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.
Currently, we have nonfiction sections scattered around the store: Biography, History, Science (which is actually several bookshelves, including anatomy, weather and natural disasters, physical sciences and then project type books), Space (which gets its own shelf), Vehicles and Transportation (there is nothing as powerful as a digger in a children’s bookstore), Dinosaurs, Spy, Magic (this is the how-to section, versus the magical fiction category), Cooking, Animals (arranged alphabetically by species, not author) and then general parenting and bibliotherapy: Potty Training, New Baby, and Big Sibling – the holy trinity of the preschool parents. Because we’re in horse show country, we have an Equine section, too, combining both nonfiction horse books with all those fictional series featuring girls, horses, and sometimes little horsey charms and flotsam.
Specific childhood issues from sleeping to school issues are grouped by age, and there’s a good-sized section of books about puberty, sexuality and personal health. All of those sections are ideally next to non-book displays that cross-sell well with those titles, (like the volcano kits near Natural Disasters, although I could make a case for those to be placed by potty training, too, I suppose) but sometimes we just make our shelf labels do the talking, as a new shipment of Floof* can evict a well planned, artistically arranged display of dinosaurs (perched right above the dino books) in a hot paleolithic minute.
Most of these nonfiction sections are a mixture of early readers, small paperbacks, and larger hardcovers, relying more on their subject similarity for grouping than reading level. This is a particularly “kid lit land” kind of problem – in a general bookstore, all the animal books are grouped together, regardless of text difficulty. In kids’ stores, we have whole sections devoted just to a particular reading level and/or format – so, does Bears Are Curious go in the animal section, or on the early reader spinner (top two tiers for Level One) and if a second grader who is working on a report about grizzlies comes in, where do we direct him first?
Picture books, however, have always had their own long wall, and while they are the #3 selling category by quantity for us, they are the biggest seller in dollars. So in paying close attention to turn and display options, it became a goal to spread out those titles a bit, and be able to feature more face outs. Late last Friday afternoon (where all good inspiration lives, between gift wrapping birthday presents for the weekend and debating the staff pizza order) we decided that we would just pull all the nonfiction titles out of picture books that were not already classified and give them their own section. We’d not only pull them, but we’d create a “nonfiction picture book” category in the POS system for these titles that allowed staffers to find them easily, and change all the shelf location fields in their description. No problem. (Why does bookseller inspiration inevitably come wrapped in ambition right at the end of the week when time and staff are at a premium?)
And so off I went, dragging a step stool behind me, through one shelf of picture books at a time, filling our store shopping baskets with titles from All That Trash to Washington, D.C. from A – Z. I worked from Z to A, hoping to create enough space at the end of the alphabet for the new section, but of course realized almost immediately that every single picture book was going to get moved no matter where I began or ended. All of the wonderful side adventures of reshelving during an open store occurred just as I would have predicted if I’d actually CONSIDERED THIS PLAN before starting… I found titles I’d forgotten that immediately demanded rereading and sharing, small children and their parents plucked books from stacks on the floor, and we had a rush of customers who knew EXACTLY WHAT THEY NEEDED… we just couldn’t put our hands on it without a complicated ballet of basket jumping and sideways stack reading. Of course, I was still pulling books at closing time, and spent Saturday morning very early sipping my coffee and finishing the job. It went much faster then, once I decided that there was to be NO READING ALLOWED until all the books were back on the shelves (and my after-hours music choices on the store stereo were much…. dancier).
We’ve lived with the new arrangement for a few days, and I like watching customers browse the new section. When picture books are crowded together spine-out on a shelf, reading individual titles can be difficult, and the huge variation in fonts and colors is visually overwhelming. Freeing up some space for more face-out displays makes everything less intimidating, and we’re all enjoying conversations with young readers as they spy books about subjects they recognize, or titles they can “read” from the picture on the cover.
I had one of those bookseller moments over one such conversation, overheard on Sunday afternoon as I was hastily restoring order to the picture book paperback bins – surely the topic of another week. “Whoooo Be….. Here?” sounded out one young customer, browsing with his mom. “Who Belongs Here?” she supplied, running her index finger under the words in the title as she pronounced (a most helpful technique for beginning readers). “What’s it about?” asked the child. “It’s about America,” said his mom. “Let’s read this.”
If all of that moving and stacking and alphabetizing and extra coffee on Saturday morning results in just that one conversation, I would say that this was a productive week in bookselling, indeed.
*do you know about Floof? It’s the magic elixir of our summer sales. Part modeling compound, part cotton candy (but it’s not edible, just really really soft) and our number one impulse item of the summer, from Playvisions. Best of all, it comes in buckets, which stack ever-so-nicely next to books about summer.