I find a lot of things during the course of a day at the store: books that have slipped behind shelves, a pile of invoices from 2004, a check on my desk from a school order, marketing materials tucked aside for possible use in 1995. The quality varies, I mean to say. The other day I was brought into possession of something of rare and exceptional value. Nothing less than a terrific bookstore gift program, and I wanted to take a minute to share it with you.
As noted earlier, my longtime employee and even longer time son, has moved to Athens, Georgia for graduate school. He called me fresh from a trip to what is now his local bookstore, Avid Bookshop. Apart from mentioning that it was a great shop, he told me about a program he saw there that he thought I would be interested in employing at DDG.
The program in question was a kind of personal gift subscription which one customer purchases for another. Rather than a gift certificate, the recipient gets one book a month personally selected for them by an Avid staffer. I liked the idea immediately and began working out how to make a DDG version which we just launched! At the same time I wrote to Avid and was put in touch with their Subscription Sultan, Will Walton. Will has been running the three-year-old program for the last two years.
Here is how Will describes the program. I should mention that he apologized in advance if his description was “a little emotive! But it’s just because I love the subscriptions program so much!” Each month, Will said, “I hand select a book for each of Avid’s book subscribers. My selections are based on each subscriber’s personal tastes, favorite authors/books/topics, etc. After I do that, I write a small note (usually briefly describing the book and why I thought it would be a good fit), stick it inside the book, package the book, decorate the package, and ship it! And that’s about it!”
“Part of what makes our book subscription so unique and cool,” Will continued, “is that it is also extremely interactive – or, well, I should say as interactive as the subscriber wishes for it to be. I welcome and look forward to each subscriber’s commentary following a month’s delivery. My hope is always that, if one month’s book doesn’t quite fit the bill, the subscriber will shoot me an email/phone call to let me know.
On the other hand, I always enjoy it when someone contacts me to say, ‘Hey, this was a great fit! Nice job!’ This makes the whole process feel a little more collaborative, which is extremely fun.”
Avid offers two subscription lengths: 6 months or 12 months. The subscription rate is well above the retail value and freight costs, reflecting the amount of work involved, and the great value of Will’s personal touch, visible in his notes, decorations and genuine love of the program. As he put it: “Honestly, this is one of my favorite things we do here at Avid. In addition to being such a unique service, it really is just extremely fun. I love the whole process from start to finish, and so do our customers.”
In terms of nuts and bolts, “We have a few different subscription package options. One for picture books, one for young readers (ages 6-12, approx.), one for young adult readers (ages 13-18, approx.), and one for adults.
In addition, a customer is able to sign up for either a six-month or a year-long “package” deal. We are also willing to stagger the arrival of the books to suit each subscriber’s reading schedule. For example, we have a couple of subscribers who like to receive their books every other month.”
The program is strictly a ship-to situation and I asked Will whether an in-store pickup scenario would lose anything in translation. Does he feel that the shipping component is integral to the character of the enterprise? Would it be less fun? He replied, “Honestly, I do love that component. I decorate each envelope by hand. I also include a note with each package! There’s also, of course, the innate surprise element that comes with getting mail!”
One certain thing is that this program is a perfect extension of great independent handselling. A strong bookseller and real communication is a quantum leap better than any algorithm. In this sense, Avid’s program exemplifies the sort of outreach that extends rather than dilutes a store’s persona.
I asked Will what his favorite success story was. He gave me two. “I send to a lot of young readers, many of whom live out of state, so I never actually get to meet them. This summer, I was out of town for a couple of weeks. When I returned, I had a letter waiting for me. It was from one of my young readers, and she was telling how much the books she’d received had meant to her. That was super cool. It reminded me how truly connected Avid is to these readers, even though they are from all parts of the country.
“Another really cool thing that happened this morning: The mother of a young subscriber came in and thanked us for sending her daughter a book called Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz. She told us that, ever since she read it, her daughter has begun to proudly call herself a ‘strong girl’ and that she’s been actively seeking out other rad ladies to learn about. I thought that was awesome.”
It IS awesome and a good thing he sent Rad American Women instead of Jane Yolen’s great Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female Villains.
If anyone has a similarly exceptional program running along these lines, fling it into a comment below!
Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, has a similar service out of both Kids & Teens and the general adult department. I’m a youth librarian, so having someone keep me on-track to read grown-up books at least once a month was fantastic. They do allow in-store pick-up, which was a must-have for me because a) no shipping charges, and b) my selector was so good that I frequently got books I had already read (and loved), so I could exchange them immediately.
I’ve left the area but would continue to subscribe by mail if the shipping weren’t expensive and exchanges infeasible.