Dispatch from an Empty Store

Cynthia Compton -- March 18th, 2020

It’s been a rough week, hasn’t it? Every single person I talk to is facing major disruptions to their work and personal life, and many of us have had to make tough decisions about our businesses and how we manage them in a time of national crisis. Viral fatigue has begun to set in, as we check our phones for hourly news updates, and none of the news is good. Here in Indianapolis, the mayor instituted full closure of bars, movie theaters and other public venues, and restaurants are limited to take-out only service. Schools and public libraries closed last week, and neighboring communities have now instituted travel restrictions, limiting trips only to emergencies, to medical appointments, food shopping, and work-related commutes (although everyone, it seems, is working from home).

We made the decision to keep our store open only for curbside pickup last Friday, and began free home delivery service on Monday. As luck (or tired post-Toy Fair planning) would have it, we had scheduled to be closed for three days this week to have the store repainted anyway. This was fortuitous, perhaps, as we had been publicizing this planned temporary closure to our customers for weeks, and had no story times or events scheduled in the shop for three days. What we didn’t plan on, of course, was the process of moving all the shelves, fixtures and stock for the painters to have access to the walls on the same day that we shifted to “viral service” – meaning instant response to Facebook messages, texts, phone calls, emails and Instagram messages from customers requesting specific books and general recommendations for homebound students. Our phone is ringing nonstop, our laptops are buzzing, and we are jumping over bookshelves wrapped in plastic to retrieve specific items for customers – just locating a simple Stomp Rocket in our store is like an episode of MacGyver.

Our plan, at this point, is to keep the store open for outside pickup and home delivery only for the foreseeable future. We have a website, too, but almost all of those orders are traditionally “in store pickup,” so it’s really just a pajama-wearing extension of our store experience for regular customers. I’m not sure if we can make our monthly goals without the Saturday morning insanity of the pre-birthday party crowd, or the Friday evening parents who stop by before dinner dates, or the busy weekday mornings filled with preschoolers and parents attending story times, but we don’t really have a choice, do we? Rent will need to be paid. I am committed to continuing staff paychecks, and while every extended dating deal from our publisher partners is greatly appreciated, we need different stuff every week – we can’t just sell last season’s inventory. In order to stay relevant we need new releases. We need new activities for kids stuck at home, who will still celebrate birthdays, and as the weather warms up we will need outdoor toys and equipment. To keep what’s “special” about our specialty store, we need to stay committed to an interesting, updated and frequently changing selection of products.

It’s only been a couple of days, but we can already see the shifts in customer buying patterns, and we will need to adjust inventory a bit to accommodate. Lots of workbooks, “learn to read” and math practice titles have been requested in customer phone calls, and we can feel parents’ anxiety and concern about lost classroom time and the need for skills practice. Balancing the needs of children of multiple ages at home is also a concern – we have had numerous requests for “something for the toddler to do while older siblings are e-learning,” and today’s first phone message recording summarized all the anxiety of newly installed homeschooling parents: “Hi, Cynthia or anyone? Can you help? We need to do school this week for my kindergartner, my third grader, and then the two year old who will want to copy everything they do. I don’t understand this math packet AT ALL and the teacher said to read lots of books at the student’s current testing level. Should I know that?”

Arts and crafts might finally see an “up” year, and 2020 could set some records for the puzzle producers. We have seen a modest uptick in games so far, but the big winner by far is paperback nonfiction, of every age and reading level. While I may need to cancel some future wrapping paper orders (birthday parties are as rare as basketball games this March), I will spend those dollars in activity books and math facts flashcards.

As I said, it’s only been a few days, but I am so much more fatigued by this type of “remote” bookselling, and as I drove home tonight I realized why. I am a bookseller for children because I love kids, and while I enjoy children’s and young adult literature very much, what I really crave is the “introduction moment” of connecting a reader with their next book. The very best part of my job are the conversations with young readers, whether that happens in my store, in their school, or in a chance meeting in the sock department at Target. Most of my “buzz,” the thing that gets me up in the morning (besides coffee) is the conversation about books with a kid who either loves or hates to read – it’s all good. My passion is fed from those interactions, and that energy spills over into all the other parts of running a business (even the never-ending plumbing management woes of maintaining a public bathroom).

The next few weeks or months of bookselling will contain very few of those conversations and interactions, and I need to find other ways to fuel both my energy level and my to-do list (which seems to be largely composed of social media posts and website updates). I miss the kids. I miss their giggles and their noise and their quiet when they are truly engaged. I miss finding an eight-year-old curled up on the bench in Middle Grade with a graphic novel, and a teenager leaning against the shelves in YA texting on their phone. I miss preschoolers pulling every single die-cast car off the display to line up on the carpet, and that middle schooler walking toward the register with a hardcover hugged tight to her chest. I miss my real customers – not the adults who pay for things, but the kids who read with me. And so, tomorrow is another day of Facebook messages and texts and phone orders and I will keep working, and figure out a way to keep our bookstore viable, so that when they can come back to see us, we will be waiting for them.

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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.

One thought on “Dispatch from an Empty Store

  1. IDANNA SMITH

    Don’t we all love those giggles, the quick hug, the big smile, the trust. Yes, that is why we do this!
    If hugs convey energy, them some is on the way.

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