Selling to the Grown-Ups

Cynthia Compton - September 25, 2019

There’s an encouraging number of articles in our daily bookselling email newsletters about new shops opening this year. According to the ABA, there were 42 new member stores that opened from January through June of 2019, and 12 more stores successfully sold to new owners. Probably, the number of brand new bookstores tops that amount, as in true indie fashion, some new store owners would just not be “joiners,” at least at first.  While the locations, names, and square footage of all these new bookstores are unique, I am always slightly amused by one seemingly constant phrase in the announcement articles: “XYZ Books will be a general store… offering new (or new and used, or only used) books, with a STRONG CHILDREN’S SECTION.” Well done, new colleagues, for recognizing that a “strong” section of children’s and young adult titles is a key to financial success, and a guaranteed draw for browsers of all ages.

The reverse of this phrase, from those opening brand-new children’s stores, is rarely, if ever, written. I don’t recall ever reading of a new children’s bookstore opening with “a strong adult section,” but more and more of my colleagues in the Association of Booksellers for Children are adding shelves of reading for grown-ups. Some have full sections of adult fiction and non-fiction, some feature only the titles in their regional association holiday catalogs, and some (like us) pick and choose titles and topics that we think will work. I was first introduced to the idea of adding an adult section in my store on a visit to Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga. ( ), where the shelves of adult fiction placed smack dab in the middle of the store were so enticing to browsing parents and caregivers, and seemed like such an obvious way to serve our customers better. I headed home to Indiana, cleared a four-foot-wide bookcase, and began circling titles in that season’s Indie Next list with a red marker, selecting those titles that were new to paperback. I unscientifically polled the next dozen-or-so customers about what their bookclubs were reading, and raided my own nightstand for titles that I loved. It was not a very strategic way to begin, but no matter. First labeled “BOOKS 4 GROWN-UPS” (our store is named 4 Kids Books, and we were trying to be cute) and then “ADULT TITLES”  and currently with no signage at all (we’re working on that) it has become one of the fastest-turning 16 bookshelf feet in my shop.*
We’re now a few years into stocking that smallish section, and some key factors have contributed to its profitability. First, we tend to order almost all trade paperbacks, keeping prices in the $12-$18 range. Exceptions to this are local authors whose works are in hardcover only, and “big books” of particular interest, like the The Testaments and The Dutch House, both of which we offered through pre-order. While the sales numbers on these will not equal those of big children’s releases, there is no doubt that those parents planned to buy those titles somewhere, and are just as happy to spend the money here while picking up birthday gifts for the weekend as any other brick-and-mortar bookstore choice.
Another key factor for us in handselling adult titles is an ongoing commitment by our staff to add those books that they have read and personally recommend — there’s a real “flavor” to our choices, and almost always an enthusiastic staffer ready to pull their own personal picks for a browsing customer. It makes for an interesting mix — my penchant for murder mysteries next to another staffer’s preference for historical fiction next to yet another’s choices in literary fiction… but we keep score of sales by genre, and restock following a ruthless analysis of what moves, so the “open to buy” keeps evolving ever-so-slightly by genre.
There are certain seasons of the year when the adult section performs particularly well, and tracking those and expanding offerings during those times is crucial. We live in a community that travels for school Fall Break (mid October), Winter Break (week before Christmas through early January) and Spring Break (March and April.) Lots of parents visit us in the two weeks before those holidays to stock up on travel diversions for the kids, and it’s a perfect time to offer a book or two for Mom and Dad. Summer would seem to be a time for more reading, but this has not proven true in our adult book sales. Our theory is that parents are busy engaging with kids’ activities and supervising young swimmers at the pool, and while a week at the lake might seem to be a great reading time, we actually sell MORE adult titles on the first week the kids go back to school — and back to earlier bedtimes.
Location of the section within the store has been important, too, as most customers don’t come into our shop looking for adult reading material. By happenstance (and shortage of space) we used a bookcase right at the end of our cash wrap, which is also conveniently next to the train table. As toddlers played, Moms browsed, and as we were busy gift wrapping behind the counter, we could call titles over our shoulders and book talk between tearing pieces of tape and curling ribbon. It’s also the first bookshelf that new customers see when they enter, which helps capture the attention of restaurant goers from next door, who are dropping by to kill time before their reservation or lunch appointment. I am a bit nervous about looking at this month’s numbers, actually, as the bookcase was temporarily moved to make way for Halloween dress-up options, and if my beloved 16 feet of “grown up books” takes a hit, I’m blaming it on this current tenant:

So, fellow children’s bookstores: do YOU have a section for very big kids? Share your wisdom, please, and let’s all keep expanding the age range of our favorite readers.
*Over my desk, I keep a scrap of graph paper pinned to my bulletin board with the formula for TURN. If you’ve forgotten, it’s Net Sales divided by Average Retail Stock. It doesn’t matter when you calculate it, or whether you do that simple arithmetic by product, by section, by season, or by year. But do it you must…. it will be your greatest business coach and mentor.

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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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