We are knee deep (or knee high) into preschool book fair season in our store, which peaks annually in the early fall and again right before Easter. We started offering onsite book fairs to preschools and childcare centers almost 10 years ago, and now have a schedule of repeat business that keeps us hop, skip and jumping through the last two weeks of September through Halloween. I’m writing this post from a little chair, pulled up to a teeny tiny table in the entry hallway of a local Montessori school, but my schedule the next few weeks lets me hopscotch across the county, as up and down as the wheels on the bus.
Book fairs are big business for some stores, and require warehouses and trucks and dedicated staff. At 4 Kids, we focus the book fair activity into a smaller, more concentrated group, mostly serving the 0 – 5 year old set, and market our book fairs to private preschools. Our events are two to three days in length, coordinating either with parent/teacher conferences, fall family festivals, or just the daily schedule of the school, offering books for sale at morning drop-off and afternoon and evening pickup. We bring 100 to 200 titles, a lot of book racks and bins, and some flexibility with both merchandising and cash/wrap options. Our POS system, blessedly, is accessible anywhere there is WiFi service, and all we need is a laptop or tablet with a SQUARE credit card processing attachment. In the “old days,” however, we carried a “kerchunker” – that terrific device that imprinted carbon receipts, which would be collected and entered at the store at the end of each day.
I try to visit each preschool several weeks before our event, to meet the teachers, check out their library, and learn from the pictures on the walls just what subjects have been discussed in the classroom recently. In a perfect scenario, we also invite teachers or a representative from the school to our store, where they can browse and identify titles that might be of interest. Sometimes, we even get “wish lists” from individual classrooms of books that the teacher would like to have, and these can be highlighted in a notebook or a display for parents to purchase and donate. More frequently, however, it’s my advance scouting that drives the selection, enhanced by the ability to return to the shop after the first day and bring back more requested titles or subjects. Certain themes, like early literacy and numeracy, multicultural awareness, and the “holy trinity” of preschool books are always popular (that would be any books about a new baby sibling, peeing, or this year, unicorns. The ideal title – are you listening, publishers? – would be Superhero Sam’s Mommy Is Having a Baby Unicorn in the Bathroom).
There are some unexpected benefits of holding the book fair onsite, including longish conversations with teachers who are waiting for parents to arrive, and parents who are waiting to see teachers at conferences, or waiting for a young child to finish an activity and be ready to go home. Better still are the conversations with students:
“Mrs Book Lady, do you know Llama?”
“Llama, Llama? Who wears red pajamas? Yes, I do.”
“Well. My sister has red pajamas. But she’s a baby. And she can’t read and she poops. But we have a cat.”
“Yes. And I have Paw Patrol pajamas.”
“That’s really cool. I like Paw Patrol. Do you want to look at a Paw Patrol book with me?”
“I will pick out some good books. I am a good book picker. You can read them, if you don’t be boring. Sometimes my dad falls asleep. But he says he’s resting. Do you need to rest? And I like fairies. Those are not just for girls. I am a boy.“
“I am wide awake right now. And And you are a very good book selector. And I like fairies, too. Yes, there are boy and girl fairies. That is good.”
The value of the preschool book fair to our business is measured in more than pajama comparisons with charmingly articulate three-year-olds. The lives of young parents are hurried and overwhelming, particularly if there are two careers to be managed alongside Pee Wee Soccer, field trip permission slips, and delivery of (organic, allergen-free) snacks for the class on a weekly schedule. Trips to the local bookstore may be few and far between, and the friendships we form in the lobby of the daycare center may be the only chance we have to reach those future customers. We sell books at these events, to be certain, but we also build trust and awareness, and make friends through our mutual understanding of sleep deprivation and multitasking. Our role as book ambassadors must extend everywhere if we are to make bookstores as accessible as big box stores, and we must imprint individual literacy as clearly as the other brands that surround every waking moment of our future customers lives. Local bookstores have the unique opportunity to be present, to be current, and to be personal in the lives of every customer, even those that don’t have the time to visit their stores.