The Day of Education

Josie Leavitt -- May 24th, 2011

Yesterday was BEA’s Day of Education and what a lovely day it was. I always forget how early booksellers are up and about. I’ll confess that I was late to the Small to Mid-Sized Bookseller Roundtable. Consequently, I missed the gathering of ideas as well as finding a chair.

I didn’t mind standing for an hour and a half, as the conversation was lively and led quite well by Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Ct. I walked into a discussion of the Espresso Machine. Not the kind that makes coffee, but rather the one that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and prints books on demand, in the store. I believe, from what I ascertained, this machine is a pipe dream for all but the largest most profitable stores, so Annie moved the discussion along.

Several topics from this Roundtable were also seen in the Children’s Roundtable. Chief among them: ways to manage technology, i.e., how to tweet at work and still get work done, setting up Facebook pages, updating websites, etc. Several booksellers commented that the best help they’ve had with this is hiring interns from local colleges to help with that. I will say, one bookseller (under 30, I might add) said that no one over 30 does any social media at her store. I felt simultaneously old and proud as I tweet and do Facebook.

No one does newspaper ads anymore. Lost of folks are trying out Groupon or Social Living coupons instead. This is a new marketing arena that isn’t even available to all areas. It was very interesting to hear the mixed results stores have seen with it. Several stores love using it (basically, people pay $10 for $20 off, the store then splits the $10 with the coupon provider) because it brings new customers to the store, but no one know yet if these will be repeat customers. Generally, the mood with these stores was upbeat.

My next session was Selling Non-Books in the Children’s Department. Okay, this was the session about toys. Something funny when booksellers are asked to talk about toys. They get quiet. It’s like no one wants to give away a hot toy or supplier. Someone asked about how to get started with Lego and the panelist (who had just said how well she does with them) wouldn’t answer the question, but said, “See me after.” Well, we all know Lego is tough to get into, but wouldn’t that have been great info to share with the booksellers in the room? Maybe there are just so many hoops to jump through for Lego that it would have taken too long. And when the panel asked about what we were all selling in our stores, not one person raised a hand to share.

What I took from the toy panel wasn’t so much hot new toys, but how to sell them better.  Organizing game nights is something we’ve never done, but it seems like a great idea, and the toy company will help with product and a Game Guru to make the evening fun. We also walked away with a great formula for knowing the right way to mark a toy that comes with a freight charge: divide the shipping by the number of pieces in the shipment, then double the cost (toys don’t come with a standard discount, but are purchased at cost). Very handy.

The day was capped off in a hilarious way by Margaret Atwood. I have to confess, I’m a Margaret Atwood FAN. I’ve read all of her books and was thrilled that she would be speaking to us. I had no idea what she’d be like. She’s funny, not just a little funny, but side-splittingly funny. Her timing is impeccable and she pauses, just like a stand-up comic would, to make the laugh larger. The standing room only crowd was rolling with laughter for the first 10 minutes when she was speaking about her previous BEA experiences.

Her first ABA show (that’s how long ago it was) she was asked to speak for 12 minutes. She received a tape in the mail with side A labeled “Well Received Speeches” and side B labeled, “Not Well Received Speeches.” She was joyful in her presentation meant to soothe anxious booksellers about the current state of the book. Her speech had three parts.

The first was called The Book, Still Afloat. This was accompanied by a hand-drawn cartoon on an old computer scanning card. The point of this section was to remind us that obsolete things can appear to have value and new uses. The second part was entitled Transmission Devices. This featured a drawing of two people using two tin cans and string to speak. Here the most change is occurring. The string in the publishing world includes everyone who deals with the book after it’s written, and that string just gets longer all the time. In the 1960s she hand-wrote, typed, typeset and bound 150 copies of her own book that she then took to bookstores and asked if they would sell it for 50 cents in the magazine section. All the stores said yes. (That was the moment I think all booksellers thought: have I turned away a potential Margaret Atwood? Some great writer who just wants to make books and have me sell them for her?)

The final section was aptly called What’s in the Future? She said, quite astutely, that you can say anything in the future, as long as you don’t put an actual date on it, you can never be wrong. Then she got in a very funny dig at Reverend Camping because the world didn’t end on May 21st as he so fervently predicted. Amid all the laughter, and it was fairly continuous the whole speech, she said that bookstores aren’t here to make money. We’re here to provide a gateway to new books; to provide serendipity; to provide a filter for the millions of books that are available to customers, and lastly to handsell to customer because we read enough and know our customers well enough to make informed guesses about what they might like.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

2 thoughts on “The Day of Education

  1. Christine

    Really? Because if you don’t make money, you don’t stay in business as many, many former bookstores already know and then your would-be readers don’t have an outlet for those not-so-commercial titles and the beloved handsellers. You have to balance art and commerce unless you’re independently wealthy and that bookstore is your personal indulgence.

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