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Their First Stop

Josie Leavitt -- August 25th, 2014

As summer starts to wind down here in Vermont, I’ve noticed a trend. The bookstore is where a lot of people come first on their vacation or on their return home. It’s always interested and delighted me that the store is such an anchor for people. I know we’re not just a bookstore; no local, independent bookstore is just a store, we’re all so much more and the depth of that feeling gets revealed when people come by for the first day of vacation or the day they return to us when they’re going back to local colleges.

The folks on vacation are a great group. They come from all over the world, with the farthest afield coming all the way from Cape Town. This family has been shopping at our store for 16 years and now their daughter is off to college. It’s hard to imagine that little Alice with her proper accent asking on her first visit, “Where’s the loo?” is going to college next week. But, she is and it’s been great fun to see her grow up, summer visit by summer visit. Her family comes to the store usually on their first day here. They need to stock up on books and they get armloads. The parents are big readers, too. And honestly, there’s nothing I like more than seeing folks walk in the store like long-lost friends and getting hugs and getting caught up on the last year and what they’ve read.

Last week I was truly touched by a returning customer. A young man came in the store and looked to be in his early to mid 20s. He had a deep, resonant voice and seemed very familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. And then he asked for George R. R. Martin books, and I knew it was Casey, who had left for college in Washington state six years ago and stayed out there. I said, “Casey?” He grinned broadly, knowing that I was picturing him the last time I saw him: shorter, not shaving yet and still a kid. But he somehow (as they all do) grew up into a wonderful adult. He hadn’t seen our new location, so we talked about that. He loved the expanded adult section, but he remained true to his two loves from his first visit 17 years ago: the comics and science fiction sections.

What astounded me was he had gotten in at midnight the night before and here he was at 10:30 the next morning, buying books from the store that provided all his books for his childhood. It seemed to me like we were a bit of security for him. Casey had come back to Vermont to attend medical school; clearly he was a little nervous about it, but he was comforted by the store and our having Game of Thrones and Calvin and Hobbes. As I rang him up, I laughed a little and told him his reading tastes hadn’t changed much since he was seven, buying Redwall and Garfield collections.

I cannot say enough how much these encounters, which seems to happen more and more as our youngest customers from when we first opened are now marrying, getting graduate degrees, or coming to the store with their families on vacation, mean to me. They are a great reminder that the local bookstore means something. Something big. We may never know the true impact the store has on a life, but when I get a glimpse of how our store has been an anchor for young people it makes me happy and proud. And very appreciative that they all come by to say hi and tell us how they’re doing.

Talking Diversity with NPR

Josie Leavitt -- August 22nd, 2014

Yesterday, Elizabeth Bluemle was interviewed by Audie Cornish as one piece of a three-part series on NPR’s All Things Considered program talking about diversity in books. Elizabeth has been talking diversity, or lack thereof, in children’s books since her post five years ago, Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty? As the co-owner of the Flying Pig, I was bursting with pride as Elizabeth deftly articulated the diversity issue and what we as booksellers can do about it.

Diversity and children’s books has now become a hot topic, with many people realizing that there has be more representation of non-white children in kids’ books. When asked about the database of books (now over 1,000 titles strong) she started collecting five years ago, featuring main characters of color whose stories are not primarily driven by racial issues, Elizabeth responded: “Well, I think there are so many books that are published about issues that the consumer culture has developed this idea that books with brown faces on the cover say, are going to be heavy, serious books. And while those books are very valuable and important and wonderful books to read, they also don’t describe the entire experience of human life in this country.” This list is an invaluable asset to all who work with children. Elizabeth’s point is all kids have the same range of experiences: school, family, navigating friendships, etc. and those stories should be equally compelling to all regardless of the color of the kid on the book’s cover.

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Our Regionalizer Software Is Unveiled

Kenny Brechner -- August 21st, 2014

There are those out there that feel that independents should be focusing less on decency, culture, community and fair play and more on innovating like Amazon does. With that in mind we at DDG have developed some exciting new software that is sure to have a strong impact both financially and culturally on the marketplace.

cruiseRegionalism is something that I hadn’t given a thought to until I started buying books professionally. Maine is a hyper-regional state. I soon learned that a book about a Vermont 10-year-old who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat, singlehandedly saving 5,000 people from a sinking cruise ship along the way, would garner no interest at all in Maine. On the other hand a book about a Maine 10-year-old who saved an inchworm from being stepped on by her sister would be a big seller. I learned that Mainers feel that any Moose found in New Hampshire woods are either lost or, more probably, kidnapped.

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Voting on Book Jackets!

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 20th, 2014
NetGalley Like the Cover

Source: Netgalley.com

For YEARS now, I’ve wanted a way to give publishers feedback on book covers. As booksellers—who spend hours every single day handing books to customers and observing their reactions—we have a pretty good sense of what will and won’t move, at least in our own stores. Sometimes we receive a truly wonderful book with a cover we know children wouldn’t poke a stick at, much less pick up and buy, and it’s a shame.

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Authors, Please Don’t Do This

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 19th, 2014

Let me preface this by saying that we’re all more transparent than we would like to believe we are. All of us. I know I’ve done various ill-advised things in the past, every instance of which I’ve later regretted. In that spirit, let me save you from yourselves.

We already know that some authors are going to face out their own books — or ask their friends and family to do this — in our stores. This can be a minor inconvenience for us, since it may be messing up a themed display, or your face-out may be replacing a book we are trying to feature for a special time-sensitive reason. Indie bookstore staff do pretty much always know which books we’ve chosen to face out, but sometimes we smile and let yours stand if we love the book you’ve turned outward. This is a mildly risky move, because if you do mess up a bookstore display and someone on staff notices, they may be irked. And you don’t want to irk booksellers; you want to endear them to you.

A much better approach is to walk up to the counter and introduce yourself, saying something like, “Hi, I’m Charming Author [insert your own name there], and I see that you have my book. Thanks so much for carrying it. I’d be happy to sign any copies, if you’d like.” We at the Flying Pig almost always say yes, though I’ll caution you that this is not universal. Some stores may say no, because stock levels need to be controlled, and bookstores are not supposed to return unsold copies that are autographed. So if that happens, try not to feel bad; they are just being uber-practical, hardcore stock warriors. The strategy then would be to create a nice relationship with them so they remember you and will give your book(s) a second look. You can do this by chatting about some of the new books you’ve loved; there is almost nothing as bonding as shared book enthusiasm. And if you actually buy something at the store, you’ve made the first move in a good faith contract of mutual support.

As tempting as it may be, please oh please do not call bookstores and ask for your own books, pretending to be someone else. For one thing, we all have Caller ID. For another, there is just something obvious about these phone calls. They don’t sound the same as regular inquiries. You know how your voice transmutes into false, stilted tightness when you have to answer an automated voice system on the phone instead of talking to a human being? Suddenly, you can’t even say your own name or the word “Question” or the number “2″ normally. Well, it’s similar with these faux phone calls about your book. The difference is palpable, and it leaves both you and the clerk uncomfortable. Also, please don’t come into the bookstore and do that same thing. We have Google, and you have a website. We can see what you look like.

Even worse, please don’t have friends or family call the store pretending to be interested in buying your book so that we will order copies. If you aren’t planning to send real business our way, it is rude to try to trick us into carrying a book that will not have your support.

Recently, we encountered a new low-point attempt at guerrilla marketing. Our staffer, David, pointed to a couple of books and said, “What’s the story on these?” I looked at them, two different titles in paperback, and shook my head. “I don’t recognize them,” I said. He said, “I think this lady left them in the store.” He told me that he had been helping another customer up front in the store on a busy sale day over the weekend, and he’d seen a woman bend down in front of the “NPR Book Picks” end cap. (This is the first bookcase most customers notice when they come into the store and turn right. It’s prominent.) David said the woman had given him kind of a funny look, and he’d seen her doing something on the bottom shelf, but he was busy helping someone else, so he didn’t have a chance to check in with her before she ducked quickly out of the store. I asked David, “You think she left these books here, hoping we’d sell them?” He said, “I think so. These and the other copies.” Other copies?? I went up front and there were more books on the bottom shelf. The person had left SIX copies of books we hadn’t ordered, displayed as though they were NPR picks. This takes a lot of gall, and is definitely not the done thing.

David had Googled the author, and said she was not the same person who left the books, nor does she live in Vermont. Perhaps it was a family member or friend. We can’t figure out the aim of this move: would someone be calling in a few weeks to see if the books had sold, and want payment?  Our staffer, Laura, had a kind thought: “Maybe she asked a friend to drop off some books for consignment, and her friend didn’t know what that meant.” This is a generous idea, but I have to wonder what friend doesn’t ask the bookstore staff, and instead decides to plop the books on a shelf face-out and run.

It has me wondering: is there some lecturer out there advising authors to do these things to get their books noticed? Because I have to say that, at indie bookstores at least, your best bet is not trickery or gimmicks, but is still the simplest (if not the easiest) one: to strike up a real conversation with a bookseller.

P.S. You may be wondering what we plan to do with those six books we didn’t order. They don’t look terrible, and if the author or her friend had approached us directly, we might have tried one or two copies. Given the icky way they came into the store, we removed them from the shelves and will hold onto them for a week or two in the back office to give back to the author/friend if she comes back or calls. After that, I suppose we will donate them.

Patience and Education Pay Off

Josie Leavitt -- August 15th, 2014

More than a year ago, I got mad at our local PTO for having an Amazon-sponsored book fundraiser. I tried to explain, nicely, why that was a really bad idea on many levels. The first being, Amazon doesn’t actually support the school. They don’t help with auctions items ranging from the third grade spelling bee, the eighth grade trip, or having story hour for the entire kindergarten class on their annual field trip to the bookstore. The second is, Amazon’s business model is to put independent bookstores out of business. Sadly, I have yet to conquer the allure of the Scholastic Book fair, it’s just too big and too much money (that’s a blog post for another day).

Every time I saw someone from the PTO I would explain just a little more in depth about what their working with Amazon does to us and the other local businesses in town. It really boiled down to the fact that every local business needed the PTO’s support; if they wanted to be able to shop at our stores, they actually had to patronize them. I got an email last week from a PTO member who wanted to talk to me about working with them this year.

Their plan is simple: feature a different local store every month as a fundraising base for the PTO. The beauty of this plan is the organization. The PTO is working hard to get everything in place so that all the event dates can be included on the first school calendar of the year, the one that everyone puts on the fridge. The parents are extremely about making these events successful.  We are both hoping that this monthly support idea will be a win-win for all involved. And, after the initial setup there’s little to do but promote at school, in the local paper, via social media and at the bookstore. It’s just not rocket science. It’s kids and books.

The best of this plan is that the school will be driving business to the store. Not every parent shops at all the stores in the village, but they’re much more likely to visit a store for the first time if it means 20% of their purchase will go back to help fund their kid’s PTO. And, it’s easy for the shopkeepers. We will have a kickoff wine and cheese preview complete with book talks. The parents will have the store to themselves for two hours and then the in-store book fair will run for 10 days. In-store book fairs are easy to do as their is no schlepping of books to the school. These are really aimed at parents who will come to buy early holiday presents for the family. I was struck also, by the kindness of the PTO liaison who suggested that we run this promotion during a slow time for the store. That was really thoughtful of her and she understood why we couldn’t run this during December.

So, after a year of feeling despair about the school not “getting it,” I now feel very optimistic about our new venture. I’ll have a blog update after the event at the beginning of November.

Autumn Reveals Her Top Books for Fall

Kenny Brechner -- August 14th, 2014

With the Fall season approaching, I wanted to get some insight into what forthcoming books will be most worthy of our handselling focus. Autumn herself agreed to share her expertise with us, “lest,” as she said to me, “the ephemeral leaves cling to the trees while that which should be evergreen is cast away.”

Kenny: Thank you so much for making time for us.

Autumn: It’s my pleasure, Kenny.

Kenny: One thing I’ve always wondered is whether Fall starts on September 22nd or simply the first time a person sees a reddening leaf?

Autumn: Both. The strict calendar dates have their purpose but seasons have their own shape and nature of growth and decline which extend beyond those fixed boundaries.

Kenny: I see. Speaking of calendar dates, are both the Northern and the Southern autumnal equinoxes your responsibility? Also, do your duties extend to areas which don’t experience a proper autumn? Arizona for example.

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Great Catalog Idea

Josie Leavitt -- August 13th, 2014

Every bookstore strives to create unique newsletters and catalogs, and oftentimes we are successful. But there are times when we could use a little help. This is where the ABC Children’s Group sponsored by the American Bookselling Association, comes in. Every year they create a full-color catalog for all member stores to use for the whole year. The catalog, Best Books for Children and Teens, features titles vetted by members, so it’s not about publishers paying for advertising, this is a catalog of books we all feel strongly about recommending in our stores.

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this ORQ. (he great book!)

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 11th, 2014

This Orq

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of picture books published every year, and many of them are good. Some of them are great. And a few of them hit the picture book sweet spot jackpot by managing to provide:

  • a perfect marriage of text and art
  • phenomenal kid appeal
  • read-aloud deliciousness
  • art that invites poring over
  • new discoveries in repeated readings
  • heart, joy, playfulness, suspense, reassurance, and humor
  • and, yes, jokes for the grownups, too.

this ORQ. (he cave boy.) by David Elliott, illustrated by Lori Nichols (Boyds Mills Press) hits the jackpot with its hilarious (and wry) caveman-speak text, huge heart, and utterly lovable illustrations by newcomer Lori Nichols (who also wowed us earlier this year with her debut picture book, Maple, published by Penguin/Nancy Paulsen). 

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A Busman’s Holiday

Josie Leavitt -- August 8th, 2014

I have recently been traveling in New England and, as I’m wont to do when I’m on holiday, I visit other bookstores. I do this for several reasons, chiefly, I love bookstores and it’s nice to be in one and not see everything that needs to get done, but rather, just enjoy the store. When I’m in a store I become one of those people who sniffs the books, who stands back and admires the display, wonders about the choices for face outs and ponders what sections are the good sellers.

I was in Bethel, Ct., and stopped by Byrd’s Books. I heard about this store through our trade smallassociation and have been reading their very good e-newsletter, so I was very curious to see the store. The day I happened to visit, they were busily preparing for their Find Waldo Local party. My timing really couldn’t have been worse. I arrived at three, just under an hour from their party with an expected attendance of 50 kids and their parents. They had moved most of the shelving out of the middle of the store (they had smartly gotten all their floor units on wheels, so they could move them out of the way for events) and the owner, Alice Hutchinson, kept apologizing for the store “being in disarray.” I assured her I was used to pre-event chaos. And I have to say her idea of chaos was my idea of calm, everyone bustled about with purpose but not in a frenzy. Despite this, she still managed to show me around the store.

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