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Booksellers and Computers

Kenny Brechner -- March 19th, 2015

I’ve known from the beginning that some people who possess core attributes of bookselling, love of books and the ability to express that love, who have good people and customer service skills, view machines as magical realms. In some environments this can be a charming and personable quality. In a microfichecontemporary bookstore this kind of magical thinking can be a danger to both to the store and the sanity of its owner.

This is particularly true, I think, in smaller stores where the ability to compartmentalize tasks is much more limited. In the early ’90s the only thing for most of my booksellers to be terrified of was the cash register, or possibly blowing a bulb on the microfiche reader by putting in the wrong slide. Oh, wait, that’s a subject slide, not an author slide…Kapow. Over the years the computerization of tasks has grown to the point where it is not possible to shield a bookseller from a fairly immersive experience in said machines.

I’ve thought about testing for magical thinking of this sort. Something along these lines.

Touching which of the following keyboard keys will cause the computer to be violently destroyed?
The End (of everything) key
The Pause- Break (everything) key
The F5 key (in the morning) and the F9 key (in the afternoon).
All of the above

The computer with the networked printer on it is plugged into a big black thing that keeps the computer running for a little while after a power outage. One day, when you try and print something, just as soon as the printer wakes up from sleep, the computer attached to it, its monitor, and the printer itself immediately shut down and the black box thing on the floor starts wailing like an enraged banshee. What you should do is…

Reboot the machine and then try it again.
Reboot the machine and then, since a printer virus is clearly at work, try to print from every machine to see if they are all affected.
Replicate the sudden shutdown as many times as possible to see if the anti-virus program will wake up and slay the virus.
Unplug that computer from the black thing and plug it into a regular power strip.

The truth is that in 2015 we want booksellers to be nearly ideal beings: wonderful with books, customers, and computers. Customers have access to immense amounts of information themselves. The ability to search databases and operate point-of-sale systems efficiently is hugely important. Magical thinking is important too, wonderfully important. Oh wait. hold that thought, My phone is going off. There is a computer crisis at the store.

Literary YA Enchanters: Laura Ruby and Her Kin

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 17th, 2015

Bone Gap

There are so many good writers for young people out there these days, writers whose strengths lie in great premises, pitch-perfect kid appeal, flawless pacing, intriguing world-building, irresistible humor, and more.

And then there are the writers who do some or all of the above, but with an extra magic. They spin their tales with fabulous language, a deft attention to cadence, tone, and atmosphere, a brilliant sense for the gaps and leaps, sparseness and richness, vividness and delicacy of narrative art. They are the writers who make other writers remember why they love writing.

I just finished reading Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap (HarperTeen/Balzer + Bray) and it created a kind of haunting mysterious gorgeousness that comes along once in a while and thrills a reader like me to the — well, to the bones.

I won’t say much about Bone Gap‘s plot except to say that it involves two brothers, fractured lives, a tiny, overly interconnected town, strangers both beautiful and monstrous, violence under a veneer of creepy blandness, and ominous corn. I couldn’t set this book down.

It spun a web around me in a way that reminded me of books by a few other YA writers whose gifts with language strike me similarly. They all have styles that are unique and mesmerizing. If you want to sink into language and beauty that is simultaneously stark and lush, add Bone Gap to your reading stack along with Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s in Me (Speak), E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (Delacorte), and Franny Billingley’s Chime (Speak) (and her equally astonishing The Folk-Keeper (Aladdin).

While I don’t only love gorgeously written books, I do especially love them. But I’m extra picky about prettily written books, because there’s a line where ‘poetic’ becomes ‘precious,’ and I don’t like books that feel self-consciously or self-indulgently beautiful, books with no plot, or the kind that evaporate from memory the moment I’m done reading the lovely language.

Gorgeous books, to me, are the ones that reignite a blaze of appreciation for the subtleties and possibilities of language—the things you almost forgot words can do when strung together in dazzling, unexpected ways—and admiration of the fascinating elisions and collisions that happen in the narratives of confident storytellers. 

There can be a fine line between a soufflé and a mess of egg, and it’s a difference of artistry, practice, a lot of work, and maybe a little luck. All I know is, these writers have some kind of special hot-wired connection to a particularly wild and ungovernable Muse, and we are the charmed, haunted beneficiaries.

Publishers: If You Ever Wonder Why You Haven’t Been Paid by a Bookstore

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 16th, 2015

Bookstores are many, many things. One of them is a morass of details. Sometimes we will hear from a vendor about a missing payment, and it’s clear the vendor is under the impression that we have actively chosen not to pay their bill. While it’s true that invoice juggling can happen with retailers (there are certainly lean cash-flow months and full cash-flow months), for us, this happens only with invoices for hundreds (or thousands) of dollars, when we are waiting to be paid by a school or library before we can cut a large check.

Compounding this issue is that small indie booksellers may not have dedicated bookkeepers; bill-paying is just one of the hats bookstore owners wear. An important hat, of course, but one among many. On top of that is the fact that some vendors (the smaller ones) often just send a single invoice instead of the additional monthly statements sent by larger vendors. In an ideal world, one invoice would be enough. We do understand that it is costly and time-intensive to send more than one bill through the mail. Except. We get a lot of bills. Here is a couple of months’ worth of invoices, statements, and credits from vendors (Josie took some home, so this is not even all of them!):

stack of bills

As tall as the paper invoice stack is, the email “piles” are even bigger. Floods of emails pour into the bookstore every day. We deal with hundreds of vendors; I don’t even want to calculate how many invoices and statements that adds up to over the year.

For booksellers, the vast majority of bill-paying and email reading has to happen outside of store hours. During the work day, we are on the store floor helping customers, we are receiving orders and stocking the shelves and calling customers to let them know their books have arrived, we are answering phones and tracking down obscure requests and missing shipments, we are meeting with sales reps to order seasons of new books and sidelines, we are processing returns and damages, we are reorganizing sections and reshelving books customers have looked at, changing displays, and planning events.

So in case you’re a publisher or a sidelines vendor or an individual author waiting to be paid by a bookstore, this might give you a window into why your check hasn’t arrived just yet. We’re good for it, just running to catch up.

The Delight of Discovery

Josie Leavitt -- March 13th, 2015

It’s not often that changing sections of the bookstore actually occurs to me. Usually, this is Elizabeth’s area of expertise. I often joke that if it were left to me, we’d have exactly the same set-up we had the day we opened. The other day I had a moment of inspiration about graphic novels. I must confess, that this year is the first year I’ve really gotten into graphic novels. Why I’ve resisted them for so long is beyond – they’re wonderful, but that’s another blog post. Graphic novels had been in a spinner case towards the back of the store where we have the fantasy, sports, action adventure and young adult sections.

IMG_4236I got this idea looking at a case of books and thinking, “Hmm, I haven’t sold any of these in a while.” Graphic novels have been selling well, but people are always asking if we have them, which tells me they’re not seeing them. So I did an even swap for the action adventure books and the graphic novels. And everything fit in their respective new sections. There is nothing more frustrating than swapping out a section only to realize that I’ve misjudged and there isn’t enough room and then I have to re-shelve everything back where I started.

I liked how things looked. Putting graphic novels in the same area as fantasy seemed like a good fit. The thing with organizing a bookstore is working hard to have similar sections next to each other so that serendipitous browsing can happen. The delight of discovery should be a goal of every store. My thinking behind this shift will hopefully bear itself out. Just as graphic novels seemed to have a solid home, I felt equally strongly about the action adventure books. Kids who like the Alex Rider or the young James Bond series might also enjoy a rousing sports book. Again, put similar books where like-minded readers are likely to find them. This also works for people shopping for these kids. They might see a graphic novel on their way to get another book and think, “Maybe I should try that for my daughter.” The real beauty of the switch is having enough shelf space to face out more titles, which also translates to more sales.

I will check back in a month and let everyone how this switch has been in terms of increased (hopefully) sales and customer feedback. If your store has moved a section and it really worked, please share your success story in the comments. I’m always curious.

The Sense and Sensibility of Sorting Young Adult Titles

Kenny Brechner -- March 12th, 2015

For many of us, voracious 9-12 readers figure prominently among both our best and our favorite customers.  As with many things in life, catering to this group is not without its complications. HAfter all, children reading way above grade level are likely to be drawn toward books whose complexity may appeal to them even if these books contain graphic content that their parents, and even you as a bookseller, may not feel that they are ready for.

The importance and the currency of approaching this topic was visible in two places recently. One was in Elizabeth’s excellent post last week regarding booksellers as gatekeepers. The other was in a robust discussion on the New England Children’s Book Advisory Council’s listserv, in which various aspects of imposing classification and display of books for these strong young readers were bandied about.

Many booksellers have either applied or are considering applying a discrete section for these readers. At the same time potential problems with doing so were brought forward. These were expressed succinctly by Arna Lewis of Buttonwood Books. “I have been very close to sorting out the books this way but my issue is that I do not want to be the one deciding who a certain book is appropriate for and who it isn’t – and on what grounds? Sex? Violence? Topic matter? And how would I know unless I read every book? How do you all deal with these issues? Are you comfortable making these decisions? For example, would The Fault in Our Stars be in 14 and up even though all the 11 year olds and up are reading it? What about The Hunger Games that 9 year olds have been reading? Who decides?”

Good questions. As I see it, the ambiguity of classification is important to note, but should not dissuade us from sorting books for these readers. Just because something is hard to objectively quantify doesn’t mean it isn’t a real and important phenomenon. Take adolescence, for example. It is a real state? Yes. Can you firmly define where it begins and ends? No. That’s how it is with these lower Young Adult/10-14 books. The distinction is a real one, but it has fuzzy borders.

Such sorting of books can never be perfect. Take Arna’s example of The Hunger Games, which most of us consider to be around an 11 and up read. The third book in the same series, Mockingjay, is more of a 15 and up book. The Harry Potter books increase in content and complexity as the series advances too. No one, however,  is going to split series books between sections, of course. What to do? To answer Arna’s question, I decide, not perfectly, but still very usefully I think, because the benefits of sorting books for these readers are very large.

ya1What we have done at DDG is perhaps a little unusual. We have a distinct category in our inventory system for these rich in concept, lower in content, books called YA1. They have their own display unit but they are not labeled as such. The YA1 display is one of our two sections marked as Young Adult. The other Young Adult section is around the corner and contains 14 and up titles. I never felt comfortable labeling the YA1 section as Middle School or 10-14, being concerned about stigmatizing older readers drawn to the lower YA books.

We decided to see how this unlabeled sorting worked in practice before applying a label of some kind. It has worked very well. Most browsers seem to grasp and gravitate to their areas of interest intuitively. The fact of the segregation allows us to help direct or redirect parents and young readers accordingly as well. It also works well for library customers. We followed up by expanding the principle to displaying fantasy series books as well.

Our system is not perfect, obviously, but it has been a major improvement over our previously unsorted display environment. I personally prefer its deficiencies over what I felt were the drawbacks of labeling. If your systems are working really well for you, we would all be beholden to you for posting in the comments below!

Looking Bad Because of Vacations

Josie Leavitt -- March 10th, 2015

There is a rhythm to every day at the bookstore and much of that is determined by when the deliveries come in. These boxes, especially on Tuesday and Friday, have our distributor orders that often contain customer’s special orders. Our customers know this schedule and they notice when things are amiss.

It’s been a hard winter for predictable delivery schedules. Ingram’s Tennessee warehouse was closed for days because of ice. Baker and Taylor’s New Jersey center was socked in by snow, as was Bookazine’s. In the meantime, the weather up in Vermont was just really cold, but not stormy, so people wondered why their books weren’t coming in. People tried to be patient, but grew tired of explanations about the warehouses and their weather situations. They were seeking books to survive the brutally cold winter, so just as their need for books was at its height, we were hindered because of global warming.

The problem came when the weather seemed to be better and books still weren’t coming on the expected schedule. Why weren’t the books coming in? Our regular Fed Ex and UPS  drivers were on vacation, vacations that were well deserved and not begrudged at all. These people work extremely hard in jobs that are not easy. But when the regular man (we don’t have any female drivers) isn’t there, the timing of deliveries is off, sometimes, way off.

We are lucky enough to normally get our shipments by 12:30 (sometime as early as 10:30). This allows us to receive them quickly and call all the special order folks before they need to pick up the kids at school. Generally, we’re not as busy in the morning as we are in the hours between three and six, which allows us to haul through the receiving and focus only on that. In essence, this early unpacking of orders really does allow us to provide next day book delivery. However, when the deliveries come later in the day, it pushes everything back.

This might not sound like an issue, but in fact it’s one of the largest issues we face. When my Fed Ex deliveries show up at 5:15 we have lost the battle of being able to provide overnight delivery. There is no way we can get everything unboxed, received, sorted, shelved and more importantly, we cannot call the special order customers. We’ve talked about this as a store and decided it’s just rude to call someone at five to six, often during dinner,  and tell them their special order is here, but we’re closing in five minutes, so you have to wait until tomorrow anyway. So, books the folks expected on a certain day are now coming in a day later. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but it is. And it’s utterly out of my control, which is the truly maddening part of the whole thing.

All this really serves to do is make appreciate my regular drivers all the more, which is why, come Monday, I’ll be leaping for joy to see Bart and Ray again.

 

Visiting with Old Friends

Josie Leavitt -- March 9th, 2015

The girl walked in, no, she practically skipped to the counter. Her smile was broad and her bright eyes were sparkling. At first I thought she was just having a wonderful day, but no, she was coming to pick her book. The book she’s waited two years for: the final book in the Clementine  series by Sarah Pennypacker. The funny thing is when Bridget got the last new book two years ago, she was a fourth grader. clementineShe has been waiting ever since for the latest and last installment. Now she’s a sixth grader who is older than the target audience for the series about the antics of third grader Clementine.

Here’s the thing: Bridget didn’t care. Bridget wanted to see how the series ended. She paid with her own money, and hugged the book as we got her change. Honestly, she wanted to say goodbye to her book friends, even if they were younger than her, and not something she would pick up now.

It was a bittersweet moment at the register. We could see this child struggling with growing up and not being ready to fully embrace the sixth grader she has become and wanting the comfort of the younger Clementine and the innocence of a third grader’s problems.

I love that Bridget honored her need to read this book. She wasn’t afraid of dipping back into a younger book. Her happiness at spending time with these beloved characters eclipsed anything else. And the real joy with this transaction came when we all overheard at front shout a whispered, “Yes!” as she hugged the book one last time.

 

 

Censors at the Gate?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 6th, 2015

see-no-evilEvery day, we’re asked about the age-appropriateness of individual books for the children who come to our store. With 25 years of experience as a teacher, school librarian, and bookseller, I have a pretty solid sense of which books will resonate most with which age ranges. But, oh, there’s a range, and oh, there are dangers.

In books for elementary school-aged kids, parents worry most about ideas and images that might disturb their young ones, cause nightmares or introduce them to issues the parents feel their children aren’t ready for. When we get to books for the tween years and beyond, parents are worried more about sexual content (and sometimes violence, but usually just sex – which is a topic for another post) that their 12-and-ups might encounter on the page.

A number of problematic issues arise when a parent asks, “Is this appropriate for my child?” The first is that we usually don’t know the parameters set by each family. Some parents don’t mind language at all, but want no mention of substance abuse or sex. Or the suggestion of sex is fine as long as it isn’t graphic. Or sex and substance are tolerable if “responsibly handled,” a phrase that itself might be interpreted variously. The variety of preferences held by adults is specific, individual, and takes some nimble, nonjudgmental questioning to suss out. Those are just the adult’s preferences.

Which leads us to the second problematic issue: the young reader has preferences and limits of his or her own, which can lead to some interesting conversations (read: arguments) at the store between parent and child. We booksellers are often pulled in by parents who want us to support their case against reading a book. Booksellers need to be trustworthy for both parents and young readers. If we recommend books parents later decide are too mature, we lose their trust. But if young readers feel we are patronizing them, or colluding in censoring their reading, we lose their trust, and that feels even worse.

We also have our own biases. Every time a 12-year-old picks up a book that we adult booksellers know to have intense scenes or themes, the quandary arises: how much do we say to the customer, and why are we saying it? As former young readers ourselves, we know how often as children we read books way beyond our “age appropriateness,” and we know that those books helped form us – as critical thinkers, as armchair adventurers, as people forming our own identities and opinions. We also know that our child selves read books we might wish we hadn’t, encountered scenes that seared images of horror or devastation or cruelty in our tender brains that perhaps we weren’t ready for. The responsibility feels big to tread this ground thoughtfully.

Add to this mix that we are retailers, who must answer to all of our customers or lose business. We are also viewed as authorities in our field, trusted advisers to readers of all ages, so we take a hit if we miss. And finally, we are fallible, forgetful human beings, who may not remember that a character halfway through a middle grade book drops the F-bomb or, 10 or 15 years after reading a YA title, recall that two campers had sex in a tent. (And is that really our responsibility?) There’s a lot going on with a simple book recommendation.

So how do we toe the line between our strong belief in the rights of readers to choose whatever they want to read for themselves, and helping parents make informed decisions about what they buy at our store? How much do we trust that kids will stop reading what’s too much for them, and skim over mature content they don’t understand?

Personally, I try for a lighthanded approach, aiming to respect both parent and child. Talking with kids about the books they’ve read and loved so far gives me a sense of where their own radar lies, their preferences, their tolerance for challenging topics, darker writing, mature themes. And listening to the ways parents voice their questions and concerns gives me a sense of where their own lines are drawn. It’s not always easy navigating those often conflicting waters, but it’s some of the most important work we do if we are to be welcoming gatekeepers rather than censors.

A Letter of Apology from the State of Maine to Lev Grossman

Kenny Brechner -- March 5th, 2015

It may surprise you to learn that the State of Maine himself has feelings. When I received a heartfelt letter from him it surprised me too.  The letter was not written for me, actually, but rather for Magician’s Trilogy author Lev Grossman, who had written an account last August of his sojourn here in Maine as an aspiring author back in 1991. His account, How Not to Write Your First Novel, related a series of events in which the bleak, empty, unremittingly harsh character of The State of Maine, which was inhabited at that time only by philistines, dank, unlit root cellars, and a handful of resentful buffalo, ultimately resulted in a bitter, soul-crushing epiphany for the young Grossman.

stateofmaine3The State of Maine was not unmoved by this account. He took it to heart and wrote a letter in response which he asked me to post in a public place. I have done so below.

Dear Lev,

First of all, let me just say one thing: I’m sorry. People change, customs and institutions change, landscapes change, States change. I have changed. The sense of deflation you experienced, the extinction of your sense of genius and loss of faith concerning the place of artistry in the firmament of human enterprise, is entirely my fault. If Goethe had been trying to write The Sorrows of Young Werther in Ellsworth in 1991, he would have shot himself rather than killing off Werther. Instead of producing a brilliant, cathartic examination of the perils of romanticism, he would have left behind an insipid, half-completed manuscript on the fruitless yearning of an out-of-state fly fisherman for the wife of his Maine guide. Your self-regard stood no chance. You did admirably. In that furnace of personal depravity which surrounded the outskirts of Ellsworth, to have limited your descent to a few stolen pickles is a remarkable achievement.

You mention that “Maine was trying to teach me something, but I was a slow learner…. I thought that what I knew most about was myself, but I could not have been more wrong. I didn’t know the Public_Library,_Ellsworth,_MEfirst thing about myself, and Maine wasn’t going to teach me. You don’t learn about yourself by being alone, you learn about yourself from other people.” Very true, but allow me to suggest that nowhere is that more true than in rural Maine towns. The issue, which can give rise to the perception of barrenness, insularity, and resultant loneliness, is that in 1991 these communities were monolithic in nature, the town was the only game in town, as it were, and though they had different components, an art scene, snowmobilers and ATVers, they were still a complex but singular whole. To not engage with them was to not breathe the air, to be lonely, to walk around a constricted hundred acres instead of enjoying some of the finest hiking trails in the world just down the road.

image_resize.phpYet, I digress. I talked of change. And I have changed. If you were in Maine today, you would have had a Hyundai, not a Subaru. But it goes even deeper than that. In 1991 small Maine towns were islands in almost every sense. Take bookstores, for example. Rural Maine bookstores were islands unto themselves. When email came to town, even they could exist in multiple communities simultaneously: the local community, the bookselling world, and the publishing community. This growth of community has made a big difference here. It has changed my heart.

You say that “Not a single word I wrote there [in Maine] was ever published. I haven’t once set foot in the state of Maine since then.” But that is not entirely true. You have by proxy. Your books are here, and believe it or not some people living in Maine are very fond of them. There are bookstores here who promote them to the nines. In fact, I venture to say that if you did physically set foot in me again you would see things differently. You have changed, of course, but so have I. We’d be meeting each other halfway.

Sincerely yours,
Statesig

 

The State of Maine

Scratch a Bookseller… Find a Star

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 3rd, 2015

I admit, I’m a teeny bit reluctant to write this post, because we have a rising star at the Flying Pig, and once she’s discovered by Big Music, she’ll be gone faster than you can say “Norah Jones.” But, as wonderful a bookseller as she is — and she is fabulous! — she is an even better singer/songwriter, the kind of talent that makes you know in your bones you’ll get to say someday, “I knew her when.”

Bloom1

Laura Heaberlin and Cricket Blue band mate Taylor Smith. Photo credit: Kevin Bloom

Her name is Laura Heaberlin, and she’s already won awards as a singer-songwriter. She’s well known in the Vermont indie music world, part of a duo called Cricket Blue. She and male band member Taylor Smith create gorgeous harmonies, write complex and layered lyrics, and spin a haunting, addictive sound. I defy anyone to listen to “Eve and Adam” just once. (You can download their 4-song EP for free at www.cricketbluemusic.com or click on the CD cover image below. The music is really beautiful.)

The reason we’re celebrating Laura’s fab talent today in particular is that Paste Magazine, which is running a 50 State Project rounding up the best of the music scene in each state, just listed “10 Vermont Bands You Should Listen To Now.” Cricket Blue is #3 on the list! Congratulations, Laura!!

Album Front Square

bookstore laura

Laura in bookseller guise.

I will say that the Flying Pig is no stranger to creative talent. Our youngest staff member, David Kerr, is a phenomenal saxophone player who started his college career at Berklee College of Music last fall and is burning up stages all over Boston. Even in high school, he practiced six hours a day; seasoned musicians invited him to gig even before he started shaving. If you’re a die-hard jazz fan, I predict you will be hearing his name in the not-so-distant future.

Also on the star roster is our first-ever employee, Emily Raabe, an award-winning poet and now a children’s book novelist and feature writer for major media. And of course, Josie Leavitt has twice won the coveted Vermont’s Funniest Stand-Up Comic award (an annual people’s choice award sponsored by the alt weekly, Seven Days), and has a vibrant life as a standup comedian and teacher.

I think if you polled indie bookstores all over the country, you’d find a similar story. Creative people tend to be eclectic readers, drawn to books and ideas and the multitude of worlds found in the millions of pages found in bookstores. So many writers and illustrators worked in bookstores before their careers took off, and I know of filmmakers and actors, as well, who were once booksellers.

So let’s hear it: indie colleagues, what creative brilliance will you boast on your staff, past or present? Feel free to brag about your booksellers here!