Field Trip Follies

Cynthia Compton -- March 9th, 2020

Like most booksellers, we “take the show on the road” every single week, to sell books and sidelines offsite. Community and professional events are a large part of our monthly sales, and we look for every possible opportunity to sell books not only in our stores, but out “in the wild” where the readers are. Festivals, conferences, public lectures, concerts, parades and other events that have some tie to literacy or our customer base of families with children are all fair game – and we have become semi-professional movers at wielding our luggage cart piled with boxes of books through parking garages, loading docks, and into hotel and convention center hallways.

As I set up at another offsite event today – at the historic Hilbert Circle Theatre in downtown Indianapolis with the Indiana Humanities Council, supporting our Indianapolis Children’s Choir spring concert – I thought about all the times we booksellers set up shop from scratch, and all the wisdom we gain the process. Here’s my quickly jotted list (with a Sharpie, on a box flap) of the THINGS THAT WILL GO WRONG ON THE ROAD (or, A Day in the Life of a Book Sherpa: Have copies, Will travel).

You will never have the right amount of books. Optimistically, in the weeks leading up the event, you will order case quantities of the author’s newest release (in hardcover), an equal number of the previous book (because it’s now in paperback) and a healthy amount of the first few titles from the author’s career. One or more of these will now be out of print, but you’ll not worry, because you have lots of other things to sell, right? Well, maybe you could use a few more. So you send a last-minute order to the wholesaler, just to pad the stacks a bit. All looks good – OOPS, as you open that case in the days before the event, there’s some damaged copies, darn it, but surely, you’ll be just fine. The day before the event, you might get an email from the host, requesting hardcover copies of the author’s FIRST BOOK (published in the 90’s, probably) to present as a thank-you gift to their board members, individually personalized, of course. Frantic phone calls to other booksellers, to the publisher, and to the author might yield enough copies, and you’ll spend the night before the event driving hither and yon, picking up books and counting your stock over and over. After the event, you’ll pack up a bunch of the new releases to return, and tell yourself that next time, you’ll order a bit less.

Three people will want to purchase books while you are setting up, and then leave and not return when you finally have the boxes cleared and the receipt printer plugged in.

Loading docks and freight elevators are not for the timid. There are a myriad of very sensible rules about who is allowed to access service entrances, operate those large garage-type doors in the back of convention centers, and pull those gates shut on big freight elevators. They are written on official-looking signs posted on the walls, and sometimes included in the pre-event packet that is distributed to vendors before a large event. (Ignore all of them. Read the directions, open the silly door, and move your boxes. Be a book ninja – quick, quiet, and look like you are supposed to be there.)

Three people will ask if you are in charge of the event, and if they can take an extra table or where they should get their badge.

The weather will be unpredictable. Driving rainstorms? Freak snow blizzards? High winds and tornado warnings? Unseasonable heat and high humidity? These will descend upon your community like locusts on the day of your event, or more often, the day of load-in.

Three people will ask you if the books are free.

Wifi will be tricky. There will be several guys in official event shirts that you will have to ask for the network and password information, and it will cut out anyway when you attempt to swipe the first credit card. Your phone will permanently be set on your personal Hot Spot, and trust me, you need a longer charge cord.

Three people will ask if you’re the author. When you explain that you own a bookstore, they will ask if bookstores still exist. There really is no satisfying answer to this.

Always bring food, even though you will not have time to eat it. Hotels and convention centers are not great places to grab lunch at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm, which is when you will have time for lunch. During the actual lunch break, you will be selling books (hopefully) and dealing with phone calls and texts from your store. (“Cynthia! We just got a call from some Yellow Freight guy who says he’s delivering a pallet, but he’s not getting paid to bring it inside. Do we just have him leave it on the sidewalk? It’s raining, and we’re really busy.”) That PB&J that you made and wrapped this morning will taste great on the drive home tonight, washed down with that cold coffee that you left in the car all day.

Three people will stop at your table, pick up each one of the books and read the back, and then tell you about the children’s book they are planning to write.

You will run out of business cards or store brochures. People like free stuff. They like to collect information, and file it away in their conference tote bags. As a retailer who attends a lot of trade shows and conferences, I know exactly what happens to all this glossy paper and cardstock. The tote bag spends a week in my front hallway, is then moved to the floor of the office, and eventually emptied into the trash when we need another canvas bag to carry pumps to work or to send some of that abundant summer squash home with an unsuspecting dinner guest. Tote bag stuffing is the “midwestern nice” way of saying “I’m not buying anything today, but I don’t want to reject you and I will follow up with you later. Or not.”

Three people will ask you if you can validate their parking.

Packing up the event at the end is much more difficult than it should be. Random amounts of different titles don’t fit back into boxes neatly, and there’s no good place for the bookstands. You won’t have enough packing material, or time to compose the boxes for return to the shop, as you’re very cognizant of both impending rush hour traffic and the evening parking garage charges. Items left on “hold” by earlier browsers will sit out on your table until the last possible second, when the boxes are all packed. Resignedly, you will tuck them inside the final untaped box, and leave more business cards out on the table, in hopes that they will return and order from your website.

Three people will ask, as you wheel your cart toward the freight elevator, if you are coming back tomorrow, as they ran out of time to look at books today.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, a rescuer of English Bulldogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She just completed her term on the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

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