When Damage Hurts

Josie Leavitt -- September 2nd, 2009

There is a very lively and sadly, much needed, discussion on the children’s bookselling listservs right now about what to do about books and toys that are damaged by customers. The discussion was begun by a very frustrated bookseller desperate for tips from other stores about what to do about stopping merchandise from getting damaged. It’s interesting — what struck me was rather than tons advice being offered, it was the torrent of stories from other booksellers eager to share their nightmares of how things got damaged, or out-and-out rude customer behavior. I’m not going rehash the bad behavior, but for you booksellers having a bad day, just know: it’s so not you.

The most obvious thing I noticed from the discussion is the majority of stores who aren’t carrying books that begged to played with, i.e., pop-ups and lift-the-flaps. These books create their own conundrum: to sell them they must be displayed in a way that people can interact with them the way they’re supposed to; to display them means the book tends to get ruined by little and big hands alike. It gets very expensive to buy an extra book and sacrifice it for the display. Every once in a while, publishers will create a display dump that actually comes with a display book. Penguin went one further with Tomie dePaola’s Brava, Strega Nona: A Heartwarming Pop-Up. If you bought the dump, not only did you get a display copy, but the dump was actually a stand where people over four feet high could look at and play with the book, and below the display was where you stacked your neatly-wrapped-in-plastic stock of the book. Absolutely brilliant idea. I know display copies are expensive for publishers, but let’s face it, no one will buy a pop-up that’s not wrapped, even if they’re the first one to open an unwrapped one.

Lift-the-flap books or books with lots of little envelopes to open are also just begging to be broken. Pretty much once an envelope on an Ology book has been opened, it looks like it’s been opened and no one wants it. So, there has to be constant vigilance around these sorts of books.  It can be very trying to constantly police the store telling kids no, nicely. I am not a fan of the book that makes noises. Once a young child find that book, they will push the buttons until someone tells them to stop. I try very hard not to be that person, but if I have to say no, I try to do it nicely. "Why don’t you press the button three more times then put the book back, so the batteries don’t wear out." I’ve noticed all noise-producing books come with that little plastic strip in the back to prevent the noise part from working until it’s purchased, but almost all kids know how to take that off and I can’t ever get that strip back in. 

It’s not just kids being curious little people and lifting flaps or making a book page pop-up — there are adults who damage books too. There are the adults who think it’s all right to crack open the spine on a hardcover they look at in the store. Sometimes they buy that book, but lately I’ve seen a lot of adults pawing over a hardcover, cracking the spine, etc., then buying the next in the stack and putting the pawed-over book back on the shelf. Books and toys are fragile, more fragile than most people think. They don’t respond well to rough handling, or being used as a writing surface — I once had to refuse a return when I noticed that someone had used the book as the surface for doing their math homework. There was no way I could sell that book again with long division engraved all over the front cover.

There needs to be a healthy balance between displaying and looking at books and damaging books. Independent bookstores, for the most part, can’t afford any damages. We have to make sure that books that are looked at by customers can be sold. Several booksellers commented in the discussions that they thought the chains and big box stores aren’t as diligent about protecting their stock, so there’s a more casual attitude among customers about hurting books. Whenever I go to one of the chains I’m struck by how many books are strewn about the floor in the kids’ section. I was recently at my local Costco and was struck by just how many books they had and in what bad shape they were in and people were still buying them. This attitude towards books can make an indie bookstore’s worry over a damaged or chewed on board book seem extreme to some, but it’s our livelihood.

There are some things booksellers do that can help minimize damages. One thing we do is we’re really tough about accepting returns from customers if the book is anything less than pristine. This lets them know, that if we can’t sell it again, or return it to the publisher (who have all gotten much tougher about accepting less than pristine returns) then we don’t take it back. This sends the message that we care about how the books look.

Having staff on the floor at all times is a very good way to stop trouble before it starts. Every bookstore has a different way of nicely saying "Stop that" to adults and kids.  The best thing that bookstore do is distract the kids with toys that it’s totally okay to play with. At the Flying Pig we have brightly colored carpets in the two main little kid sections. Each has several toys for kids of all ages to play with. We have a small basket of hurt books with STORE COPY written on them for families to look at. Other stores have DEMO stickers on things that can be played with without reproach. It’s always good to give a child an option: "You can’t play with that, but, wow, you can play with all of these."

Ellen Mager of Booktenders’ Secret Garden proves the point that sometimes the most fun toys are the simplest. The toy that kids love the best at her store is an old-fashioned rotary phone. A phone! That kills me. A dial that goes around in circles helps Ellen protect her books. Brilliant.

People need to hold a book, some need to smell it, before they buy it. I understand that, I even welcome that, to a degree. There are lots of ways to look at books without hurting them. I think what makes booksellers insane is when books get hurt and then are hidden back on the shelves only to be discovered when someone wants to buy it. If you accidentally hurt a book, just tell me. I won’t get mad. I’ll thank you for bringing it to my attention, and ideally, you’ll offer to pay for it.

One thought on “When Damage Hurts

  1. Mel

    “for you booksellers having a bad day, just know: it’s so not you.” – Thank you Josie. After a really bad, busy day with pushy customers, that line really made me feel better.

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