Monthly Archives: December 2014

Elfing the Store: Making a Book Tree

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 12, 2014

One of my favorite things to do after a busy day at the store is to lock up when everyone leaves and then get busy ‘elf’-ing the store. It’s fun to use those quiet hours to create or rearrange displays (or even whole sections of the store if I’m feeling really ambitious), tidy and straighten, making the store look festive and fresh. All of us at the store tackle different projects; booksellers PJ, Darrilyn, and Sandy often take on the windows and spiff up the front Flying Pig table. The other day, they set up staff pick books with add-on gifts: the cookbooks Prune and Twelve Recipes with little packet of page markers and recipe editor pads; The Day the Crayons Quit with a set of natural beeswax crayons; Skippyjon Jones Snow What with a little Skippyjon doll; Elizabeth Partridge’s John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth paired with a Beatles Yellow Submarine mug, and so on. It looks great and is already drawing customers’ notice. Their creativity inspired me to surprise them with a display of my own: a tree of books.
Last week, a photo of such a tree went viral on Facebook — at least among book lovers — and a friend texted me the picture and suggested we create this for the store.  Here it is:

book tree online

(I don’t have the photo source; if you know it, please alert me so I can credit properly.)

After work, I set about making a tree of our own. We have a cart of half-price hardcovers, so I pulled a bunch of those and arranged them by size and thickness. Starting with the biggest books, I built up, using smaller and smaller books as the tree grew. (It’s a little tree for our little store.) I had to cheat a little at the top, using mini books not from our cart to make the top-most layers. As I built up, I added battery-powered strings of lights that a friend had given us, and added little bows. The very top was formed by Maisy’s Christmas Tree, which had the advantage not only of being cute and a little sparkly, but being a solid board book that can stand up on its own.
Here’s how it came out:

The tree without lights on.

Book Tree 2014 Lit

Little red lights all aglow.

Book Tree 2014 Red Lights

With the store lights out, atmospheric tree.

Maybe it’s a little lopsided, and maybe it isn’t very tall, but it was so much fun to make, and boy, does it look cute when you come into the store!
What shall I elf next? Got any bookish crafts for us to try?

A Giant Earmuff Launch

Kenny Brechner - December 11, 2014

Most of the time when you are driving, things go as expected with minor changes or surprises here or there: the house at the top of the hill has a for sale sign, a tree has fallen. Every now and then, however, something truly startling happens. The same is true of going through a lengthy frontlist catalog on Edelweiss.
I was going through the Simon and Schuster Winter 2015 books when the frontlist equivalent of a moose standing in the middle of the road came into view. I had the shock of seeing that something profoundly local to Farmington, Maine had become the subject of a new picture book coming out from one of my favorite non-fiction picture book author-illustrators, Meghan McCarthy.

(Photo courtesy of Ann Bryant:/Sun Journal)

(Photo courtesy of Ann Bryant:/Sun Journal)

Meghan’s previous works such as Pop: The Invention of Bubblegum, Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton, and Aliens Are Coming: The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast, have all been showstoppers. It was thus with equal parts surprise and pleasure that I noted the January 2015 publication of Earmuffs for Everyone: How Chester Greenwood became Known as The Inventor of the Earmuff.
Earmuffs for Everyone explores not only the life and inventions of Chester Greenwood, but also the way in which some inventions, whose origins are in fact shared among several inventors, sometimes become popularly attributed to only one of them. This attribution is often due to the workings of creative public relations which come to resonate in the popular imagination. Thomas Edison’s “invention” of electricity is a good example. Today the back story of how the attribution came to reside with Edison rather than with Nikola Tesla has become of increasing interest. This is true of earmuffs as well, and McCarthy’s charming book recounts how what started out as a patent, and the successful production of a new variation in earmuffs by the young Greenwood ultimately become Chester’s attribution as the sole inventor of the earmuff itself. That story is filled with Farmington history and lore, and is delightfully recounted by McCarthy.
Chester Greenwood Day, which falls on the first Saturday in December, is a state holiday in Maine and the biggest day of the year in Farmington. It features an annual parade, a Greenwood flag raising, and a host of other activities. S&S had been planning on launching the book on Chester Greenwood Day, and from that point on I began working with them, and with Meghan, to make it a success. There was a lot to do.

(Courtesy of Bobbie Hanstein/The Daily Bulldog)

The Day started with the annual parade. It was snowing and throwing down some freezing rain but the town was undaunted. Meghan rode in the Chamber of Commerce Float.

(Courtesy of Bobbie Hanstein/The Daily Bulldog)

Next came the flag-raising ceremony, which Meghan participated in along with Chester Greenwood himself, portrayed by Clyde Ross.

After Chester gallantly offered a somewhat chilled Meghan a cup of hot chili, she dashed back to the bookstore for the book signing. We had a big crowd of around 70 people and sold 80 books.


Each book was signed with a custom illustration of Chester Greenwood.

Our next  task was to have Meghan judge the Chester Greenwood Day Earmuff Coloring Contest. We had more than 300 entries! There were 31 winners, one Grand Prize, a signed copy of the book, and 30 other prize winners, who all received a special pair of ‘Earmuffs for Everyone’ earmuffs provided by Simon and Schuster.

The Grand Prize winner is determined!

Prize Winner Aby Lord holds up her entry and her earmuff prize!

The Grand Prize winner was the only entry to transform the earmuffs.

The Grand Prize winner was the only entry to transform the earmuffs.

As the judge said of Leigha Higgins' winning entry, "Sometimes it pays to ask!"

As the judge said of Leigha Higgins’ winning entry, “Sometimes it pays to ask!”

The Snowflake Project

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 9, 2014

Snowflake Project
Every year before Thanksgiving, families start asking us when we will have our snowflakes up in the store. They aren’t asking about wintry decor; they want to know when they can start picking out presents for kids they don’t even know.
For 16 years now, The Flying Pig has been working with various area agencies — local food shelves, programs that support families, children and teens, and projects that connect incarcerated parents with their children through books. These agencies send us lists of the people they serve; no names, just “boy” or “girl” and an age. We cut out paper snowflakes, one for each person (most years, the snowflakes are for children, but sometimes, we are able to include books for the parents, too), and fill the store with them.
Then, from the weekend after Thanksgiving until mid-December, families flock into the bookstore to share their favorite books with families they may never have met. We have customers who have participated in the Snowflake Project for all 16 years. What we love most is the excitement and thoughtfulness of kids carefully picking out the most treasured possible gifts for other children. Often, kids will pick snowflakes for children a little younger than their own age; it’s not entirely clear if this is because, now that they are older, they are more confident about the very best book to choose for a younger child (i.e., they have a strong sense of which of their former favorites stands the test of time) or if they simply feel protective toward the littler cubs. Either way, there is nothing lovelier than a child taking a long time to pick the right book for an unknown friend.
This year, we have more than 100 snowflakes hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes, people would like to participate but either don’t have the time that day, or don’t feel they have the expertise to choose a book for a young person, so they will donate funds and ask us to choose the books. That’s fine by us, too. Every year, we are grateful to celebrate in this way the profound, enduring love people have for books and for their fellow travelers on this planet.

First Week of December Recap

Josie Leavitt - December 8, 2014

The holidays are solidly upon us. The bookstore is filled with customers and books, lots and lots of books. I’ve decided that every Monday through Christmas, I’ll do a little recap of the highlights of the previous week, good and bad.
– I was totally surprised the find that there were shipping delays of up to three days with two of our candycanelargest distributors this week. It felt a little early in the season to have to say to customers, “I’m so sorry your book isn’t here, we’ve had shipping issues with our warehouse.” Here’s the thing, customers don’t really care about our shipping issues. They have their own issues. Most folks who order books the first week of December have to ship out their books, so any delay for them feels huge and sets them back on their ability to send out their packages. This is why we give out sugar plums all month. Nothing says it’s all going to be okay more than yummy candy.
– All retailers crunch numbers this time of year and we’re no exception. Our days the past week have been up considerably from last year. Interestingly, the number of transactions are actually lower, but people are spending a lot more per transaction. This tells me they are finding and buying more.
– Our annual newsletter stills drives book sales better than almost anything. Folks have come in asking for it, and they’re returning to the store with their marked-up newsletter and piling up the books. Customers have come to trust the newsletter recommendations (it helps also that Elizabeth does such a wonderful job with the graphics that it’s visually appealing and just fabulous). The newsletter display case is still the best one-stop shopping we’ll have all through the end of the month.
– Customers are in a good mood. Some folks are coming in to just look and get a sense of what they want and they’re happy with the choices they’re finding. People are taking a lot of care with their purchases. One woman spent two hours in the store surrounded by books and Post-its trying to decide what to get for her very large family. We helped her amass the stacks and then let her be, checking only periodically to see how she was doing. Five hundred dollars later, she was done. We helped her to her car and couldn’t help but smile when she said she’s not even close to done shopping yet.
– The print book is far from dead. Many customers are deliberately eschewing online shopping and e-books in favor of actual books and talking with real people about them. Many Vermonters have embraced the Shop Local movement and this can only help all the brick and mortar stores.
Retailers, how was the first week of December for you?

Distract and Delay: How to Tame a Toddler

Josie Leavitt - December 5, 2014

There are lots of challenges for toddlers in a bookstore. The biggest one might be not being able to leave the store with the one, two, or three things that have caught the little one’s eye. Many things in a bookstore are at child height and that makes it easy to see shiny things to play with. The problem arises when it’s time to go home and that new beloved toy has to remain behind. We have several toys and two stuffed dragons that any child can play with while they’re here and usually it’s easy to explain the kids why they can’t take those home, “The dragon lives here, but you can visit anytime,” is a line that’s always worked well. Kids inherently seem to understand that creatures need to stay at home, wherever that home is.
The problem arises when a child, usually under two, starts yearning for something that they can’t have and they can’t really play with. We like to make the bookstore as fun as possible, so we have perfected the “distract and delay” technique. It’s easy to do. If the distraction works well, we don’t even usually need the delay part of the equation. Parents are all too happy to help with this game as it gives more time for shopping without tears and everyone has a better experience.
Yesterday, young Addie, no more than 18 months, came in with her mom. Things were going quite well until she discovered the bucket of bath squirter toys. Upon being told to put back the toy she had fallen in love (a blue tugboat) little Addie pretty much lost it. The tears were flowing and then she hit that high-pitched kid’s cry that hurts your ears and your heart. I was recycling packing paper, the kind that’s clean and recycled, when I had an idea. I went over to her and crumpled it, making as much noise as I could. I asked her if she’d like the paper to keep and take home. I showed her some things she could do with the paper: make noise, make a ball, create a super hero cape, etc. The tears slowed and a smile emerged. I gently gave her the paper and she crinkled the paper all the way to her car with a broad smile.
This sort of exchange is why independent bookstore are important. My co-workers covered what I was supposed to be doing, receiving, and gave me five uninterrupted minutes to placate the unhappy tot. The mom was thrilled. Addie was delighted, we were all smiling when they left the store, and we had averted a crisis. Exchanges like this create a bond between customers, no matter what age, and this kind of connection builds good will, which is always a good thing.

What’s Selling Out of the Gate

Kenny Brechner - December 4, 2014

The opening days of the holiday selling season are always a time for bookstore buyers to be paying the closest scrutiny of how our handicapping of frontlist titles is playing out on the floor. What high-profile titles are selling to expectation? What dark horses have appeared? We wonder these things anxiously, seeking to fend off the great peril of being caught short on hot titles.
sandwichsmallTwo of my store’s bestselling titles this season are in the same genre, books for five- to eight-year-old girls, which has made for an exciting two-horse contest here. Pre-race favorite The Princess in Black, with its humor, adventure, LeUyen Pham illustrations, playful subversiveness, and Shannon Hale, a name brand that stands for quality, has been selling extremely well. Running right alongside it, however, is dark horse contender Dory Fantasmagory. How can this be? Well, when you are incredibly funny and heartwarming, when you deftly render the power of shared imaginative play and family interplay, when you have immortal lines like “Give me that banana. I’m calling Mr. Nuggy,” when you are in fact as all-around ridiculously wonderful as Dory Fantasmagory, then you are going to sell like crazy for us.
Uni 10-11The Princess in Black isn’t the only book featuring a unicorn with an alternative lifestyle that is doing really well this year. Amy Krause Rosenthal, continuing her recent tradition of delivering great picture books, has produced Uni the Unicorn. The book has a simple dual storyline featuring a unicorn who staunchly refuses to believe that little girls aren’t real, and her little girl counterpart, who is equally unswayed by her non-unicorn-believing friends and family. Uni the Unicorn has not only been delighting its core audience, it overcame my core disbelief that I could stand behind a unicorn picture book.
Another surprise unicorn seller for us has been Phoebe and Her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle. This graphic novel, with its snarky unicorn, heroine with attitude, and sophisticated humor, has a really broad range of appeal from 10 to adult.
secretlifeofThere is always one book that I feel coming in might be a total flop or a great seller. This year that was The Secret Life of Squirrels. Nancy Rose’s book filled with actual photographs taken by her of a squirrel, Mr. Peanuts, as he engages with elaborate miniature sets she built and placed on her porch, was obviously odd, but would it be a curiosity or an impulse buy? It is an impulse buy. We have been selling it like crazy.
Finally, in the crowded world of super cute animal photography books, a la Unlikely Friendships, which make for good family gifts, there is a real standout this year: Harlow & Sage (& Indiana). This photograph-laden account, narrated by a weimaraner named Harlow, recounts his friendship with Sage, a miniature dachshund. After Sage’s death a dachshund puppy appears in the house. Can he have a new friend? The book is simply so cute that it takes a strenuous act of will NOT to buy it.
Love to hear what surprise sellers you are seeing…

Attention Publishers: Please Stop Doing This

Josie Leavitt - December 2, 2014

I suspect this is not the first time I’ve complained about this, but I have to do it again this year. As I ready my store for the onslaught of the holidays, the back room is full to the brim with overstock, toys, and a myriad of things awaiting the flurry of restocking needs. In short, my mind is solidly on the holidays and being ready to have as many books and stocking stuffers as folks need. My mind is not on event grids or summer 2015 galleys. Yet, I find that every day I’m inundated with another box, or two, IMG_4111or even three, of summer F&Gs and galleys. One box even said: Open Immediately! and it was for a book that was coming out next July. The photo on the right was just what came in Friday: all of it is for Summer 2015.
Maybe I manage time differently than other booksellers, or perhaps it’s the nature of a small store without a dedicated buyer, but I’m finding a little oppressive to get things in from UPS these days because so much of it is for things that are six months away. Every day these boxes arrive and every day these boxes get shunted to a corner until I have time to deal with them. You know when I have time to deal with? January. Why can the publishing world not realize this and send these things after the holidays?
I am making a plea right now for all publishing companies: send these things just one month later. That’s all I want, one month where I don’t have to get things that are irrelevant to my daily existence as a bookseller. Want me to order more books for the summer 2015 season? Then send me things later. I would challenge anyone in publishing to work in a bookstore for a week during the final push of the fourth quarter, and then they could see how getting these things in late November or December is actually counterproductive to their cause.
And the event grids that are due at the end of this week are insane. There’s a grid that’s due tomorrow and another one on Friday. Filling out a grid actually takes time, thought, and a level of planning that I just don’t have at the moment. I know everyone has their own scheduling needs to meet, but surely, the publicity departments can wait until January 3rd to get a grid. By forcing a tight deadline on something when most stores are too busy during the workday to deal with it thoughtfully seems insane and ultimately hurtful to all involved.
So, publishers, please reconsider the timing on these things for next year and send us grid requests and boxes of galleys when they’ll be received with open arms and joy and not with a shaking head.

Hatbox Holiday

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 1, 2014

hatbox 4
The weekend after Thanksgiving is bustling and festive at the bookstore. We can feel the holiday shift into high gear in earnest, people coming in with long lists, poring over our newsletter searching for the perfect book for each of their seven grandchildren, spending 20 minutes at the spinner that holds quirky stocking stuffers. We trade book and gift recommendations and funny Thanksgiving anecdotes with our customers.
>On Friday, one of our favorite longtime regulars, Gail F., came in to get a couple of books for her grandchildren. I couldn’t resist showing her some new handsome wooden postcards that had just come in. One at the top of the rack caught her eye, a card with two crossed keys and the legend, “Home is where the story begins.” She reached up. “That one,” she said, tapping the card. “I should send that to my grandson in California.” She tapped it again softly. “That’s perfect for our family.”
home is where the story begins postcard
“You see,” she said, “we have a tradition in our family that started years ago. We gave each of our children a hatbox, and we each had one, too. Over the years, all of the little things —notes, special items, written memories we jotted down, funny things that were said — went into the hatboxes. Our children are grown now, of course, and every year, the evening after Thanksgiving —THIS evening, in fact — we gather in the living room with the hatboxes in front of us. The rule is, you can’t open your own hatbox. Then we go around the circle and take turns pulling out something to share. The little ones are fascinated by their parents’ hatboxes.” She paused, got a funny gleam in her eye, clearly remembering some past hatbox incident, and added, “The other rule is, if you pull out something REALLY personal, you don’t share it.”
I wondered what kinds of personal tidbits would be both innocent enough to qualify for inclusion in the hatbox and yet be off limits for sharing. Love letters from old boyfriends, perhaps? Failing report cards? (The latter is unlikely; Gail’s children are a true passel of achievers.) It was a question for another day, however, because I didn’t want to interrupt the tale. Gail is a wonderful storyteller — her face is so lively, bright and expressive, and her voice is hushed and thoughtful and full of humor and wisdom.
At this point in her story, she lowered her voice further and grew serious. “Last year, my son pulled out his German grandfather’s journal for the first time. He found a list of family members’ names.” Gail and her family are Jewish. Her finger traced down an imaginary list. “The name, and then the word ‘Gone.’ Name. Gone. Name. Gone. Name. Gone. Gone, all of them, in the war.”
We stood there quietly for a moment, absorbing and acknowledging the momentousness of that loss. She went on, “It led to a big discussion with the grandchildren that went on for a long time. We weren’t expecting it, that evening. But it was good. You just never know where the hatbox will take you.”
Of all the family traditions we get to hear about on the floor of the bookstore, this was one of the loveliest and most creative. I asked Gail if I could share it with ShelfTalker readers, and she graciously agreed. Later that afternoon, I shared the bare bones of the tradition giving each child a hatbox for those special memory items – with another customer, who exclaimed, “That is SO MUCH BETTER than a scrapbook! It’s like a surprise barrel where you can keep all of those refrigerator drawings and Mother’s Day breakfast tray notes that you might not put in a scrapbook.” 
Gail did say that the hatboxes are finally starting to get full. Might be time to get hatboxes for the next generation, now, and time to find out where those hatboxes will take them.