Books That Make You Sob

Josie Leavitt -- April 7th, 2014

As booksellers, we read a lot of books. Hundreds a year in all likelihood and there are books that stay with us for their humor and their characters. Some books combine all the great things of a Box of Tissuesmemorable story coupled with deep sadness. Not the kind of sadness that is fleeting, but the kind that flat-out makes you sob. I am the first to admit that I weep easily and often if I’m moved, but there are books that just crush me. There is nothing wrong with crying with books because the emotions are real. I refuse to read books where animals die because that simply slays me.(why people dying isn’t the same is worth looking at, but that’s a blog post for another day).

It’s funny – as a kid I don’t really remember crying at books or stories. When I was sixth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Groupe, read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory and she started sobbing halfway through and never recovered. I cried more at her sadness than what was happening in the story. Teachers weren’t supposed to cry.

Books six and seven of the Harry Potter series had me crying so hard, a friend came outside to the deck where I was reading to offer solace, tissues and plea to not reveal the ending. But let’s face it, if you were a Harry Potter fan, how could you not shed a tear or two, or hundreds at the deaths of Dumbledore and Fred Weasley. And Dobby’s brave sacrifice just about killed me. When I tear up talking about these things with kids they think I’m a little crazy. This brings up the point that the sobbing that adults do at kids’ books often makes up for the tears the kids don’t shed. It’s always struck me as funny that there’s not a grown-up around who can’t stem the tears when reading Charlotte’s Web and yet I’ve not met a kid who has cried at that book. Perhaps it’s more a sense of the sentimental that children do not yet posses, but it’s always struck me as funny.

The Fault in Our Stars found me crying so hard at the ending that my dog, Ink, became so alarmed he jumped on my chest and started to lick at my face. This served two purposes. His jumping up was funny enough that it got me to stop crying for at least a minute while I explained to Elizabeth why I was practically convulsed with tears, and his insistence on licking my face grossed me out enough that I sat up and pulled myself together.

thiefAnd lastly, the book has left many adults stunned: The Book Thief.  I found myself crying throughout that book but devastated at the end, and not just from sadness but from the beauty of the ending. I’ve had many customers tell me that this was the book they read in public and regretted it. When I sell this book and other books that are surprisingly sad I always warn folks not read them in public, or at least have tissues handy and be prepared to have kindly strangers ask if they’re okay.

What are some of the saddest books you’ve read?


To Host or Not to Host?

Josie Leavitt -- April 3rd, 2014

We were recently approached by an author wanting to do an event with us for his Vermont history book. Local authors are lovely and they should be supported, but how to do to that when their book is published by Amazon? The book was published by CreateSpace, which is Amazon’s independent publishing arm. This was the first time I’ve been speechless at the store. I punted bydragon

The more I thought about this the angrier I got. I know the author wasn’t thinking about the larger picture. He was understandably proud of his book and wanted to set up as many events as possible. I just couldn’t say yes right away. I left word with Elizabeth about it and she wondered if we could get the books on consignment from the author. This at least saves us from ordering directly from Amazon. Then I posted on the NECBA listserv to get advice from other booksellers.

Elizabeth’s point is an excellent one and one that was echoed by other booksellers. Getting the books directly from a local author is probably the best thing to do. Several colleagues responded privately that it was galling to be asked by authors to provide the one thing Amazon cannot: a connection with real people. Authors smartly know that events are a great way to reach people. And while Amazon is great at suggesting other titles you might like, they can’t compete with a one-on-one connection borne out of people being in the same room talking about books.

I am still struggling with this. I know Amazon doesn’t really care about my little store, but increasingly, I’m forced to try and compete with them on price on a weekly, if not daily basis. It is easy to characterize Amazon as the big bad monster, but when an actual Vermonter comes in with his book, it’s hard to say no. So, with a small dose of education about why shopping locally is not important, it’s vital, I will likely host this event.

Booksellers and authors: what are your thoughts on events with Amazon-published authors?

Are We Rushing Kids Out of Picture Books?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 1st, 2014

Next week at the ABC Children’s Institute in San Antonio, I’ll be on a panel with fellow booksellers and one librarian, talking about our experiences with adult customers and patrons who seem to be pushing children out of picture books and into chapter books at younger and younger ages.

I don’t want to post spoilers for the panel (I’ll report on the discussion next week, and I think ABA members will be able to watch the video of the panel), but I did want to ask you out there in ShelfTalker land — you parents and teachers and booksellers and librarians — if you are noticing this pressure, and why you think it’s happening. We don’t see this “age compression” in schools; teachers who shop at our bookstore seem to understand the value of both fiction and nonfiction picture books for students of all ages. But parents and grandparents seem to be balking.

Obviously, we need to educate customers about the richness of picture book language, and the huge range of styles and formats and narratives in this literary genre that is perhaps more diverse than any other. We need to remind them that, although the price of a 32-page picture book and a 300-page chapter book might be roughly the same, a child may read the chapter book once, but the picture book 1,000 times, finding more to discover with each reading.

Why do so many parents and grandparents reject even sophisticated picture books as “baby books?” Is it a misunderstanding of what picture books are? It is an outcome of the excesses of our testing-burdened, measurable-achievement-oriented educational system? Or is there a greater loss at work, as well? Has the love of stories become somehow lesser? Do we value only what is perceived as more challenging, and testable? And why is it that the same parents who readily read light, unchallenging books for their own pleasure and comfort don’t allow the same indulgence for their kids? They often want little Johnny or Samantha to chug on up the reading levels — again, a misperception, since so many picture books contain rich vocabulary  and complex sentence structure that are more challenging than many young chapter books.

There is no sinister intent on these parents’ parts, of course; they are most likely simply trying to make sure their children are well prepared, not left behind, in the academic realm. So how do we best show them the sweet and rewarding light of opening their minds to the full range of worthy reading possibilities for their kids? Inquiring minds want to know — and if you share a terrific thought in the comments, I’d be delighted to share it during the panel discussion and credit you!

(Booksellers and librarians: The ABC has prepared a fantastic flyer to use, featuring great picture books to share with older kids, along with tips for talking with parents. Be on the lookout for that next week!)

Vermont’s Youngest Librarians (Ages 11 and 6)

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 31st, 2014

Aidins Library StampWhen I moved from New York City to Vermont, I had a little fantasy of finding a house that had its own library, a light-filled, high-ceilinged room lined with bookcases and windows, and at least two big window seats with cushions. I imagined pitchers of lemonade and an open-door policy for the neighborhood. I wanted to share my big collection of books with families, and I imagined letting people check them out with old-fashioned lined cards tucked in pockets inside each book. While my library fantasy turned into opening a bookstore, I recently met someone who had the same home library fantasy I did and made it come true. And he’s only 11.

I met Aidin at the Flying Pig’s event for Jarrett Krosoczka a couple of months ago. He was waiting in the signing line with his parents and had a bright presence. He was one of those kids who seems remarkably easy in his own skin for such a young person: articulate, relaxed talking with adults and other kids, not shy. The kind of kid who grows up to be a political leader or who invents new ways for remote villages to gather water. At some point in the conversation with his family, it came out that Aidin had started a reading group last summer for his friends — around 15 kids, though not all of them come to the chapter-per-week discussions. One of his favorite book group picks so far was Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. He also turned his personal library of around 200 books into a lending library, and made and hand-delivered library cards for every kid in the neighborhood. His aunt had a special stamp made to mark his book’s endpapers, and Aidan uses that space to write due dates underneath the stamp.

Vermont's youngest librarians, showing off their newest acquisition, Jarrett J. Krosoczka's Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle.

Vermont’s youngest librarians show off one of their newest acquisitions, Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle.

Because Aidin also has other goals he’s working on (he’s an athlete in training with his eye on breaking some records), Aidin’s younger brother, Foster, age 6, has also been pressed into service. According to the two kids, Foster is the library assistant, responsible for “bookkeeping, making sure the books are in good condition, that they come back in time, and that kids know the library policies about due dates and treating books nicely.” Wow. That’s quite a chunk of responsibility for a first grader, but it seems to be going smoothly so far. (Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that an older sibling already so adept at turning thoughts into actions is pretty good at knowing how to delegate. I had an older sibling just like that, and she is now executive director of an amazing nonprofit organization.)

I was so charmed and impressed by Aidin and Foster’s make-it-happen ingenuity. I hope their library continues to grow, that the reading group discovers ever more treasures, and that we get to see what other community-building schemes they cook up over the years.

Should We Lose the Bags?

Josie Leavitt -- March 28th, 2014

It is time to reorder bags. I find myself wondering if we should restock the ubiquitous shopping bag or not. Our bags are recycled kraft paper with soy based ink, so they’re about as eco-friendly as a bag can be, but the minimums per style are often huge. Yes, they are great advertisements for the store, but if no one uses one,I find myself wondering about the viability of keeping them.

It’s funny because I almost always want a bag when I’m shopping. My car tends towards messy and I usually park and walk, so I need to carry my purchases. But, the first place I shop tends to be the bag I use for my whole outing. I can hear folks yelling, “Bring your own bag.” I try to. I have bags literally looped on the front door knob, and even in the car, but I seem to never get myself together enough to actually have them with me when I need them.

Most of my customers are not like me. They come in, often with their Flying Pig tote bags (we give them away as premiums when folks spend $75 or more at one time, which happens a lot) or other reusable bags which they happily fill with books. More than likely, customers say no to a paper bag. I’m sure I’ve brought this up before, but some folks spend more time deciding if they want a bag than they do picking out their books. So, I find myself on the bubble about bags. If 90% of my customers don’t want bags, why do I keep paying for them?

I’m curious about how other stores, and customers, feel about bags. Are they obsolete or still a necessary part of doing business? Should we reorder, or not?

Putting Tintin into Historical Perspective

Josie Leavitt -- March 27th, 2014

Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, is guest blogging today. He is responding to a question posted on the NECBA listserv about censorship in the bookstore, specifically surrounding Tintin titles. I’m grateful to Kenny for sharing this with, as he dissects the issue clearly and cogently.

Bookstores are sometimes asked by customers to remove titles that the customer finds offensive. congo The classic graphic novel series by Herge, Tintin, garnered this unhappy attention recently at a friend’s bookstore. It is an interesting issue. Bookstores are not censors in the strict sense of the word, however to remove a book by virtue of an objection is certainly in that neighborhood. How to address this thorny situation?

Sam Gamgee was of course mistaken in the “notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness.” I believe it to be of the first importance to be kind, but not blind to the embedded biases and prejudices we find in beloved literary works such as Tintin. The integrity of the present is dependent on the integrity of the past. We need to understand the complex dual historical continuum of enduring artistry and base cultural biases which are almost always intertwined. Herge’s Tintin in the Congo, which is not available in an edition for children in the United States at present, has long been cited as an example of unfiltered imperial colonial prejudices. For many of us it is certainly uncomfortable to see these elements mixed in with the familiar voice of a Tintin tale. The impulse to expunge rather than understand reinforces the very blindness it decries however. Recognizing the fallibility and bias of beloved works of literature is a matter for understanding not for removal, the impulse for which is quite as destructive as any embedded historical bias. Reading Tintin in the Congo offers us tintinan opportunity to broaden our understanding and see our own world with clearer eyes.

Herge’s Tintin in general contains many historical biases from his present. Are any of us free from biases that will be painfully apparent to the eyes of future generations? The Marx brothers were progressive and socially conscience. The inclusion of African-American actors and musicians in A Day at the Races was a progressive choice. Is it nonetheless rife with stereotypes that are painful to behold? Of course. Does that mean that children shouldn’t watch it or that the movie should be erased? Of course not. The fallibility inherent in the human condition is something to share and discuss with children, not shield them from, even as the enjoyment of classic works of children’s literature is something to share across generations. And that, my friends, is the discussion that needs to be had with our censorship-minded customers.


Food at the Bookstore

Josie Leavitt -- March 25th, 2014

I get a lot of comments on my lunches, or lack thereof. I’m not sure what happens that makes it so difficult to eat lunch at lunchtime when you work at a bookstore. I think it’s the timing of the book deliveries, or just that things get busy, or could be that I’m just too lazy to eat if it means breaking up my day.

Every store has a natural rhythm to its day. For us, from 10 to noon we get organized and shelve what didn’t get done the day before. Often this can mean being greeted by massive stacks on Tuesdays when the new books can find their rightful home on the shelf and not the back counter. The morning is also a good time to make phone calls. Also, because the mornings tend to be quieter than the afternoon, projects get worked on during this time. Emails get written as follow-ups to author event requests, school visits get organized, etc. The only thing that accompanies me on this is an iced double shot skim latte. I have this every day unless it’s 10 degrees or colder out. This drink is also known as a Josie at Village Wine and Coffee. And every day they draw my name of the cup in ever-increasing fanciful ways that make me smile.

Noontime rolls around and often I’m not hungry yet, so I just keep working. Then something bad happens around 2:30. I start to get a tiny bit cranky, just a bit, but enough that cold callers should be wary. Most of my ad reps know this about me and have smartly tend to come to the store in the morning. Frustration creeps in with small things, like damaged books caused by poor packing. The hassle of dealing with these on an almost daily basis (is it me, or are these happening more and more?) can seem far more irritating when my stomach starts letting me know it’s been far too long between meals. Around this time, I start foraging the back room for anything that constitutes food. We usually have nuts tucked around and in a pinch, they’ll do. I’ll sneak a peek in the fridge in the vain hope that the weak iced coffee I never drank has mysteriously thrown itself away. Sometimes, there’s cheese. Sometimes, that cheese is too nasty to even contemplate eating, let alone throw out (why we can leave office fridges in such states is beyond me, but I’m guilty of the closing the door and just hoping someone else throws it all away.)

Then around 3:30 or 4:00 the serious need for food has set in. I know now that if I don’t actually eat something with protein, bad things will happen. I remember a joke from Paul Reiser who said that he got a headache because he was too stupid to eat. I do this weekly. Finally, I sit down long enough to realize that I’m desperate for real food. Since the cafe next door closed, I now have to get in the car to get something. But because it’s so late, I get something small because dinner seems like it’s just around the corner. Often, I will find one or more of my staff hunched over a sandwich at three in the afternoon. They are usually standing at the desk or the counter, eating while they keep working. I’m sure this is against OSHA, but more booksellers don’t like to stop.

Sure, I could pack a lunch. But I just don’t cook any more. It’s time-consuming and annoying to cook for one, so I just don’t it much. Consequently, I have very little I can pack for a lunch. If I bring a yogurt in it’s a good day. Customers will sometimes bring food over. One customer owns a diner and every time she comes in I tease her about not bringing me a grilled cheese with tomato and bacon. Twice now, she’s brought me one and that has just made my day.

Booksellers, I’m very curious: how do you feed yourselves during the day?


Chats at the Bookstore

Josie Leavitt -- March 24th, 2014

The beauty of owning an independent bookstore is the depth of conversation I can have with customers. The level of comfort customers have with us, and us with them, allows for some lovely chats, often about serious things, that can had while discussing books. People often say that working retail means not knowing how your day is actually going to unfold because of who comes in the store and what they might need. And this is my favorite part of my job.

Below is a smattering of the conversations I had with customers last week.

- One woman came for the first time in many months and as we were getting caught up on her divorce and  she revealed a scary accident that happened at home. She wasn’t going to go to the doctor to follow up on why she passed out for no reason. I strongly encouraged her to keep that appointment because I was worried about her heart. She hugged me and thanked me for encouraging her without totally terrifying her about her health. She called to say she has an appointment with a cardiologist this week and will keep me posted.

- Another woman, Isabelle, who comes in every Monday, seemed a little low and I just gave her a spontaneous hug. I’ve never hugged this customer before. She’s the most active 85-year-old I’ve met with more energy than most 20-year-olds but she just seemed like she needed a hug. She pulled back from the hug with damp eyes, and I asked if she was okay and she said that her sister had died the previous week. She then told me all about her and their lives. It was a wonderful talk that was full of laughter and more than a few tears.

- Lauren, who comes in three times a week, has been filling us in on her quest to get a puppy that her children won’t be allergic to. She showed us pictures of the litter of puppies that her dog is likely to come from. We all weighed in on the cutest one and she will keep us posted. She also promised to bring the puppy in for weekly socialization.

- A boy, probably 10 or so, came in and as we talking about fantasy books he just offered, “I’m reading everything because I want to get in a good college.” I was taken aback, because 10 seems a little young to be thinking about college, and he could see the surprise on my face. He went on to explain that he knew he’d have to get a scholarship because college is so expensive. We talked about his long-term goals and how he’s saving all of his allowance to help pay for school. I offered him a job when he’s 14.

I have often said owning a bookstore is a lot like having a bar without the alcohol. People feel comfortable sharing. I think partly is because we’ve been around so long, we know folks and there’s a level of comfort with us. We’ve seen families grow, we’ve lost far too many people, and we get to share in the happiness. And that makes every day a chance at joy, and that is a wonderful way to work.

Welcoming Young Readers

Josie Leavitt -- March 20th, 2014

There are myriad ways that booksellers connect with customers. Most often we talk about books and why we like them or why we think they might like them. But when little kids come to the store chatting about books, that doesn’t really work. So, how to connect to the little ones? Well, by playing with them.

The fun of a bookstore with an enormous children’s section is the kids. They start shopping at the store soon after birth. We are often baby’s first outing and that sets the tone that bookstore is a fun place to spend some time. The beauty of a children’s store is that all of us on staff love kids. Even my high school senior staffer, David, has a genuine love of small kids, and went so far as to remark his first month working at the store, “Babies are fun.” Babies sense who automatically likes them just because they’re them, and parents pick up on this. If their child is welcomed and greeted at the bookstore, parents tend to think fondly of the store.

Whenever a baby comes in we all, in a polite and quiet way, go over and visit. Each of us tries in turn to get a smile or even a chuckle from the little one. This distraction is two-fold: one, it’s just fun for us, but secondarily, it allows the parent(s) a little time to relax in the store and browse. All of us are equally happy holding a baby while a parent finishes her transaction. I’ve been known to just hold someone’s baby for 10 minutes while she tries to get her book shopping done without distractions. This is not only great fun for me, but parents like it and not all stores welcome tiny people. Babies cry, sometimes incredibly loudly. Rather than acting like our eardrums are puncturing, we will go over and see if we can help get a smile out of the tot or just commiserate with the parents.

When the little ones are more mobile we  play peek-a-boo and generally have fun with them. Toddlers love to come explore the back room and behind the counter. We’ll often turn around to find a tiny tot standing in the doorway of the back office just taking it all in. We pack a lot in there and truthfully, most kids have never seen such a busy room. There are kids who come to the store and know that we’ll always play with them and that’s not only fun, it’s good customer service.

We don’t clean up around kids, either. The way to make parents come back, time and again, to the store is by making their kids feel welcome. I have a game I play that Elizabeth taught me. Sometimes, the checkout process can be fraught because the kids have to have give up the books to get them scanned. On a side note, we’ll often teach the kids how to use the scanner and that definitely takes the sadness out of being rung up. Elizabeth’s game is very simple, but really fun. You guess how old the child is, but you guess outrageous numbers. You look right at the child and say, “How old are you?” Sometimes, they’ll answer, but if they don’t Elizabeth tries this fun twist, “Are you 17?” The child will shake his head no and smile. Then you change the number higher and then lower and then higher again. It’s silly and it’s fun. And then before you know it, the books are rung up, paid for and ready for little hands to hold. What we’ve done is now made the bookstore fun for the kids and as they get older this will only grow as they discover the joy of books.

And there’s nothing better than having a little kid ask a parent for a trip to the bookstore.

When Books Become Movies

Josie Leavitt -- March 18th, 2014

I can’t help but be curious how the Divergent movie is going be when it opens next week. I have not seen reviews yet, but judging from the increase in book sales last week, I have say people are getting excited. As a bookseller I love that the movie’s release is driving folks to the store; as a fan of the book, I can’t help but be nervous about the book’s adaptation.

When books get made into movies things change. Sometimes for the better, though this is rare. In fact the only time I think a movie has been better than the book was Ordinary People. Other than that, I usually leave the theater angry that so much has been left out or outright changed. There is a condensing of the book that has to happen, but often the parts that are left out were the ones that added richness to novel. Adapting a few hundred pages of a book into a something Hollywood thinks will work as a movie cannot be easy.

Customers are still mad at the changes in the Hunger Games films, although I thought they did a really good job of capturing the essence of the book.  Same thing happened with Harry Potter, although the general consensus is those two franchises did a really good job of keeping the book’s integrity and not jettisoning the quiet moments that made the books so good. One thing that I’m really enjoying is the rush to read, or reread books “before the movie ruins it,” as several customers have said.

So, readers, I’m curious: what are some of your favorite movie adaptations, and which ones are your worst?