Spring Ahead, Fall Back

Cynthia Compton - August 28, 2019

It’s late August, which means that we are concurrently planning fall school author visits, community holiday events, ordering Christmas gift wrap and bags, selecting paperbacks for book fairs from backlist catalogs, and ordering spring 2020 frontlist. My plush rep informed me that we’re “too late to get in on Easter, but there might be some closeouts left for Valentine’s…” while my email inbox is filled with Halloween promotions, that are evidently still available. It’s 90 degrees outside, and the air conditioning needed to be serviced again, but every single prepack and stand-alone cardboard picture book display that has arrived this week has pictures of snowmen or Santa on them. (Which is OK, I suppose, because it’s going to be a Christmas miracle if I can fold any of them correctly, and if the giant cardboard toppers actually fit in those little pre-cut slots. Is it just me, or are the standees just getting bigger and bigger heads?)
The kids are back in school, and we need to hurry and get the Fall Break travel display put up, right after we finish Banned Books Week lists and mock Newbery ballots and find a place to store those unsold sand and water toys. (It’s the yellow ones that are left over. It’s always the yellow ones, isn’t it?) In spite of the warm afternoons and long twilights, parents have shifted their birthday gift choices away from kites and archery sets, and the sidewalk chalk sits dejectedly on the shelf next to the suddenly popular sets of scented pencils, just perfect for math class, and there’s a run on responsibility charts and puzzles with state capitals. Books of knock-knock jokes always sell well at this time of year, which reminds me, once again, that we just don’t pay teachers or school bus drivers enough, truly we don’t.
The practice of retail is always a careful balance of managing lead time and being “in the moment” — we need to have holiday displays up early, to give parents and teachers time to read aloud books about the upcoming season — but the store itself must also celebrate the current occasions in children’s lives. So while we may be quietly putting Halloween titles on lower shelves in early August, and we’ve been collecting books about autumn leaves since June, we are still displaying titles about fireflies and making pyramids of bug catchers. There is a constant pushme-pullyou between not appearing to jump on the bandwagon of big box seasonal hoopla, but recognizing that shopkeeping runs on several timelines simultaneously: customers expect that we have the most current thing, the NEXT big thing, and that somehow, sometime, we’re planning a season or two ahead so that all that stuff arrives when they didn’t know they needed it, too.
Our sales reps are obviously caught in the same time and space loops, as they email us weekly about backlist offers due to end on Labor Day, titles to stock up on because they are included in the fall regional catalogs or some media promotion, while anxiously trying to book appointments for their spring lists…. arranging routes for sales calls through our states while avoiding late summer vacation traffic, teacher appreciation nights, and booksellers either exhausted from the end of tourist season or hesitant to buy after a long quiet summer. While they field frantic phone calls tracking titles for currently touring authors, they are telling us about books scheduled to launch next year…. a lifetime away in the brains of shopkeepers worried about how many pumpkin books will sell before the icicle lights need to be strung in the front windows, and how many part-time staffers will be needed in December. It’s difficult to look at 2019 sales reports for first quarter when the make-or-break part of our year is still ahead, and to optimistically jot case quantities for spring titles while wondering about tariffs and snow days to come. But order we must, as we shuffle spreadsheets with contracts for Holiday Marts and book order forms for schools — while wondering, hopefully, if there will still be tomatoes at the farmers market this weekend, and if we have enough bug nets left to finish the season.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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