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From 6 Feet Away I’ve Never Felt Closer

Kenny Brechner -- March 26th, 2020

I’ve been wanting to post for days but to have a bookstore is to have a second persona and when that persona is threatened with extinction every ounce of productive energy is directed toward its survival. It didn’t help that anything I drafted in my mind to post about had become irrelevant within 24 hours. What I thought I’d do is just share the DDG state of the union.

We are still open for curbside, phone orders and online sales, and hanging in there with as much aplomb as being bone tired allows. Given that my four alarm to do list keeps growing and not shrinking it may be of interest to look at the stuff I’m actually making time to do other than processing orders.

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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.

Balm to the Soul

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 24th, 2020

Dear friends,

I don’t really want to write about bookstore operations this morning. The bare bones of it are that (1) we are down to one staffer per day to maximize health and safety, and (2) the store is nearly as busy with phone and email orders as Christmas, but without the festivity that comes with lively chats with customers and children in the store. Every bookseller I know, across the country, who is still operating to some degree is exhausted and overwhelmed with decision fatigue. That is the downer aspect of this. The upside? No shoplifting?

What I want to write about is how reading and writing are key to getting through this experience.

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Tough Choices in Changing Times

Meghan Dietsche Goel -- March 20th, 2020

Echoing footsteps, shouted conversations across empty aisles, endless ringing of phones, rhythmic pumps of sanitizer dispensers, and the word “puzzle” seemingly wafting from every direction at once. These are the sounds of a once-bustling bookstore in the aftermath of a shift to mail and curbside delivery.

Like many stores around the country (and several of my ShelfTalker colleagues), BookPeople made the unprecedented and very difficult decision to close our doors to the public on Monday for the safety of our customers and staff. Implementing strict social distancing and sanitization procedures within the store, we quickly pivoted to a new curbside delivery service paired with free mail order fulfillment. Funneled through a staging table at the front of the store (stocked with sanitizing wipes, gloves, and hand sanitizer), orders for curbside delivery called in to our booksellers or ordered online have been stacking up all week. Upon each customer’s arrival, runners have then been donning their gloves and whisking pre-paid orders out to the waiting cars.

The outpouring of support from our customers, thanking us for our service and expressing their gratitude and appreciation for the store in general has been overwhelming and much appreciated. Molly, one of our seasoned adult booksellers, had a great moment this week when a regular customer recognized her voice over the phone and cheered because she loves Molly’s recommendations when she comes in. It’s wonderful to feel such kindness and goodwill from our community, which is really what makes it feel worth it to try to stay open in such uncertain times. 

On the kids’ side of things, there’s no surprise that it’s been all puzzles, coloring books, Klutz kits, and workbooks all the time. By the way, for those booksellers out there looking to recommend some great puzzles for kids, I personally recommend MudPuppy’s Pet Portraits 500 Piece Puzzle. The bold design, utilizing frames throughout, helps kids who might not have as much experience with larger challenges. And for those who want to level up a bit, MudPuppy’s Mammals with Mohawks makes a terrific second challenge. I even brought home one of our mini eraser Klutz kits to test out with my own kids this week, to delightful results. For a more surprising trend on the adult side of things, Rachel (one of our online order gurus) reported today that the book she’s personally received the largest number of requests for this week has been War and Peace. I guess people feel like now’s the perfect time to tackle hefty, long-ignored reading goals?

Salvador preps books for curbside pick-up.

In an alternate universe, this experiment might almost feel fun. We’re firing on all cylinders right now: filming book recommendations for instagram, pulling together our best content for Easter baskets that parents haven’t had a chance to fill, curating favorite new releases, working with local authors on special promotions, and running around like it’s the holiday season redux (just with lower sale volume). But there’s obviously nothing fun about the situation we find ourselves in right now, and we also know that this is just the beginning for us and for our community. The only thing we can know for certain is that everyone is going to need books more than ever over the next few weeks for all the things people have always needed books for: for inspiration, comfort, distraction, knowledge, and for navigating new challenges—like occupying restless kids whose worlds have suddenly, scarily closed in around them. Our mission for the foreseeable future is to be a resource for Austinites of all ages as we collectively figure out how to navigate this new normal, however we can. As one bookseller told me today, “It might sound cheesy, but I’m proud we’re doing this to help people out in this circumstance.”

So what’s next? Well, right now we’re taking this day-by-day. The truth is that like every retailer, every community, every family around the world, BookPeople is monitoring what makes the most sense in real time right now. We’ve known all week, as the local and national updates rolled in, that each new day might be the day that the risks of sending staff out to peoples’ cars outweighed the rewards.

And with community spread announced in Austin, today turned out to be the day. So, as of right now, BookPeople is cutting off curbside and moving to mail order only. We’ve had a lot of business coming in through our website, so hopefully that will keep us busy in the interim. What comes after that, and when, we’ll figure out as we go. But, whatever happens tomorrow, this last week has truly made me feel more palpably than ever that we are part of a community bound by books—as readers, as parents, as educators, and as booksellers—and that’s not something to ever take for granted. It’s something that really matters.

We can’t wait until we can open our doors and welcome readers in again. Until then, we’ll see you all online!

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).

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Figuring Out the Best New Normal

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 17th, 2020
A Blue Q dish towel we carry that has new meaning these days.

We are redefining our lives day by day. When the first cases of the virus hit and began to spread, and some services started to become unavailable, all of us indie booksellers were ready to saddle up and stay open for the public. Our store was slamming busy with customers coming in for stacks of books to keep themselves and their families entertained and educated for the next couple of weeks (the then-current estimate) of social isolation.

In fact, we were way more busy than the usual March slow time of year, when New England booksellers anxiously watch their cash flow. We were alight with purpose and liveliness, and we took the now-normal steps to sanitize and constantly clean our own surfaces and cheerfully but firmly began to require customers on entering the store to wash their hands in our restroom.

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Playing in Las Vegas

Cynthia Compton -- March 12th, 2020

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” 
― Alan Watts

I am spending a good part of this week in a conference room in a Las Vegas hotel, with hundreds of toys and a small team of fellow storekeepers, with a mission to achieve before we are released: to select the finalists for the ASTRA Best Toys for Kids ballot in 2020. Cartons, piles and tote bags full of nominees of toys and games in 12 different categories have been collected from toy retailers, manufacturers, and sales reps over the last two months, and now we are charged with winnowing this massive list (which actually contains almost 1,000 toys and games, but product size, shipping costs and domestic availability mean that some items are still reviewed online, and some were previewed at Toy Fair but not shipped west for our meeting) down to the top choices. The ASTRA retail membership will then cast their votes from these selections, and winners will be revealed at the annual ASTRA Marketplace and Academy in June.

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Reasons to Read ‘The Woman on the Windowsill’

Kenny Brechner -- March 11th, 2020

The Woman on the Windowsill is that rarest of crossovers, an academic history book with broad and immersive appeal to a wide range of general readers. Lovers of history, mystery, thrillers, women’s issues, gender politics, true crime, or young adult, will all leave its pages richer than they entered them. It is centered on a set of real-life lurid plot elements which any self respecting intellectual thriller or true crime book would be ravenously eager to possess. A series of corpse mutilated body parts were anonymously put on public display. First, a pair of women’s breasts set on a lily pad and then left on the windowsill of a well to do citizen’s home in full public view. Days later the breasts ere followed by a pair of hands, then a pair of ears, and finally a pair of buttocks.

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A New Strategy for Digital ARCs?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 10th, 2020
Cartoon © 2010 Jon Huckeby

Ah, booksellers. It seems that no matter how much we dive into delicious stacks of advance reading copies, we are always running to catch up with all of the books we need to read, have meant to read, yearn to read. Access to digital ARCs is extremely helpful, via Edelweiss and NetGalley, and lately I’ve been wondering: is it the smartest strategy for publishers to remove them from these sources the moment a book hits bookstore shelves?

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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.

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