actually hurting ourselves, so our customers could shop safely. It was a busy weekend with the sand/salt bucket. And every time we thought we had a handle on it, things got slippery again, and again.
Customers streamed inside in packs when there were breaks in the weather. So the day went from slow to slamming busy, to slow again and repeated itself over and over throughout the day. Every customer volunteered new information about the state of the roads, which in typical Vermont fashion ranged from “they’re just fine” to “I’ve never seen it worse.”
Something happened that has never happened before. I was iced in and couldn’t make it to work, so I stayed home all cozy and worked on various projects around the house. It was bliss. The store was busy, but not so busy that I was missed. Customers were happy we were open and Elizabeth and our stalwart crew who don’t have hilly driveways were on hand and ready to help.
As I headed to work Monday, in the rain, again, I knew it might be another long day, but was immediately assured by the first customer that “the roads are fine, let the shopping begin!” And she amassed a massive stack to start the day off right.

A Gentle Reminder

Josie Leavitt - December 20, 2013

Just a reminder as everyone bustles about shopping in the next few days: shop at the stores you want to stay open.
Small, local stores may not be able to compete with some of the deep discounts of the big box stores or online stores, but we continue to support our communities every day with donations to the schools, Little League, and more. (Not to mention that we happily collect sales tax, which help go back to our towns to make them safer and better places to live. )
If you like a local business and want to be able to shop there next year, please spend some of your holiday dollars with them, because every dollar counts.

If You Like X, Try Y

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 19, 2013

In 1997, we created our first Flying Pig XY Guide, a list of book recommendations in the format “If you liked X, try Y (and vice versa).” This was before search engines and online shopping and auto-generated suggestions. We’d never seen anything like it and thought it was a brilliant tool to help customers find books they might like. It was helpful to us (a handy guide across genres and age ranges) and customers loved it. The XY Guide has always been one of the most popular features of our annual book-recommendation catalog.
This year, we had to bump the guide from our 16-page Pig-Tales (viewable and/or downloadable copy here) to make room for more (166) actual book reviews. So we made a separate little XY sheet matching some of our favorite 2013 titles with popular past books our customers have liked. We thought we would share it here at ShelfTalker. The pretty copy is viewable here; the list is below. In years past, there were a lot more children’s book matches, but our customers were equally interested in XY ideas for their own reading, so now books for kids and adults share a page. If there’s interest, I’d be happy to post previous XY guides from years past. They are handy for gift ideas!
Now — I’d love to know, what XY matches would you add to this list?
X: Jack Plank Tells Tales by Natalie Babbitt
Y: The Show Must Go On! by Kate and M. Sarah Klise
X: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
Y: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
X: Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley
Y: Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom series by Christopher Healy
X: Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage
Y: Jinx by Sage Blackwood
X: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Y: Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
Y: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
X: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Y: Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke
X: Graceling by Kirsten Cashore
Y: Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke
X: The Lightning Thief  by Rick Riordan
Y: Loki’s Wolves by K.L. Armstrong & M.A. Marr
X: Matched by Ally Condie
Y: The Selection by Kiera Cass
Y: Delirium by Lauren Oliver
X: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Y: The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
X: Divergent by Veronica Roth
Y: Legend by Marie Lu
Y: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
X: Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz
Y: I.Q.  series by Roland Smith
Y: Cherub series by Robert Muchamore
X: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Y: Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks
X: Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Y: The Roar by Emma Clayton
Y: The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd
X: Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers
Y: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Y: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
X: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Y: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick
Y: Coraline by Neil Gaiman
X: Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Y: Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write (VT incarcerated women)
X: Oliver Sacks’s books
Y: The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz
X: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Y: Give and Take by Adam Grant
X: Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford
Y: Why We Make Things and Why It Matters by Peter Korn
X: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Y: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
X: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John LeCarre
Y: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
X: In the Woods by Tana French
Y: Christine Falls by Benjamin Black
X: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Y: Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Freemantle
X: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Y: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
X: Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand
Y: Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
X: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Y: The Curiosity by Stephen Kiernan
X: A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny
Y: Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet
Y: A Murder in Tuscany by Christobel Kent
X: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by M.A. Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Y: These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner

Getting Goofy

Josie Leavitt - December 18, 2013

The days are long this time of year. Often at the store by 8:30 in the hopes of a few quiet minutes to plan my day and get some work done, I find myself downright punchy by four. The onslaught of customers with lists of very large families; receiving hundreds of books from distributors and publishers, shelving said books, selling them and then wrapping them creates days that are constant motion and work. Lunch is often a mythical meal that gets eaten by 5:00.
Yesterday was such a day: crazy from the moment I got there until I left. I felt like I was going a little bonkers, but in a fun way. Laughing with staff over all our attempts to actually get to the bathroom, only to discover our sink wasn’t working (something about the battery in the automatic sensor), made it more fun. The stacks of books that needed to get wrapped, and ribboned, was daunting to say the least. In the midst of this chaos a very nice man came up to the counter and asked for a $35 gift card.
Instead of saying, “Let me get that for you,” I did something I’ve always wanted to. I countered his amount with, “How about making it for $37.50?” My staffers regarded me oddly. The man asked me why $37.50? I told him that I hate expected numbers (which would explain why my alarm clock is often set for 7:14 or 6:48, never on a 5 or 0). Plus, it’s fun to have a gift card in a goofy amount. In 17 years of bookselling I’ve never actually asked a customer to reconsider his gift card amount, and I was gratified that this gentleman just went along with my crazy bookseller idea.
It’s these little moments that can brighten a long day. So, the next time you get a gift card, get a weird amount because, well, it’s fun for the bookseller and honestly, if someone gave me a gift card for $32.45, I’d be thrilled.

We Love Lucy

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 16, 2013

lucys love bus logoOne of our favorite customers is Lucy, a school bus driver and grandmother. She’s one of those wonderful people we LOVE to see walk in the door, because she is bound to make us laugh. She is a straight shooter, great with kids, all heart with a wry, no-nonsense demeanor. She’s also a thoughtful book-giving grandma, and has been a loyal bookstore customer and small-business supporter for as long as we can remember. And she’s kind of an angel, too, although she would hate for us to say that. She is the kind of person who doesn’t want any attention for herself, but does such terrific things you want to send up skywriting and balloons.
Lucy is really talented with crafts, and spends her spare time making small journal/scrapbooks and gorgeous hand-knitted ornaments, the sales of which benefit kids. She gives all of the proceeds to a cause she founded several years ago called Lucy’s Love Bus. Lucy’s Love Bus is, in her words, “a charity that provides treatment and therapies not covered by insurance to children battling cancer. To date, Lucy’s Love Bus has provided this care to more than thirty children here in Vermont.”
boxed ornaments
Think of that! One person, doing a seemingly small thing consistently, can make significant changes in people’s lives. It is deeply humbling, what Lucy does. In addition to working at least two jobs, she is also raising her granddaughter. She makes the little journals and ornaments in her “spare time.” Each knitted ornament takes 5 to 7 hours to make. Each one! And Lucy has made dozens of them in 15 or so different styles (many of them designed by Lucy). I cannot think how she gets this done. It’s impressive. This year, we are selling some of the ornaments for Lucy’s Love Bus. (All $25 per ornament goes to the charity; we don’t take a cut, of course.
Please note that this post is not a sales pitch. We will sell out of the ornaments locally and fast. We simply want to celebrate what this neighbor, this customer and friend, is giving to her community.
On Saturday morning, Lucy came in with one of her grandchildren, Hannah. They were heading to the supermarket, where they spent hours selling the ornaments and chatting with neighbors out doing their holiday shopping. First, though, they wanted to let us choose the ornaments we wanted to sell at the bookstore. We picked out an initial 10 ornaments and they headed out. At the end of the day, back they came, tired but cheerful, to drop off an additional supply. I loved that Lucy’s granddaughter, age 10, was already such a willing helper; they are a magical pair. I was very close to my grandmother, too, and whenever I see them together, I am happy.
pig ornament
There’s a poem by Jack Gilbert I’ve always loved, “The Abnormal Is Not Courage.” It makes me think of Lucy:
I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.
So here’s to Lucy and her steady, clear, normal excellence of long accomplishment. She is one of the people who make us feel so lucky to be part of our town. Long live Lucy and her Love Bus.

“Let Me Look At It Before I Say No”

Josie Leavitt - December 13, 2013

‘Tis the season for overwhelmed shoppers who say the darndest things. One of the hallmarks of my store, and all indies, is personal service. This often means having one-on-one conversations with customers to get a sense of what they’re looking for. Sometimes, these simple chats can turn hostile.
After 17 years of bookselling, I think I’m a pretty good judge of when to chat with a customer and when to abandon ship, as it were. Here is a list of body language cues that all booksellers might find helpful during the last crazy weeks of the season. Hopefully, this will help you recognize who actually wants help and who would rather have a root canal.
– The customer refuses to make eye contact, keeping their focus instead, on that spot on the floor. Usually, I check in with this customer while I’m clearly on my way to shelve so they don’t feel like my whole focus is on them. This helps a lot. Sometimes if the discomfort about being the center of attention can be avoided, the customer will have a better experience.
– The customer actually backs away from you and starts waving you away, sometimes with vigor. These folks might not know where the dinosaur books are they’re looking for, but they surely don’t want any help finding them.
– They say things like, “Oh, no. Please don’t tell me about your stocking stuffers,” as you’re about to show them how the wind-up toy works.
– Some customers think we’re listening to their conversations throughout the store and are irritated when we don’t come over if they say to their friend, “I wonder if they have that new book by what’s-her-name?” Actually, most booksellers do listen for exactly these cues from customers who don’t just come up and ask us these questions, but when it’s really busy, please just come up to one of us and ask.
– Occasionally, a customer will stop wanting help as you’re still showing the book she wanted to look at. This can either be a sign of success or a sign that, for whatever reason, you’ve now become irritating. Do not take anything personally. Put the book down, the book the customer won’t even touch (it’s amazing how people act like the book they no longer want is going to hurt them if they touch it) and remind them you’re around should they need you.
We know holiday shopping is inherently stressful. There’s so much pressure to get the right gifts for everyone and it’s expensive. We’re here to help and if that means leaving customers alone while they happily browse, we’re happy to do that as well. As we get closer to Christmas I can only say: Happy Shopping! I hope you all find the exact right books for everyone on your list.

Is Middle-Grade Fiction Really an Adult Reading Trend?

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 12, 2013

You may have seen Alexandra Alter’s recent Wall Street Journal article, “See Grown Ups Read,” about a new trend in which adults are buying middle-grade books for their own reading pleasure. The trend is due in part, Alter says, to the mother of all MG/adult crossover series, J.K. Rowling, and also to the more recent successes of MG titles like R.J. Palacio’s lovely novel, Wonder, which wildly exceeded sales expectations and has been published in adult editions in several countries. The article also finds signs of the trend in the sales figures for books like the Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries series, as well as children’s books by bestselling authors like John Grisham and James Patterson, who initially made their mark writing for adults.
I’ve been pondering this article a bit, because I am on the fence about whether or not significant numbers of adults who aren’t parents, teachers, librarians, or children’s book people really ARE picking up more middle grade books for themselves. Is this really a trend, or is Wonder an anomaly?

(Okay, this isn’t the final cover of Grave Mercy, which now features a girl in a gown. This was the cover on the advance reading copy; I love it deeply and importantly, and think it would garner an even broader audience.)

At the bookstore, we certainly have seen a shift in the reading habits of adult women buying YA titles for themselves and apologizing for it less and less. I can’t tell you how many copies of  Grave Mercy and Immortal Beloved we have sold to a grateful adult audience, and both men and women buy, without any hesitation, the incredible The Knife of Never Letting Go. Those are just a few YA examples; there are scores. Life As We Knew It. Graceling. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianMarcelo in the Real World. Octavian Nothing: The Pox PartyThe Book Thief (which started out life as an adult book in Australia but pubbed here as a YA). Anything by John Green. Yes, the adults-reading-YA trend has taken hold in a major way.
I think what’s happening with middle grade books is a little bit different. At the Flying Pig, we don’t see adults coming in to buy Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries books for themselves, at least not yet. And while many adults are reading and loving middle grade books like Wonder, those adults are still, by and large, teachers and librarians and parents. In other words, as has long been the case for middle-grade books, our observation has been that adults who read middle-grade titles are still reading them primarily because they are sharing them with children. I don’t think our bookstore is alone in not seeing a marked recent shift in the middle-grade-book reading habits of the average adult reader. So what is this trend, really?
I think what is happening is that these books are finally on the radar of the general adult population, both because of bestseller lists and because many adults’ own favorite authors are venturing into the children’s realm. These forays by adult authors perhaps spark interest in and lend credibility to a genre previously overlooked by adults not in the know about children’s books. It’s sort of similar to the spikes we see with many celebrity titles. Those books get enormous amounts of publicity, and so reach into the nooks and crannies of the normally distracted adult brain. Unlike celebrity books, which all too often are preachy and not very well-written, many of the adult authors writing for young people today know how to spin a great story.
I think it is also true that, as the article mentions, books across the ages are tackling more mature themes. So adults who happen upon books for youth are often surprised by their depth and complexity. But this still hasn’t seemed to create a tidal wave or tipping point into what I would consider a true trend.
I’m curious to know what other booksellers are noticing. It’s possible that the big cities are seeing more of a definable trend than we do here in Shelburne, Vermont. And if that’s the case, how marvelous! Children’s literature, the best of it, has always held much to delight and intrigue and move the adult spirit. Anyone reading this blog post already knows that. The question is, does your cousin Tony? Your college roommate? That accountant in the office next to you? When does a trend become a trend?

Getting Out of the Store

Josie Leavitt - December 10, 2013

You wouldn’t think leaving a bookstore would be a challenge. Select your books, pay for them, and head towards the door to your car. I’m finding it’s the “head towards the door” part that is particularly challenging this time of year.
The allure of stocking stuffers and other books is what makes it tough for folks to exit the store with only one trip to the register. I love these customers. They are clearly ready to shop and they can be easily enticed into buying more because of bookseller enthusiasm, other customers, or just playing with a toy. One woman had her bag of books and practically had her hand on the door yesterday when she heard me talking about The Bully Pulpit, the new Doris Kearns Goodwin book. She inched away from the door and slipped closer to me and the other customer I was talking with. My description of the book as a wonderful history book for any non-fiction reader on your list was really all it took for Kelsey to come to back to the register. She had found the perfect gift for her uncle.
While Kelsey was paying for her book, Elizabeth showed her how some of the wind-up toys work. She was signing her second credit card slip when she realized that she could use a few more stocking stuffers. I have discovered that just about anything on the front counter sells. There is something about things on the counter, be it a stack of books waiting to get shelved or toys or doodads, that makes people think it’s more interesting than those same items on the shelf. We offered to wrap Kelsey’s book and while she was waiting, Sandy showed her a puzzle that her Star Wars-loving six-year-old might like.
Kelsey sighed and took out her wallet again. She was smiling though. “I just wonder what I’ll see on my way to the door,” she said as took her bags and left. She made it all the way to the door, but I could see her turn and look back at the Vermont Farm Table Cookbook and mutter, “Mom would like that.” I suspect we’ll see her today.

What Shall I Read Next?

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 9, 2013

For the first time in 2013, I have a free pass to read whatever I want. The funny thing about being a bookseller is that, while one gets to read, one also has to read. By that I mean booksellers must read almost constantly, and often must read all manner of books we might not otherwise pick up guided by personal preference. We read broadly so that we may make intelligent orders for the upcoming season and know which titles we will and won’t be especially recommending to a wide variety of customers.
The very thing that propels us toward bookselling is, in a sense, elusive once we become booksellers. There is something to be said for the pleasure of a book one reads for no other reason than personal interest. This year’s Pig-Tales (our store’s annual newsletter/catalog, now hot off the press) features 166 titles published in 2013, 70 of which I reviewed. In addition to those 70 books are countless titles I read and wasn’t able to include. All this is by way of saying, I have read a LOT of books this year, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, I was reading with purpose. Reading was part of my work. 
For the next three weeks, I get to read whatever I want, with no pressure, no thought of sales meetings or review writing (or blog posts). I can just  READ. Most of this reading will happen during January vacation, but I will sneak some in even during these crazy days of holiday retail sales. And I haven’t decided yet what exactly I want to read.
Some years, I go on a reading jag by theme; I went on an Everest/K2 spree one year. Another year, it was the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. Maybe I’ll read some mysteries, which I rarely find time to do. Maybe I’ll see what Elizabeth Peters is up to; haven’t read one of her mysteries in quite a while but had loved Amelia Peabody and Emerson through a January spell once. Perhaps I’ll finally get around to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White; I could be in a gothic mood….
I may even re-read! Re-reading books is a luxury the bookseller can seldom afford, so it is almost an illicit pleasure, the ultimate self-indulgence. I might read The Tempest again, or Charlotte’s Web, or My Family and Other Animals. Or Elizabeth Bishop!
Or I may choose something so few of my customers would be interested in that it is almost entirely a private act. Some wildly experimental fiction, perhaps, or something utterly dense and difficult that someone trusted has said is worth the work.
And I may read marvelous books recommended to me, fiction and nonfiction that friends and colleagues hold dear, that I have somehow missed along the way. And so I turn to you, ShelfTalker readers and ask, What shall I read next? What can I not live a moment more without discovering? 
Thank you in advance for sharing your best-of-the-best, from this year or not, with me and with each other.