It’s time for our store’s annual “IT’S 4TH QUARTER, LET’S PANIC!” staff meeting, a Sunday night pizza-and-pop extravaganza when we review all the events scheduled in the next two months (and I do some mea culpas for booking the dog rescue AND the ninja event on the same weekend WITH the offsite author festival AND the reindeer visit….), unveil all the new wrapping paper, and do some staff training for new and returning holiday help. We vote on our staff Top 10 book choices in the picture book, middle grade, and YA categories, debate the dress code for Plaid Friday, and engage in some wheeling-and-dealing over shift coverage to accommodate everyone’s holiday obligations. Somewhere between the breadsticks and the Cranberry Sprite, slip in some staff training on customer service. Specifically, I want to give our folks some helpful words and phrases to use in conversation with customers, and some “red hot lava” sentences to avoid. Just in case you’re in staff training mode, too, I’ll share my list of “please, never say this”:
We’ve all played the desert island game, haven’t we? The game where you name three books (or movies, or foods, etc.) that you would bring to a desert island if that’s all you had for the rest of your life. When the category is books, I always try to cheat and count my Riverside Shakespeare as one book, even though it’s a two-volume boxed set and isn’t fair because it contains ALL OF SHAKESPEARE. Sometimes, I get away with it, but now that I’m the judge, and there’s a big prize, that won’t fly. Want to know what you’ll win? Autographed first editions of three fabulous 2017 titles: Katherine Paterson’s My Brigadista Year, M.T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand, and Alison McGhee’s Pablo and Birdy.
Here are the rules:
This week I thought I’d take a look at some favorites from this year’s crop of interactive books for babies and preschoolers. First up, It’s the Troll: Lift-The-Flap Book by Sally Grindley (Hachette, Nov.). This follow-up to Shhh! is based on The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Lift the flaps and peep through the holes as the goats try to get over the bridge to the fields of fresh green grass. This tale combines physical manipulation of the book’s elements with reader participation reminiscent of the Pigeon books by Mo Willems for a truly interactive experience.
Our store always seems to overflow with boxes this time of year, but one day out from our new job as bookselling partners for the Texas Book Festival, the piles of boxes have merged throughout our office space to form a perilous maze-like obstacle course designed to catch bookseller toes and knees around every corner.
This is a challenge any bookstore faces when prepping and running multiple, simultaneous large conferences and offsites and festivals out in the community, because bookstores aren’t generally known for our expansive storage space. Store design typically maximizes selling and display space, and although at our store we’re lucky enough to have an entire floor of dedicated office, storage, and receiving space, it gets tight pretty quickly at the time of year. Luckily our bookfair inventory has recently been moved out of the way into a new warehouse, and the bulk of the festival books will actually be delivered via 16-wheeler straight to the tent. Otherwise, the building might actually burst at the seams. Continue reading
Over six months ago I was able to determine The Real Reason Rothfuss’ Kingkiller 3 Is Not Here Yet by interviewing Bast, an unsettling character from the book itself. I am now in possession of a terrifying update on the status of Book Three, a disclosure that has left me badly shaken. For background you should know that here in central Maine we were hit by a powerful storm earlier in the week and my wife and I have been out of power for three days now. Yesterday morning I got up in the pitch dark and powered up our generator. When I came back into the house and turned on a light I was startled to find Bast himself sitting at our kitchen table.
Bast:: Hello there. I will not say good morning, as I will leave you to ponder whether it is a good morning or not after I leave you.
In honor of the morning after All Hallows Eve, I present to you the list things that scare this indie bookseller as we venture bravely (flashlights in hand) into the holiday season. (Also, I ate waaaay too many fun size Butterfinger bars this Halloween season. Let’s just get that confession out of the way right now, and I’ll leave the results of my next dentist appointment AND the fact that I’m wearing my fat jeans today right off the list.)
October is the biggest month of the year for new releases, which I suspect accounts for the wild uptick in damages we’ve seen in shipments lately. More books = more hands needed in warehouses, which means more temporary or new employees with less training and experience in packing books so they don’t smash each other on the way to bookstores. I have to say, I really feel for packers in warehouses, because they’re spending all day packing zillions of books into boxes at great speed. I don’t think anyone is intentionally careless or sloppy, but I do think that better practices and less time pressure might have better results—which could save big money in the long run.
It seems to me that one of the most cost-effective measures cash-strapped publishers could take is a really simple one: make sure your warehouse staffers are well trained and use effective packing materials and boxes that truly protect your books. I’m sure untold thousands of dollars and hours have been spent researching the best practices for book shipments, so I’m always surprised when we come across poorly packed boxes with expensive books loosely sliding around. A few pieces of fill paper won’t do much to protect that art book with the ivory textured matte cover (note to art departments: please don’t design light-colored matte dust jackets unless you plan to shrink-wrap books or don’t mind absorbing a lot of damages; these get so dirty sitting in warehouses, and not all of the grime erases off).
I meant to post this report on the MPIBA Fall Discovery Show last week, but the unpredictability of the fall season caught up with me. It’s exactly that wall-to-wall eventfulness of the season that makes the timing of our regional trade show so valuable. With so much focus in these fall months on events and promotions and making all the trains run on time, it’s always helpful to hit pause for a few days to re-center on the experience of discovery.
While I’ve locked in most of our store’s holiday picks by the show, and my rep conversations have mostly turned to Winter / Spring (or even Summer), I find the opportunity to refocus and refresh my perspective on Fall titles at this show really helpful. Talking to other booksellers and publishers about what they’re seeing excitement for helps me see things I may have missed and round out my thoughts about what’s coming out right now. Coming out of the show, I shipped home a rather large box of buzzy new books and ARCs to either spread around to staff or to take a closer look at. Some I, of course, already knew and loved; some were new to me, like the Rextooth Studios graphic novels about dinosaurs (that come with an endorsement from the Field Museum in Chicago); and others I returned appreciating in a whole new way, like Robinson by Peter Sis.
In Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the villainous Valmont, who lives for pleasure, discovered something unexpected while attempting to seduce a valorous widow. As part of his scheme he pretended to be a generous philanthropist and delivered alms after church to the poor and needy. He was shocked to discover that doing good deeds was a source of deep enjoyment. “I am astonished at the pleasure one experiences in doing good; and I should be tempted to believe that what we call virtuous people have not so much merit as they lead us to suppose.”
I believe that the same holds true for being wrong. Sure, children’s books are filled with aphorisms, and demonstrations on the great value of learning from mistakes, but making mistakes in the line of business is something we bookstore owners tend to strenuously avoid. Yet the aphorisms still ring true. It must be admitted, however, that there is a peculiar fascination in getting things wrong. I was absolutely convinced that The Magicians by Lev Grossman, was a standalone, I thought a sequel would be antithetical. My spectacular perception made me appreciate the intricate, well-planned sleight of hand involved in the narrative far more than seeing ahead to the finish line clearly would ever have done.
Why am I talking about this, you ask? What brought it to mind was contemplating how very wrong my estimate of the interest level in Phillip Pullman’s return to the world of The Golden Compass has proven, at least locally. I have been absolutely shocked at the lack of interest and excitement the release of La Belle Sauvage, book one of The Book of Dust, has received, at least locally. Particular customers I was completely sure would be bristling with anticipation have proven to be dismissive and uninterested. I’m not talking about a mild discrepancy between my expectation and the event, but rather of a tidal wave of misapprehension.
The “customer with the incredibly gifted kid” narrative is a popular one among booksellers, the source of wry social media posts on our personal pages, and arched eyebrow anecdotes shared with colleagues at conferences and events. We all have our pet stories of the four-year-old whose parent was seeking Proust or something equally challenging for their child, and the list of pat answers (that we might only scream inside our heads) to the well-meaning grandparent looking for a gift for their little genius, who has of course “read all of Harry Potter.” (Usually, he’s 7.) We acknowledge the brilliance of the child, gently suggest some age-appropriate titles, offer to gift wrap and hope for the best, or get ourselves paged to the stock room for an “emergency.”
In some ways, however, I think we might encourage this behavior when we ask adults “what is your child really INTO? What do they DO? Do they play a sport, have an activity, a real passion?” We think we’re helping to narrow down choices, and pride ourselves as book people on the knowledge of just the right title for an accomplished gymnast or aspiring architect, but we may also be contributing to the general expectation that all kids have a “thing” — and that they know what it is, and so does everyone else.