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Attention Publishers: Please Stop Doing This

Josie Leavitt -- December 2nd, 2014

I suspect this is not the first time I’ve complained about this, but I have to do it again this year. As I ready my store for the onslaught of the holidays, the back room is full to the brim with overstock, toys, and a myriad of things awaiting the flurry of restocking needs. In short, my mind is solidly on the holidays and being ready to have as many books and stocking stuffers as folks need. My mind is not on event grids or summer 2015 galleys. Yet, I find that every day I’m inundated with another box, or two, IMG_4111or even three, of summer F&Gs and galleys. One box even said: Open Immediately! and it was for a book that was coming out next July. The photo on the right was just what came in Friday: all of it is for Summer 2015.

Maybe I manage time differently than other booksellers, or perhaps it’s the nature of a small store without a dedicated buyer, but I’m finding a little oppressive to get things in from UPS these days because so much of it is for things that are six months away. Every day these boxes arrive and every day these boxes get shunted to a corner until I have time to deal with them. You know when I have time to deal with? January. Why can the publishing world not realize this and send these things after the holidays?

I am making a plea right now for all publishing companies: send these things just one month later. That’s all I want, one month where I don’t have to get things that are irrelevant to my daily existence as a bookseller. Want me to order more books for the summer 2015 season? Then send me things later. I would challenge anyone in publishing to work in a bookstore for a week during the final push of the fourth quarter, and then they could see how getting these things in late November or December is actually counterproductive to their cause.

And the event grids that are due at the end of this week are insane. There’s a grid that’s due tomorrow and another one on Friday. Filling out a grid actually takes time, thought, and a level of planning that I just don’t have at the moment. I know everyone has their own scheduling needs to meet, but surely, the publicity departments can wait until January 3rd to get a grid. By forcing a tight deadline on something when most stores are too busy during the workday to deal with it thoughtfully seems insane and ultimately hurtful to all involved.

So, publishers, please reconsider the timing on these things for next year and send us grid requests and boxes of galleys when they’ll be received with open arms and joy and not with a shaking head.

Hatbox Holiday

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 1st, 2014

hatbox 4

The weekend after Thanksgiving is bustling and festive at the bookstore. We can feel the holiday shift into high gear in earnest, people coming in with long lists, poring over our newsletter searching for the perfect book for each of their seven grandchildren, spending 20 minutes at the spinner that holds quirky stocking stuffers. We trade book and gift recommendations and funny Thanksgiving anecdotes with our customers.

>On Friday, one of our favorite longtime regulars, Gail F., came in to get a couple of books for her grandchildren. I couldn’t resist showing her some new handsome wooden postcards that had just come in. One at the top of the rack caught her eye, a card with two crossed keys and the legend, “Home is where the story begins.” She reached up. ”That one,” she said, tapping the card. “I should send that to my grandson in California.” She tapped it again softly. “That’s perfect for our family.”

home is where the story begins postcard

“You see,” she said, “we have a tradition in our family that started years ago. We gave each of our children a hatbox, and we each had one, too. Over the years, all of the little things —notes, special items, written memories we jotted down, funny things that were said — went into the hatboxes. Our children are grown now, of course, and every year, the evening after Thanksgiving —THIS evening, in fact — we gather in the living room with the hatboxes in front of us. The rule is, you can’t open your own hatbox. Then we go around the circle and take turns pulling out something to share. The little ones are fascinated by their parents’ hatboxes.” She paused, got a funny gleam in her eye, clearly remembering some past hatbox incident, and added, “The other rule is, if you pull out something REALLY personal, you don’t share it.”

I wondered what kinds of personal tidbits would be both innocent enough to qualify for inclusion in the hatbox and yet be off limits for sharing. Love letters from old boyfriends, perhaps? Failing report cards? (The latter is unlikely; Gail’s children are a true passel of achievers.) It was a question for another day, however, because I didn’t want to interrupt the tale. Gail is a wonderful storyteller — her face is so lively, bright and expressive, and her voice is hushed and thoughtful and full of humor and wisdom.

At this point in her story, she lowered her voice further and grew serious. ”Last year, my son pulled out his German grandfather’s journal for the first time. He found a list of family members’ names.” Gail and her family are Jewish. Her finger traced down an imaginary list. “The name, and then the word ‘Gone.’ Name. Gone. Name. Gone. Name. Gone. Gone, all of them, in the war.”

We stood there quietly for a moment, absorbing and acknowledging the momentousness of that loss. She went on, “It led to a big discussion with the grandchildren that went on for a long time. We weren’t expecting it, that evening. But it was good. You just never know where the hatbox will take you.”

Of all the family traditions we get to hear about on the floor of the bookstore, this was one of the loveliest and most creative. I asked Gail if I could share it with ShelfTalker readers, and she graciously agreed. Later that afternoon, I shared the bare bones of the tradition giving each child a hatbox for those special memory items – with another customer, who exclaimed, “That is SO MUCH BETTER than a scrapbook! It’s like a surprise barrel where you can keep all of those refrigerator drawings and Mother’s Day breakfast tray notes that you might not put in a scrapbook.” 

Gail did say that the hatboxes are finally starting to get full. Might be time to get hatboxes for the next generation, now, and time to find out where those hatboxes will take them.

Yes, We Want to Use That Display But Where Can We Possibly Put It?

Kenny Brechner -- November 26th, 2014

Thanksgiving, as you may have noticed, is tomorrow. One thing I’m thankful for is having some great staffers working for me. Getting ready for the holiday season presents a world of challenges for us but which of them, I am sure you are wondering, constitutes the biggest challenge for our staff.  Well, the single hardest thing for them is working out how to absorb all the new items we receive during  October and November, and still display them in a dynamic way. We have limited space and books and sidelines simply do not sell if they are not displayed to the nines. As my assistant manager Karin Schott put it, “One requirement of being a bookseller is to have some spatial reasoning ability.”

Home sweet home for the new mixed Wimpy Kid display,

Home sweet home for the new mixed Wimpy Kid display,

Most situations yield to a quick Darwinian solution; however, many times it is clear that something serious has to give, and that a creative solution is called for. We do not despair. I am against that. Instead we hold a strategic, mobile conference, marching in a group around the store, floating ideas and taking measurements.

Here is an example of a recent dilemma. With the release of the latest Wimpy Kid book I ordered a mixed backlist display, not necessarily expecting to use the physical display itself. When we put it together, however, everyone liked it and wanted to use it. Personally, I felt that it was worth the effort to try to find a place for it because of its ability to attractively display backlist titles over time, and because the three-dimensional birds on it were so great. Nonetheless it was quite wide and tall. There was simply no place to put it out in the open floor without creating visual problems, foot traffic issues, and preventing UPS and Fed Ex hand trucks from getting into the receiving area. It was going to have to go against a wall somewhere. Things looked bleak but we refused to believe that there wasn’t a display unit or table somewhere along the wall that couldn’t be moved someplace else within the store.

The black display unit, a refugee from the children's alcove, cozies up to its new neighbors at the front left hand wall of the store.

The black display unit, a refugee from the children’s alcove, cozies up to its new neighbors at the front left hand wall of the store.

After a good deal of onsite discussion and measurements a plan was reached. A low rectangular table near the door could be placed in a space next to the Wind-Up display near the cash register, while the rolling cart there would fit behind the window up front. In the space where the table was a black wooden display unit from our children’s alcove would be moved and the Wimpy Kid unit would go into the children’s alcove against the wall.

Not only did it work, but all the impacted displays were the better for it. Just one more staff triumph in a long line of them running up to the holidays this year. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, all of you ShelfTalker readers!

Should Adults Read YA?

Josie Leavitt -- November 24th, 2014

I love reading young adult literature. There are lots of other adults who feel the same way, but there are also plenty of adults who feel that reading YA is somehow not worthy of their time. I have a new friend who revealed that she doesn’t think adults should really be reading books written for teenagers. We have had several heated discussions about this. These I Read YAdiscussion always seem to end with her saying there’s a reason the last young adult book she read was when she was a young adult. There is also the subtle implication that the writing for young adults isn’t up to par with that for adults. I went ballistic when she dropped that bomb.

Lobbying for a beloved book genre serves only to crystallize how much I love it. There is so much richness to YA literature: great characters testing the waters of increased independence and the pitfalls that come along the way, fun topics, plots that don’t get bogged down in extraneous tangents that seem to befall so many adult novels, and there is something wonderful about reading about young people who are finding their voice and making grand mistakes along the way. My friend’s answer to all of this is counter with that she’s reading her way through the Penguin Classics series and that feels more significant to her. I countered with reading long-dead white men might not be as enlightening as she thinks.

Her insistence that some would consider Jack London a young adult writer and the last one she read, fell on deaf ears. I was practically hopping up and down throwing suggestions at her: Laurie Halse Anderson, M.T. Anderson, John Green, Ellen Wittlinger, etc. There is such a range just of realistic fiction, not to mention great fantasy and speculative fiction for teens, that the list of authors to choose from is staggering. I’m getting her The Book Thief because that’s one of my all-time favorites and has sold very well to adults who would never think of themselves as readers of young adult literature.

So, dear readers, what one book would you recommend to a very oppositional adult reader who is convinced that young adult novels are only for kids?

A Wimpy Kid Extravaganza!

Josie Leavitt -- November 21st, 2014

As Jason Wells said on Wednesday, “I’ve been trying to get Jeff Kinney to Vermont for seven years.” Wednesday, the Abrams publicist delivered for the Flying Pig and a several other bookstores in northern New England. That we were thrilled is an understatement. That the more than 500 kids from Williston Central School were thrilled is beyond an understatement. There was much coordination that happened to make this event so much fun. First off, a new Wimpy Kid book, The Long Haul, came out just two short weeks before the event, so everyone was thrilled at the timing. Coordinating an author visit to a school that involves the whole school is no easy feat. We worked very closely with Karen, the librarian at WCS, who was on board from the first email inquiry about Jeff’s visit two months beforehand.tourbus

Every school visit needs a cooperating angel within the school. Without such a person, there is a lot of frustration and feeling like you’re hitting a brick wall. Once, I tried in vain, to get a Newbery-winning author in a school years ago and was met, not with exuberance, but with a stonewall: “We see him as intrusion, not enrichment.” Not much to say to that except thanks for being honest, if misguided, and we went to another school. Karen was a true champion of this event. She worked hard with the maintenance crew to get the gym set up for 500 kids. It was adorable — so many classes sat on big blue mats to protect the floor. Book order form were sent home to all the kids and there were no details that weren’t attended to right away.

The other thing a school visit needs, especially when the visiting author is as famous as Jeff Kinney, is someone from the publisher who spells out everything that he will need. Jason left no stone unturned as he laid out what Jeff’s requirement were, from microphone, podium, computer and screen, to how big the parking lot was (the Wimpy Kid tour bus is not a mini van). Abrams made it very clear that Jeff would do an-hour long presentation that allowed for 15 minutes of questions. gymfloorHe would autograph books ahead of time and not personalize them. This made it very smooth. All the kids who wanted a signed book got it delivered to the school the day of the release so there was no book business during the event. This made for a very easy event for all involved. I have to say, out of all the school events we’ve done, I’ve never seen such well-behaved kids in my life. They were quiet in their total excitement, I guess some were in awe, one little boy was practically shaking from joy at being in the same room as the creator of Greg Heffley.

Jeff is a real pro at speaking. His talk is engaging, very funny and supported by a great Power Point that’s full of humor. The kids were all just leaning in and listening. I always wish I could follow kids after an author visit to see who was really moved and who started writing because of the visit. Jeff’s call to action was quite simply: don’t wait till you grow up to start becoming an expert, start now. I could many heads nodding along with him. The kids left the gym energized and buzzing.

I snuck onto the tour bus, because, well, I just had to. Please note, that even when I’m relaxing, there’s always a good PW to read!  meinbusWhen I returned to the bookstore, I was thrilled at how smoothly the event had gone. Imagine my surprise to find a beautiful bouquet of flowers on the counter from the school thanking us for Jeff’s visit!smallflowers

The Stocking Stuffer of the Year Awards

Kenny Brechner -- November 20th, 2014

It is that time of the year. The time to announce the Sixth Annual DDG Stocking Stuffer of the Year Awards. Sorting through the many worthy contenders gracing our fun laden shelves was no easy labor, and we are very grateful to the panel of previous winners who served as this year’s judges. To help present the official announcement of this year’s awards I am joined today by the head of the panel of judges,  2013 Award Winner in the Most Shockingly Good Value category, The Mini Wooden Catch Ball.

This Years Chief Judge, 2013 Award Winner, The Mini Wooden Catch Ball

Kenny: First of all many thanks to you and the other panellists for all your hard work.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: It certainly was hard to sort through so many outstanding entrants, to have the fate of so many worthy toys in our hands, to be the deliverer of laurels but also the extinguisher of dreams. I had hoped that this weighty responsibility would have induced my fellow panelists, as ex-winners, to realize how important maintaining the integrity of the process was. I hoped in vain.

Kenny: Hmm. Well, we booksellers, working as testers under your direction, were all impressed by your exacting standards. Yours in particular.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball Yes, well, the whole thing, life I mean, is very straightforward to me. Either the ball lands in the cup or it does not.

Kenny: Gotcha. Now, before we announce the winners, I do have one question for you. Athletes often talk about whether one of their colleagues is a good teammate or not. Is that something you took  into account, how well the nominated toys behave towards the other sidelines during your hours of leisure when the store is closed?

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: Oh, absolutely. After all there is no better indicator of how a toy will conduct himself with children than how he comports himself with his fellow toys.

Testers Kenny and Karin, under the stern direction of the judges, launch the stick’n chick’ns at The Snowman target. (Snowman Target courtesy of PRH)

Kenny: Great point. Okay on to this year’s winners. I know that there were three categories this year, Most Shockingly Good Value, Best New Science Toy, and Overall Champion.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: The most hotly contested prize involved the Most Shockingly Good Value, for which we had two total standouts, The Flick’n Chick’n and The Cyclone Flyer.

Kenny:That must have been tough, they are both only $1.99 and are both sensational fun.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: True, but the Cyclone’s flying habits were found to be a bit more stable and dependable, and the cheekiness of the chickens did not commend itself to all the judges. It was a close run thing indeed, but The Cyclone Flyer took home the prize.

Kenny: I see. And what about our next category, the Best New Science Toy?

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: Well we had three very strong finalists, The Inflatable Political Globe, The Stunt Brothers Parachutists, and The Mirascope. This was one of the most difficult deliberations I’ve ever experienced, because The Stunt Brothers not only taught me a lot about gravity, but also a great deal about friendship and loyalty. Nonetheless, the Mirascope’s ability to cast an illusory doppelganger of small objects proved so amazing that all other considerations were washed away, at least in the eyes of my fellow judges, that is.

Light Up Rail Twirler: Oh stow it already, cup.

Kenny: Umm. I see. Well then, that brings us to the 2014 Stocking Stuffer of the Year Overall Champion.

The 2014 Overall Champion contenders relax together after the competition.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: Ah. it grieves me to report that it came down to three finalists, The Jackrabbit Woodland Animals Mini Rollers, the Ogo Bild Bits and the Zmorph windups. We all loved the Ogo Bild Bits, they are a marvelous and personable construction toy, but for the judges it came down in the end to just two. As adorable as the Woodland Rolling Animals are, as warm and generous is their nature, the unmistakable and astonishing wind-up transformation from car to dinosaur seduced the other judges away from their moral compasses. The Zmorphs carried home the top honor.

Kenny: I’m, uh, sorry to hear that sheer awesomeness triumphed over the quieter bonds offered by adorable rolling woodland creatures. Still, the Woodland Creatures, the Ogo Bild Bits, and the Zmorphs still seem to be fast friends! Well, thank you once again for all your time and effort.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: It was our pleasure. We’re all looking forward to sharing the holiday season with your customers both in the store and under the tree!

How the Sausage Gets Made

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 18th, 2014

IMG_2728I’ve just come back from the fabulous Rochester Children’s Book Festival, about which I have written before (here) as the gold standard of children’s author festivals. This year, more than 3,000 people attended this indoor celebration of books. There was not a moment when people were not filling the aisles, browsing our tables, participating in presentations, making crafts, and listening to read-alouds. The RCBF is a blast! As always, it ran like clockwork thanks to the amazing team of Elizabeth Falk, Kathy Blasi, Barbara Underhill and her team of volunteers, the brilliant Vivian Vande Velde who dreamed up the festival in the first place, and so many others who make it happen. Lift Bridge Books creates a pop-up store in the festival space and brings all of the 50 visiting authors’ books — no easy feat, I can tell you. And during the two weeks before the Festival, the “Festival-To-Go” brings authors into inner-city schools in Rochester for free, allowing hundreds, maybe thousands, of children unusual access to “real live authors and illustrators,” all talented, dedicated people passionate about books, reading, writing, and kids.

In addition to the glow of seeing SO MANY enthralled, excited children at the festival — from the three-year-old rapt over a copy of Library Lion to the 10-year-olds excitedly clutching signed copies of new books from favorite authors — there is the great joy of spending a little time with author and artist pals I might only see once or twice a year. The hilarity is pretty much non-stop, and lasts from dinner the night before the festival to drinks after the dinner the night it closes. And Readers, sometimes this means we are privy to the secrets of Great Writing.

Authors Paul Acampora and Erin Dionne let me into their private writing worlds, and are allowing me to share this video snippet with you. It came about because Paul was telling us about how his daughter refers to his writing room as a “thinking room,” because all her dad does is stare out the window. He demonstrated. And Erin responded by sharing her own, um, memorable writing style. And then they allowed their process to be recorded, poorly, by a mediocre phone camera in a crowded restaurant. So aspiring writers, take note: as Erin Dionne says, This is how the sausage gets made. (Don’t worry about the sound; it’s probably best left off.)

The Perils of Recycling

Josie Leavitt -- November 17th, 2014

Every bookstore does it: we all recycle. Most stores do not have our rule: If you take out the recycling, you must bring your cell phone with you. This rule exists for safety. Our trash area is a hazard at best. We share two dumpsters with the restaurant next to us and the adjoining apartments. Generally, taking out the trash out should not imperil staffers, but our dumpster is protected in a wooden enclosure that has a hair-trigger locking mechanism accessible from the outside.

At least twice a staffer has dutifully taken out heaps of recycling, struggled with raising the lid of the dumpster and then had the main door of the enclosure shut on them. Once that door shuts, there’s absolutely no way of getting out short of scaling the eight-foot high wall because there’s no latch on the inside of the enclosure. I should say that our recycling dumpster house (what we refer to it as) also contains the trash dumpster that we share with the restaurant. Needless to say, the trash area can get out of hand and quite smelly and is a place no one would willingly spend time.

The first time this happened, young David had his phone with him (one of the joys of younger staffers is they always have their phone with them). I wondered why he’d been gone so long when the store phone rang and he said he was trapped in the dumpster. Once I stopped laughing, you have to admit, it’s hilarious that someone got stuck in there, I walked over to the dumpster and let him out. He was laughing, too. The second time this happened, PJ, was recycling and she brought her phone with her. It was a Saturday morning and the store was very busy. Sandy was the only other staffer working. She answered the phone and it was PJ explaining that she was trapped in the dumpster area. Sandy quickly apologized to the customers and ran out to release PJ after explaining the peril she was in.

One would think that after two shut-in accidents the landlord would fix the locking mechanism, but no. So, our rule of you must have your cell phone with you to recycle or take the trash out now remains firm. And really, all it does is serve to keep staff all the more connected as there’s nothing more bonding than being rescued from a trash dumpster by a colleague.

Special Orders During the Holidays

Josie Leavitt -- November 14th, 2014

Every day in bookstores across the land, folks call to order books. They order books that they’ve heard of or seen on radio, magazines or at a friend’s house. Sometimes they have all the information and it’s a simple process. More than likely, they have part of the title and then the fun begins.

The most helpful part of the special ordering process is the title, obviously. Oftentimes, though, people will call up with the publisher name, the date of publication, the author name, then the title and then the ISBN. Try as I might, I cannot get these folks to just tell me the title, which is really all I need. I know they think they’re being helpful, but searching by publisher is too vast, date of publication helps a little, but not really all that much. I hate to derail these customers at all because they’re so proud to have all the information. So I tend to wait patiently while they give me all the info and then scramble like mad when they get to the title. And, honestly, thank goodness for folks with the ISBNs, that does make it so much easier, except when they’re missing a digit, or more than likely, I’ve misheard a digit and have to ask them to start over.

The folks who have partial titles are the most fun. Someone yesterday ordered a book about running and said, “Run is in the title.” I couldn’t help but chuckle, just a tiny bit, and so did the customer. The customers who give me fits are the ones who can’t quite remember where they heard about a particular book. We try to stay on top of the latest media blitzes, so we can at least anticipate what someone might come in looking for. We also try to know what NPR shows air at what time in our local market. Folks often come in and say, “I heard about it on Vermont Public Radio.” VPR talks about a lot of books every day, so our job is to know the schedule because then we ask the customer what time they heard about the book and we can go to that show and look it up.

So, dear lovely readers as you prepare for the holiday season here are some easy tips for faster ordering:

- Try to get the title (I know sometimes this can be hard, but it’s so enormously helpful.) Try writing titles down, unless you’re driving. Even partial titles can be enough for us to go on.

- Know where you heard about the book. All bookstore staffers are also very good detectives, so any details are enormously helpful. Telling us you saw a book at your friend’s house is even okay, as we’ve actually called people after someone told us this.

- Allow us enough time to get you the book. Most books can come within a matter of days. Books often come overnight, but not if they’re ordered after noon.

- Lastly, be patient with your booksellers as he or she tries to get you the right book. There are a myriad of sources at our disposal and we don’t always get the right info from the first few places we look.

- And finally, please order from your independent bookstores this holiday season because we will take all the time necessary to find that book for you.

‘Blue Mountain’: A Book That Stands Out from the Herd

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 13th, 2014

blue mountainIt’s astonishing how accustomed we’ve all become to a certain tone in middle-grade books, a voice or mood that’s become so familiar it takes something radically different to remind us of the fact that there are many, many different ways of telling stories. A nation’s political situation, social context, attitudes, trends, or popular culture can’t help but influence writers, and writing trends and storytelling habits emerge and change along with them. Writing styles and trends wax and wane, but even gone, they leave their mark on subsequent generations of writers.

It’s so rare to feel that exciting kick in the gut that signals something fresh and deep and true, done differently. I had that feeling immediately when I started reading Martine Leavitt’s Blue Mountain. I’m not sure if Leavitt’s Canadian roots account for this book’s uniqueness, but sometimes it takes a book from another culture to spur this kind of reading awakening. Styles of narration, types of stories, even favorite themes, can vary wildly between countries, giving us stories that stand apart from our habitual daily fare, as delicious as it may be. Reading Blue Mountain is like drinking a glass of clear cold water after having chugged sodas for a week.

So much about this book feels like a return to classic storytelling. It is old-fashioned (and by this I think I mainly mean that the narrative is patient, deliberate, without being staid), full of starkness and beauty, joy and sorrow, danger and gentle calm. Readers who loved Where the Red Fern Grows and The Yearling and especially The Call of the Wild should find a new timeless tale to love here. Blue Mountain is the story of Tuk, a bighorn sheep whose world is threatened by natural predators and human encroachment. Young Tuk is large, and his approving herdmates assume that he will grow up a leader. Further signaling his specialness is Tuk’s ability to see, now and again, a mystical blue mountain in the distance that is the stuff of legend among his kind — a safe homeland for bighorn sheep beyond the reach of dangers. As humans build higher and higher up the mountains, there’s a chain reaction; animal predators are emboldened and there are fewer resources for the hungry bighorns. When Tuk leads a group of his fellow sheep away from their grounds to find the blue mountain, he encounters challenges that test his strength, intelligence, and wits.

The pace of the book has a rhythm like nature itself: it unfolds with stretches of peace and moments of high intensity. It isn’t afraid to be sober. It doesn’t shy away from the sudden brutalities of the natural world, but deals with them gracefully.

Blue Mountain is an animal unto itself. Like Tuk, Blue Mountain forges its own path, unconcerned with the exigencies of sheep beyond its herd. It isn’t for every young reader, but will resonate and stay with those who love nature and linger in dreams of wilderness, destiny, adventure, and myth.