Vermont doesn’t win many awards for diversity, having one of the most homogenous populations in the country, but we have some amazing activists in our tiny state. A couple of years ago, a group of teen poets in Burlington began performing at slam poetry events, making a national name for themselves with their passionate words. This group of articulate, funny, strong, social-justice-minded teens call themselves Muslim Girls Making Change, or MGMC, and they’ve traveled to Washington, D.C., been written about in the Huffington Post, and are now represented in (and on the cover of!) the Rad Women series’ newest addition, Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl (Ten Speed Press). Look! There they are in the upper left corner. Four fabulously rad girls. In June of this year, they won a National Endowment of the Arts Human and Civil Rights Award alongside Michelle Obama. (That award came the day before courts upheld the Muslim travel ban. We still have such a long way to go.)
I don’t know about anyone else, but our store’s layout sometimes feels like a real world Rubik’s Cube I can’t quite solve. There are corners everywhere you turn, as the bookshelves snake through the store. And those nooks and crannies don’t always match up exactly with the number of shelves you need in each spot or offer easy flow between sections that relate. So every couple months, we get the itch to start moving everything around to try to find that perfect fit. Most of the time, our adjustments are relatively minor as sections grow a bit, shrink a bit, or are created to reflect new trends. Of course, there’s never any perfect solution because the literary conversation is always shifting in one way or another. So constant tweaks and shifts are part of the deal (and give us the fun of brainstorming new evolutions). Every now and then, though, we find ourselves more substantially bumping against spatial limitations, and then we get to go back to the drawing board in a larger way. Continue reading
We all, when wearing our frontlist buying hats, look for identifying characteristics of middle grade and young adult novels that will indicate their sales worthiness at our particular stores. The use of markups and tags in the ordering process illustrates that point. Many times, for example, a new book fills a certain cavity, a first-person narrator with a mental or physical condition not depicted before, the book contains a plot strand touching on a current social issue, or bears a striking resemblance to an established successful title, has a large print run size, a proximate author’s state of residence, and so forth. This is the coin of the frontlist realm.
Given the volume of titles in that realm our superficial reliance on a book’s tagged attributes is a flawed but necessary part of the process. When looking at what really makes a book excel, however, I’m convinced that a whole different class of attributes are involved. Let’s look at two YA novels coming out this fall that share a very particular quality that makes them exceptional: The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth and The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta.
Children’s booksellers spend a lot of time watching families. Not in a creepy way — really, we’re just a captive audience who are a bit trapped on the shop floor. We might be busily carrying boxes or shelving titles when customers come in, but then we need to make ourselves available for questions, to provide suggestions, to ring up and wrap. We wait for parents to instruct the children about proper behavior in the store (or wish they would), we wait for careful perusal of the first display table, we scan for that raised eyebrow and expectant question of the “mom on a mission” — “I need a gift for an eight year old, and I don’t know her at all!” or something that we can latch our bookselling expertise to.
While we wait, we also keep an eye on the children. Bless their hearts, as they tear through the store with the energy of wildebeests or the reluctance of a sibling who is just along for the errand ride, with hopes of an ice cream stop later. We engage them in conversations, slide new titles across displays as they exclaim over a familiar cover (“Look! That’s the book our teacher read to our class!”) and we mentally plot their likely trajectory through the shop, checking for errant step stools left in aisles, rolling shelf ladders not secured, or tempting open displays of pens, tiny rubber balls, or anything that will scatter and roll under fixtures when it is inevitably upset. We don’t want to impede their discovery in any way, but we do want to prevent the unhappy accident that will cause a parent to exclaim that “it’s time to go home, RIGHT NOW.”
If I gave you three guesses about my most difficult aspect of bookselling, you’d might guess that it’s the laughably low pay. Or the ever-increasing competition. Or the disquieting act of cleaning toddler pee off a cushioned ottoman and sterilizing the furniture afterward (*sigh*—yes, it happened). All of those qualify, but the true answer is one you might not suspect: it’s greeting my customers.
I’m a pretty friendly person, especially by New England standards, and I love welcoming people to the bookstore. It’s not the social interaction that’s hard, but something much simpler and more mortifying: calling up names I should know cold. The problem is a fairly significant and deeply pesky facial recognition deficit. It’s not age-related; I’ve always had it. Josie used to look at me like I was crazy when we watched movies and I’d say, “Now who is that guy?” and she’d say, “It’s the guy from the last scene with a hat on.” (To be fair, a lot of movie stars look similar and have the name Ryan or Colin or James, and I’ve never been able to tell one frat guy from another, so that isn’t a completely reliable litmus test for facial recognition. But it was a clue.) Continue reading
All day long, booksellers in all our stores field questions, give recommendations, run quick research on books for special requests, and more. The children’s department is a hotbed for tricky questions because customers are so often buying for a reader other than themselves. For a long time, we’ve talked about how to best pool our resources and round out our individual knowledge bases, but it’s not easy. When I came to BookPeople, the children’s department relied heavily on comprehensive searchable notes in book files in our POS system. But that became cumbersome over time to keep updated, consistent and current as the searches became burdened by books no longer carried. Then we experimented with a shared Google reference doc that could help direct people to the right books for common requests—as well as help find stories for specific historical fiction periods (which comes up for school assignments). This was an excellent tool for a couple of years, until the same issues began to raise their heads and the whole thing started to feel overloaded. We have, over the last few years, done a lot of work honing our section titles in the store to help customer (and staff) more easily find book for commonly asked questions, but I feel like we can still do more to share knowledge amongst ourselves—especially within our core group of children’s book specialists. Continue reading
We have had an active summer of birthday parties in the shop, which is a bit unusual, but I’m blaming global warming. Summer is usually not our busy party season — when school is out, there is less pressure for parents to throw “everyone in class is invited” celebrations, and therefore less reason to take the party offsite to a place like 4 Kids. A couple of friends in the backyard, at the movies or the local bowling alley or manicure shop will suffice to celebrate most of those June and July birthdays. For larger crowds, there’s the splash park and the local community center pool, complete with water slides and a lazy river, and our local parks rent out the shelter houses inexpensively. Added to the many and varied travel schedules of families, and our store party room is usually a little more available this time of year.
We’ve been struggling with our picture book section at the shop for some time now, and by “struggling” I mean that while the category is selling well once we locate the suggested title, often the finding of that exact book has been a bit of a challenge for frontline booksellers in a hurry. The last two years have seen big growth in nonfiction sales, and while some of these fit nicely in that “Who Was….” spinner from Penguin, there’s a LOT happening outside those charming little biographies. We have seen an uptick in interest in nonfiction all over the store, from coding books to germ science, sports to baking. Feminist girl power books, yoga how-to’s (I’m still waiting for someone to do “Can Your Mama Asana?”) and lots of history are getting picture book treatment; our increased sales show that these subjects are definitely in our customers’ bedtime story rotation.
Staff favorite title about a very special service dog.
Writers, illustrators, and designers of picture books pay a lot of attention to the “page turn,” which is the manner in which a book’s text and art invite readers to turn to the next page. There’s an art form to deciding which lines of writing will grace a page, which pages remain blank, where to place the text on a spread, and whether to finish a sentence within the spread or make the reader turn the page to find the sentence ending.
As you can imagine, books filled with surprises, like The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin (Golden Books), gleefully and appropriately employ cliff-hanger page turns.
In the tradition of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book, here’s a quick primer on best practices for customer service in the bookshop, with a little help from some favorite picture books.