There’s something in the water, it seems, and it’s making a number of our customers really, really grouchy. Maybe it’s the refusal of actual fall weather to arrive in Indiana, for here we are in October with 90 degrees forecast for the afternoon carpool duty, meaning that peewee soccer practice is going to be just sweaty and miserable. Maybe it’s the constant stream of difficult world news, which we check via Twitter and breaking headlines on our smartphones, keeping up a constant narration of “Now listen to this! Here’s another horrible thing for you to worry about.” Perhaps it’s just the month-into-school blues, when the novelty of new lunchboxes has worn off, and the constant rushing from one orthodontist appointment to another fall sports clinic to oh-my-goodness-did-anyone-defrost-anything-for-dinner? is making everyone feel over-scheduled and under-appreciated, but for whatever reason, we have had a little black cloud hovering over the store for a few days.
Years ago, we had a customer who cut off Josie in the middle of recommending Like Water for Elephants. She said with finality, “I don’t like circus books set during the Depression,” as if that were an overpopulated literary genre. We all laughed about it, but it did make me think about how there can be some fairly focused ways to describe the kinds of books we like—and don’t. It also struck me that what we gravitate toward says so much about our personal preoccupations.
I feel very lucky that the Flying Pig has a fabulously well-read staff. Granted, avid reading is pretty much the prerequisite for being a good indie bookseller, but in addition to the main genres we gravitate toward, recently we’ve started identifying our quirkier sub-specialties.
It’s pre-holiday overload season in the bookstore, when our stockrooms are bursting, our shop floors are crowded with standees and cardboard displays of BIG FALL BOOKS, and we have spider rings on the counter AND Christmas wrap on the spinner. We must simultaneously sell merchandise for trick-or-treaters and not-so-spooky classroom read-alouds, while assisting grandparents with preparation for entertaining the entire clan at Thanksgiving. (“Yes, I *do* think that the twins are old enough to play Catan this year, and here are the expansion sets.”) Our Christmas wish lists go out both online and attached to clipboards at the counter TOMORROW…. for it’s October 1st, and we will change gift-giving occasions faster than we change costumes this month — and this week we will be dressed as chameleons.
I would have thought that the probability of my ever buying something from Amazon was zero. Yet when I took the quiz below I got a surprising result.
There’s an encouraging number of articles in our daily bookselling email newsletters about new shops opening this year. According to the ABA, there were 42 new member stores that opened from January through June of 2019, and 12 more stores successfully sold to new owners. Probably, the number of brand new bookstores tops that amount, as in true indie fashion, some new store owners would just not be “joiners,” at least at first. While the locations, names, and square footage of all these new bookstores are unique, I am always slightly amused by one seemingly constant phrase in the announcement articles: “XYZ Books will be a general store… offering new (or new and used, or only used) books, with a STRONG CHILDREN’S SECTION.” Well done, new colleagues, for recognizing that a “strong” section of children’s and young adult titles is a key to financial success, and a guaranteed draw for browsers of all ages.
Consumer psychology is fascinating. I’ve only dipped into books about it here and there, like Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy and Daniel Pink’s When: The Secrets of Perfect Timing, but observation in my store has taught me a few key things:
1. If it’s unavailable, it’s wanted.
The moment an item is tantalizingly out of reach, it is more desirable. Let’s say a customer comes in looking for two specific titles and plans to choose one to buy. We’ve got one on the shelf and the other is behind the counter, tagged and set aside for someone else. Guess which one the customer instantly wants? This happens 100% of the time. The psychology behind this also points to:
It’s Banned Books Week again (did that 12 months fly by, or have I reached the bookselling age* when every season change seems prematurely upon us?) and I have been thinking about this year’s theme: Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark: Keep the Lights On!, both as an illuminating display prompt and as a personal bookselling reconciliation exercise. As I pull challenged titles from the shelves each year to make our own store display and hold each book in my hands for just an instant, I think about who I might handsell it to. I consider which young readers I know personally who are ready for that book, might not have read it, or might be aware of it but have never picked up a copy from their school library or their own family bookshelf. I think about how often we might talk about those books in our regular sales day… and sadly, it’s often not very much. Some titles are simply “classics,” and sell themselves through reading lists or reputation, with customers never knowing that the very title they are holding has been challenged in school systems or public libraries, or removed from curriculum because of someone’s vocal objection to content. Some are just bestseller backlist, such as those titles with strong commercial appeal, or a Netflix series or film notoriety that sparks reader curiosity (“Oh, look, they made that movie into a BOOK, Mom! Can I get it?”) Again, those young readers may never know that Harry and Bella and Katniss and Hannah were all in danger outside the plot of their stories, and their very existence on the shelves is a victory against censorship.
I wrote over the summer about the wonderful experience of hosting April Stone, a local middle school librarian, for a three-day internship at the store. I jumped at the chance to welcome her into our space and only asked for the opportunity to return the favor. I’ve worked with so many librarians through the years, so. I was curious to see what a day in the life of Four Points Middle School library really looked like—and to see what I might learn. Since she kindly shared her thoughts about her time in the store, she asked if I would answer a few questions about my time on the other side!
I was driving in to the bookstore on Monday morning when I saw ambulance lights behind. Noteworthy but not unusual. Then a series of more sirens from behind, ambulances, police cruisers, and fire trucks began to pass by in earnest. Maine Public Radio broke into Morning Edition to announce that a building had blown up in downtown Farmington and there had been a propane explosion. One firefighter was reported as dead and more injured. The thought flashed through my mind that the bookstore was involved, that the building had been my downtown neighbor, the House of Pizza, which has a row of propane tanks attached to it. We have had close calls along these lines before, smelling propane coming through shared ventilation into the bookstore and running over to the the House of Pizza before it had a chance to open and turn its ovens on. It was not the House of Pizza however. MPR proceeded to report that It was the headquarters of a community nonprofit LEAP, Life Enrichment Advancing People, whose mission statement is Supporting people with developmental, cognitive and intellectual disabilities to be actively involved in their home communities.
There had been a strong propane smell in the building when LEAP staff arrived that Monday morning, and the maintenance person took action and evacuated the building while calling for emergency support. Most of the Farmington Fire Department arrived and, along with the LEAP maintenance worker, went over to the building to try and find the cause of the leak. The propane source exploded, destroying the building entirely, leaving nothing but rubble, debris, one firefighter dead, six more critically injured along with the maintenance worker.
Oh, the joy of attending a book launch… that you didn’t plan, don’t need to manage, and can just hang out as an interested reader! No worrying about attendance, no stressing about the number of copies you ordered in, no last-minute calls to the author who is “on their way,” surely, but a little bit lost on the drive from the airport.
I treated myself to just such an event tonight, and wanted to bring all of you along, both to share our colleague Tiffany Phillips’ charming Wild Geese Bookshop in Franklin, Indiana, and to highlight the launch of Brian Allen Carr’s newest book Opioid, Indiana. If you haven’t seen a galley (or as of today, if it’s not on your New Releases table), then that’s the first “to-do” item of your workday: