Fall Fetes and Folding Tables

Cynthia Compton -- September 4th, 2019

Our fall calendar is full. Well, we thought it was full, leaving just a few empty dates for those surprise emails from publicists, who sometimes realize that their author on a Midwestern tour has an extra day between stops in Ohio and Illinois… and since Indiana is conveniently located right in the middle of everything… then “OH! Don’t you guys do story times every day?” Yes, yes we do, and what’s the author’s favorite kind of donut? No, there’s no train from the airport. We’ll pick them up.”

Balancing events in the busiest season of the year is tricky. First, it’s a time when customers flock to our stores unbidden and largely unbribed by discounts, as the cooler air brings gift-giving opportunities that motivate shoppers. Fall birthday parties, when “inviting the whole class” is still the thing to do, leave us wrapping and taping like fiends on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday mornings (yes, we CAN get you to the party in 8 minutes. You get out your Visa, we’ll get you out the door). Additional holidays like Halloween (“just some little tokens for the class… you know, to make up for the candy we can’t bring to the class party”) and Thanksgiving at Grandma’s (“we need stuff for ALL THE KIDS TO DO…. and maybe a puzzle. And a game. And I like to have a book for each child”) and another ever-popular cause for bookseller glee: fall parent/teacher conferences, when it’s gently suggested that our young scholars might benefit from some additional reading time in the evening…. yes, the bookmark timers are right there, next to the register. 

At any rate, pumpkin season is already heavily spiced with activity in store, and noting author school visits, library events, and fall book fairs to the calendar requires all the colors of Sharpie markers in pen jar. We mark our giant wall calendars with planned events, circle the dates of school fall breaks (so as not to miss the ever-profitable “TRAVEL TOYS” display opportunity), and pencil in high school homecomings and college midterms, both of which make part-timers disappear like a plate of warm apple cider donuts.

Even with all that planned activity, the temptation to add more offsite events is still great. Every not-for-profit, it seems, has a fall-themed festival or fete or weekend event, all with opportunities to rent tables, scatter paper leaves on the cloth, and load up the hardcovers in piles. There’s Junior League Marts, church bazaars, community fairs, cultural celebrations of every ethnicity, and school carnivals — all opportunities to bring our store out into the “real world” — if the real world was filled with 35 cent bags of popcorn and just-baked brownies packed into ziplock baggies, two-for-a-dollar. Homemade goodies aside, it is fun to set up a little bookshop on a tabletop for a day or two, visit with fellow booth workers, and enjoy being the bookstore that folk “happen upon” between the displays of carved wooden shelves with heart cutouts and bins full of soup and dip mixes. It’s so very tempting to accept each and every postcard invitation, and spread our stock and staff over Central Indiana, unloading books and folding tables out of the back of our cars. Surely, we think, we can do ONE MORE event — it’s only two days! — and we’ve been wanting to try that Pumpkin Family Festival of Fun for a while now, haven’t we?

In looking back at events in the last two years in order to evaluate this season’s offerings, my staff came up with several key criteria in evaluating a potential bookselling opportunity:

  1. Is the booth fee, cost of staff time and travel, and expected loss of merchandise an amount than can be recovered in the expected sales while still maintaining a margin comparable to instore sales on that day? I plan on 5-10% in damage and shrinkage for every event. If it’s less, I’m pleasantly surprised. If not, I’m better prepared. Quick spot checks of last year’s sales revenue and margin in store for that day can be a sobering factor: for example, no matter HOW GOOD the event is, we just can’t beat our own store’s numbers the week before Fall Break, and we need to keep all hands on deck at the shop.
  2. Is the event activity trackable? For example, can attendees be given a “bounce-back” coupon to visit our shop, or is there a raffle option or a way to add names to our email newsletter list? Even if sales are strong, marketing is only good if the sales are repeatable, and if the time investment extends our customer base over a longer timeframe.
  3. Is the venue “book friendly?” As charming as a rustic barn can be, there is just no printed page that holds up to humidity, hay dust, or animal hair. You just can’t resell stuff back in the shop that smells like agriculture. Even the most stalwart booksellers tend to wilt after a couple hours in a tent, so prioritize those tables that are set up inside.
  4. Does the event fundraise or friend-raise? This is a “Cynthia” question, and I ask it frequently when I’m looking at offsite opportunities. There is room in our schedule for both: those events that simply MOVE BOOKS, and those that establish awareness and relationships with a section of the community that we want to support. Ladies’ luncheons, library auxiliary events, or professional service club meetings usually fall in the fundraising category — those folks just want to buy books, and are happy to do so from whoever is onsite. Other events may be more about showing off our ability to be a professional resource, and may result in purchase orders down the road if consistent follow-up is done. We recently got a nice order from a community service center manager we met at summer camp fair — not a great day for sales then, but more than profitable due to this relationship.
  5. Does it look like fun? This is perhaps the most important, as we’re already having fun right where we are. We’ve worked hard to build and merchandise our store, and our staff is efficient in our own space. If we’re asking them to load the back of the car, figure out the wheeled cart (which always, always has a wobbly wheel, no matter how often I tighten it), and do the “internet dance” with the tablet to achieve a consistent WiFi connection to run credit cards — well, let’s make sure they come back with great stories, lots of sales, and a couple extra bags of those homemade brownies, shall we?
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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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