M*A*S*H Unit Bookselling

Cynthia Compton -- March 25th, 2020

We closed the doors of 4 Kids to the public a week ago due to the spread of Covid-19, and switched our bookstore customer service to curbside pickup and home delivery options (unless they ordered from our website, which was still mostly the two options above, as almost all of our customers choose the “pick up in store” option.) It has been a heady, frenetic seven days, with all staffers on deck, smart phones in hand, as they called, texted, and Face-timed customers on virtual shopping trips, handing “finished” shopping lists and stacks to the stalwart staffer at the register who was responsible for calling the customer on the phone for their credit card information. I spent much of the week in the family minivan, delivering packages to customer doorsteps and donuts to the staff, catering lunch at the store and creating “birthday boxes” for children in the community, our on-the-fly invention to celebrate kids whose special day was held in quarantine. Basically, we add balloons, glitter, noisemakers and little bags of swag to gift-wrapped bundles, and draw giant “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” greetings on the side of the bags in magic marker. It’s not much, but it’s something easy we can do for kids stuck at home after their party and classroom cupcakes are cancelled.

Yesterday, however, things changed, and the last 24 hours have been like a M*A*S*H episode right after Radar looks to the sky and says “Choppers, incoming.” Our Indiana governor announced a “hunker down” order, which translates from Hoosier to “Shelter-in-Place.” All non-essential businesses must close, and all non-essential workers must stay home. Clearly, it’s been a few years since our governor has been confined at home with multiple school-aged children all needing to learn subtraction and phonics, as I believe that if he had more current experience, bookstores would be classified at the same level of functional necessity as hardware stores and food delivery services. But here we are, and today we mobilized for our last day as a team in the shop, still taking phone and email and Facebook orders for delivery, and figuring out how to move forward.

My team is amazing, and I will take a moment of your time and this space to talk about what a joy it is to have staff members who are flexible under pressure, fun, and willing to pivot. I would posit that they are the very definition of frontline booksellers throughout our industry – smart, capable problem-solvers who can instantly transport themselves into the reading lives of any customer with enthusiasm. Of course, it’s a total luxury to still be able to pay them – we have managed to sell stuff this month, which is more than many of my colleagues can do, and that reality breaks my heart. We are all hurting as we watch stores lock their doors, and authors cancel tours as publishers delay launches and marketing. I spend my evenings looking for updates and social media posts from bookstores and authors, hoping that everyone is safe and well, and fueling sparks of business survival with personal orders and entreaties to friends and colleagues around the country to place orders online from their local bookstores.

Starting tomorrow, that frontline bookseller in our shop will be just little ole me. In keeping with our state order, we are officially closed, but will still accept phone, website, and social media orders. My team will all work from home fielding customer requests, text and email orders to me at the shop, and then I will pull, gift wrap and package. Afternoons will still be spent in the van, as we’re offering porch delivery (still allowed, according to the staffer on the governor’s business hotline this afternoon) and store receiving and returns will be done at night. Days will be long, but we’re hoping that by maintaining just a skeletal level of service, it will be easier to ramp back up when this crisis begins to pass. Most of all, we all need something to DO. Kids need books and puzzles and games. Parents need help with homeschooling and entertaining preschoolers while their siblings master algebra. Grandparents need contents for care packages to send, and those who care for their grandchildren full-time while parents work need all the support we can offer. As a society, we need stories to read and stories to tell, and words to explain our feelings. We need authors to celebrate and connect with, publishers with promises of launches and sequels, and readalouds to share. We need bookstores and book people more than ever, and we need to find ways to make sure that we all survive.

Let’s hear it for survival.

Be well, my friends. Survive. Take good care, and read good books.

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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.

2 thoughts on “M*A*S*H Unit Bookselling

  1. IDANNA SMITH

    Words fail me, but you have them mastered! thank you for the time it took to think this, write, consider, (have that second glass) and share with us. It really matters to all of us. So thank you a thousand times.

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