Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Quick Way to Leave Work

Josie Leavitt - January 31, 2011

Readers of ShelfTalker by now should know what a sucker I am for a cute puppy, or any dog for that matter. I love to hold them while their owners bustle about the store. This usually goes without incident, except for Friday.
I was having a very productive day doing returns when Shelby (not her real name) came in with her family. Shelby is a year-and-a-half-year-old dachshund who was in the arms of her owner. Just the other day I had seen and held Shelby without incident. This day, however, Shelby was very excited to see me. Just as I held her close, the way she had liked the day before, Shelby peed all over me. Not just a little that could be washed off easily, but a lot. Enough so that my shirt was soaked and even my jeans had not escaped this very excited dog, who apparently hadn’t gone to the bathroom all day. We were all embarrassed. Shelby looked pitifully guilty, her owner kept apologizing and I wondered why I never left a change of clothes at the store.
I emailed my Simon & Schuster rep and explained that I needed to reschedule my phone appointment. In my email I explained what happened. Then I thought maybe I should call him, just in case he didn’t check his email. He was still laughing when he picked up the phone. I was happy to provide “the funniest thing” he’d ever heard. I know it’s just an excited puppy, but getting pee all over me was not how I wanted to spend part of any day. It occurred to me, maybe this was an elaborate ruse from the publishers to get me to stop doing returns.
I drove home, damp and a little smelly with a new adage forming in my head: Just because a puppy is happy to see me doesn’t mean I should pick her up.

Actually Ironic

Elizabeth Bluemle - January 28, 2011

Fun for a Friday morning: I can’t resist sharing this with you caretakers of language. has taken on the Alanis Morrissette song, “Ironic,” and given it lyrics that are in fact ironic, instead of merely unlucky. (There are a few examples I would still quibble with; even the CollegeHumor people had trouble with the “free ride” and “good advice” lines. All in all, however, an excellent job and extremely amusing.)

An old man turned ninety-eight, he won the lottery and died the next day…of a shock-induced heart attack
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay……poured to celebrate your apartment fumigation
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late…’cause the governor was busy watching Dead Man Walking
And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think
It’s like rain at a dehydration victim’s funeral
It’s a free ride to your bankruptcy trial
It’s the good advice to never listen to me
Who would’ve thought…it figures
Mr. Play It Safe, he was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He’d waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought
“Now I’ll never make it to that Fear of Flying seminar”
And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think
It’s like rain flooding an umbrella factory
It’s a free ride to an overpriced car dealership
It’s the good advice from the guy who just got you fired
Who would’ve thought…it figures
A traffic jam when you’re already late…to receive an award for reducing automobile congestion
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break… at the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife…to rob a soup kitchen
It’s meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful wife…who’s also my relationship therapist
And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think
A little too ironic…yeah, I really do think…
It’s like rain on your wedding day…to the Egyptian sun god Ra
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid…for a stolen car
It’s the good advice someone advised you not to take
Who would’ve thought…it figures
I have a funny way of defining rhetorical devices that I use in songs
Songs have a funny, funny way of getting things wrong
Getting things wrong

Working Together…With Beer

Josie Leavitt - January 27, 2011

One of the great things about last week’s Winter Institute was getting to know some of my fellow Vermont booksellers a little better. I spent a fair amount of time talking to Becky Dayton, owner of The Vermont Bookshop, about business and books. Yesterday, Becky emailed me about sales reps and her idea about getting reps back into Vermont.
The email from Becky was very intriguing: “I had a wacky idea of trying to organize a day of rep appointments for multiple vendors and stores in a central location. Kind of a la “speed dating,” but writing orders…” This is not a wacky idea, this is really smart business. Vermont, especially Northern Vermont, has felt the loss of in-person reps for many years now. Please know, I am not maligning the phone reps I’ve worked with, they’ve been great. But there is something about meeting face to face, preferably over a meal or coffee, that can really build a relationship that’s mutually beneficial.
Imagine, if you will, a room full of eager buyers from up to five stores in Northern Vermont, listening intently to sales reps from some of the big publishing houses: Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Hachette talking about their books. Then each rep would meet with one store at time while the others mingled, had some pizza and maybe even a beer. This could turn a buying session into something fun and memorable for all involved. I have a gut feeling the orders would be larger because the buyers would be more relaxed. Plus, there is something really great about getting together with other booksellers. So often we feel like we toil in solitude, that when we can gather and share, it’s invigorating.
I have heard of some reps who have done this sort of thing, occasionally, but wouldn’t it be fun if it could be done three times a year? Pick a different store each time, different take-out, pizza, Chinese food, or sandwiches and a bunch of buyers who normally work in isolation, some in basements, actually getting together and talking to peers about books. Not only could they talk about books, but maybe event planners could come to these meetings and together they could work with publishers to bring authors to their state who might not otherwise visit. I’ve always imagined a Vermont tour that could be designed for ease of visiting as many stores as possible with a minimum of fuss. The beauty of Vermont is there are very few independents close enough to compete with each other (this is especially true of Northern Vermont), so authors could conceivably spend a week driving in our lovely state, visit upwards of 10 stores and never overlap with any customer base. That’s a pretty good deal, and it’s hard to explain that to folks who haven’t already driven around our fair state.
I know that publishers are facing deep cuts and they are trying to save money by not sending reps on the road, but the lack of in-person reps affects my business. For instance, Simon & Schuster took my rep away and then I bounced around last year with two different phone reps. Now, finally, I seem to have one who’s going to be my rep for a while. I like Stuart very much, but I think it would be so much more meaningful for me if I could have a coffee with him and get to know him as a person, not just the nice guy on the phone who knows books.
So, I’m hoping that the publishers will take up Becky’s idea, set a food budget, work together and let us buy our books in person again. If this happens, I’ll even buy the beer.

Getting It Done

Josie Leavitt - January 24, 2011

Winter Institute 6 may be over, but it’s having a lasting effect on me. After two sessions last Friday about efficiency, I’m raring to get stuff done, as are a lot of my bookselling friends. In fact some of us in New England have publicly stated their goals with dates, to help keep themselves on track.
How many times have you wanted to have two more hours in every day to get your work done? As booksellers, especially in smaller stores, we are interrupted literally by the business of retail: helping customers and selling books. Don’t get me wrong, this is a lovely thing, but it can make it hard to file co-op reports, plan events or do any of the myriad of tasks that small store owners or managers must do. I was in awe when one Wi6 attendee said she gets a list of books to her display manager when it’s time for a new look in the store. A display manager? Wow! I had no idea there was such a thing. I don’t have a display manager, but armed with my newly minted tools for greater efficiency, specifically from  David Allen’s great workshop at Wi6, and from reading his book, Making It All Work, I can run my store as if I have one.
I have to make good use of all the time I have in a day. This actually means taking time out to plan. Imagine. Taking a deep breath and planning and not just putting out fires. Today went well. I continued clearing out my email, I’ve pared down my store in-box from just over 3,000 emails to under 20. Of course, I got 50 emails today, so clearly this is going to be  a real challenge. But there was something breathtaking about seeing an in-box that was so lean. That kind of clarity makes it easier to get other things done.
Dan Cullen from the ABA mentioned the two-minute rule in his workshop: if it will take two minutes or less to do, then just get it done. Don’t put it on a list of things to get done, get it done. I tried that today and it not only worked, it made me more productive because I was able to clean out my in-box, put out a fire and plan ahead. This felt like a win-win to me.
The key to all of this is maintaining the zeal of the newly converted in a month or two. The challenge will be resisting falling back on old habits and letting things pile up. I do think it’s easier to get things done rather than thinking about getting things done.
Has anyone made any efficiency/planning goals since Wi6? If so, would you like to share what they were and what you hope to get out of them? Mine were to start planning the store’s 15th anniversary party even though it’s not until November, and to keep working on maintaining a streamlined in-box. I know that’s not horribly exciting, but I wanted to be realistic and give myself a chance of success. And you?

Bookseller Math

Elizabeth Bluemle -

Get four booksellers in a taxi at Winter Institute and the conversation quickly turns confessional–and riotous. We compare systems, not so much for book receiving, ordering cycles, inventory control, staff training, accounting, events, or the myriad other tasks that occupy our waking hours, but for dealing with difficult customers, dropped balls, elusive books on walkabout in the store, and so forth. It became clear that we use a special kind of math in our workaday world, a unique set of values, terms, and functions I’m calling Bookseller Math.
For example:
Algebra: We are constantly solving for X and Y, where X is the last copy of Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero, and Y is the shelf it should be on but isn’t. The upside: The thrill of victory when we successfully plug in the correct values, shout “Eureka!” and hand the wrangled book to a happy customer.
Calculus: Calculus, the study of “rate of change,” is all too familiar to booksellers as we encounter new variables, limits, derivatives, and functions — on a daily basis, in infinite series. Each store assesses its domain and range, and formulates its own equations, such as f(x) = 2x, where x = the ever-increasing cost of goods sold. Or K(A)n+E÷L=F(b),  where K=the Kindle, A=Amazon, n=the nook, E=the economy, L=Luddites, and F=Future of bookselling. Okay. That’s enough of that. I was an English major; the previous was the sum of my memory of calculus. The upside: It’s fun to reinvent one’s business plan again and again and again and again. We gather no moss, that’s for sure.
Negative numbers: These appear all too often as inventory on-hand quantities, caused by forgetting to finish receiving that order you’re waiting for shipping costs on, or those consignment books you put on the shelf before actually getting in the system. When we ring up those books, they are deducted from the inventory whether or not we’ve officially added the latest quantity received. Example: The computer says we have -3 copies of Young Fredle, but we ordered five last week, so there should be two on the shelf. Eureka!  The upside: Negative numbers keep our brains nimble as we make lightning-quick calculations when locating books for customers.
Ratios: A matter of relationships and proportion. These are generally positive, but also involve, sadly, fractions. Of sales, in this economy and climate (see Calculus). The upside: Indie booksellers excel at relationships and try to keep our sense of proportion, even in the face of fractions.
Geometry: This is the study of shape, though it’s not quite clear whether our area of concentration rests mainly with our stores (displays, the task of fitting too much into too little space, predicting the relative stability of book stacks, etc.) or ourselves (the direct correlation of desk time to bookseller bottom size). The upside: Remembering that perspective is a key element of geometry.

∏: What we need when we’re done worrying about the above.

WI6, The Second Day

Josie Leavitt - January 21, 2011

Yesterday started with a full breakfast before the speaker, and that was a good thing as Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor, had a lot of energy for so early in the day. I must admit, at first I was thinking that it was too loud and silly, as he had us blowing up balloons and making paper airplanes, and we watched as he squished a piece of perfectly good chocolate cake. But his message was right on target.
He talked about how Steinbeck’s The Red Pony opened his imagination, and that’s what booksellers do: we connect folks to their imagination. He also did something I really loved — he told us to stop whining about Amazon (there’s been a lot of that this week). People want to make connections with real people, so it’s our job to make those connections and value them. His description of staffers, “Bitter Betty” and the slacker guy behind the counter, and how their behavior can actually have people decide not to return to your store ,was mind-opening. Have fun! Make displays that make people laugh. Oh, what a great concept.
Don’t be afraid of customers with Kindles, Nooks or iPads, just get them in your store and create such a positive experience they want to come back. He ended by saying for us to stop complaining and frame things in the positive: what have you done right, and what two things will we commit to doing to help our store. I think the free copy of his book will be invaluable, and that’s the way I want to start my day.
After that I went to The New Reality: Alternative Business Models for the Independent Stores, which, while very interesting, was more of an events workshop, rather than showing me a way to market my store or show me what else I can add to the book mix to increase my sales. That said, I did learn about some great events. Annie Philbrick of Bank Square in Mystic, Conn., started having author lunches, rather than evening author events. Her town is a lot like mine, it goes to bed early. She found that by charging for the book, it ensured an audience for the lunch. Co-op money covered the cost of the food, which was sponsored by a local eatery. So, 30 or so people would come to lunch, guaranteeing sales of at least 30 frontlist hardcovers, they’d have lunch on their laps in the store and have a very intimate time with an author. The lunch took the stress out of wondering just who would come to an evening event. It was a win-win for all involved.
Jane Streeter of The Bookcase in Nottinghamshire, U.K., started a film and book festival in her town of 2,000. This has been hugely successful and has expanded out to other towns and now includes showings of first-run movies, with the store providing books that relate to each film, dozens of author signings and an actual festival on the village green.
Nancy Simpson of The Book Vault in Oskaloosa, Iowa, started Day for Divas with six other independent stores in her downtown. Women (they’re working on something for men) buy tickets for $25 and it includes a cooking demo, something fun at the nail salon, lunch and a bunch of other things.
One great thing I learned from this is ridiculously simple. Ask a visiting author in advance of their visit what their favorite book is and have it on hand when during the visit. It’s an easy way to sell backlist, and usually unexpected backlist.
Other folks commented that they are now offering classes. They partner with a teacher, be it for languages or knitting, they keep the class sizes small, ask for pre-payment as way to ensure their place in the class, and the classes are selling out. Working with a teacher can help bring new customers to your store, while ensuring a revenue stream.
Next up was the Speed Dating with reps at lunch. At least this year everyone ate before the reps started talking about their books and passing them around. I must be getting older, but I find it hard to concentrate at these lunches because there’s just so much ambient noise. I feel bad for the hard-working reps, or publishers who are telling us about their books. I did learn a lot and am happy to have Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman in my bag to read on the plane. Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic did such a wonderful job describing this book about love and loss that I just can’t wait to read it.  I can say the same for Jeff Abbott’s Adrenaline presented by Mike Heuer from Hachette. I love a good mystery/thriller and he made this sound unputdownable.
Then I went to What Really Drives Choice in the Children’s Book Market. The good news is bookstores (chain or indie, they were not separated in the survey) are the first place parents go to look at books. This was gratifying. But the sad part of this is only 6% of book sales occur at independents. We are below Barnes & Noble at 28%, Sam’s Club, and other bricks and mortar stores. So, at least Amazon has not figured as much we all think they have. This says to me, we’re doing a great of getting folks in the store, but maybe we need to do more to close the sale. The other bright point was teenagers don’t seem to like e-readers much.  There was much more to this than my quick recap, but without access to the slides (should be coming in a few weeks) I can’t really say more.
The author reception, which I left early to do my blog before my publisher dinner (aren’t I good? actually it was more that I had reached the limit of number of galleys I could carry). I love the author reception. I get to meet some old friends and say hi. Tonight I got to say “Hi!” to Doreen Cronin, whose new book, The Trouble with Chickens, looks just right for my eight-year-old nephew and all kids looking for a middle grade book that’s funny. It’s making the connections that inspire me. I got to meet first-time author Victoria Brown. Her adult book, Minding Ben, about a teenager from Trinidad who winds up as a New York City nanny, will be a great cross-over book for my sophisticated teen readers. If I hadn’t been at this event, I might well have passed on the book, but to hear her talk about it, I knew I could sell it when it comes out.
Winter Institute is so many things: camaraderie, a joint bitch-fest at times, a place where you can get reinvigorated by new ideas, meet authors old and new, generally have a good time surrounded by like-minded book lovers. It’s just a pity only 500 booksellers can come.
Off to a publisher dinner! More on Monday.

Winter Institute Thus Far

Josie Leavitt - January 20, 2011

Okay, I’ve only had one full day of Wi6 so far, but it’s been a really interesting day. Today was Legislative Day. It began with a panel discussion at breakfast-time (it struck me as odd to convene folks for a panel at 9 a.m. and not offer a stale Danish or some coffee), but the conversation was lively. The day ended with a reception at the Library of Congress;  in between I was urged to action by the head of the Small Business Administration and I got to talk to my Senator’s assistant and my actual Congressman. All in all, a pretty full day.
The panelists for the first session, Indie Retail and Activism: The Business Road to Political Change, were interesting, more for the applications of common themes of 21st century retail: working locally, how to be political without giving offense, and how to advocate for your industry in a way that gets your customers to help and do most of the work. Rick Karp, president of Cole Hardware in San Francisco, Jakob Wolf-Barnett, pperations manager of Revolution Cycles, Washington, D.C and Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks were the panelists. Oren Teicher moderated the discussion. Basically, each panelist has been an advocate for their industry. While I found their individual stories interesting, I must say, after going to five other Winter Institutes, regional shows and Book Expo America, I didn’t hear anything new.
What I did hear was passion for change and that, in and of itself can make me excited to do more. Revolution Cycle’s tag line is brilliant: more butts in bikes. Short, to the point and really says it all. Jakob runs the bike store a lot like a bookstore; great, dedicated and passionate staff all working to fight the fight about why spending more for the same bike you can buy at a toy store is a great idea. One really great idea was from Rick: spend more time working on your store, not in your store. I realize that can it be hard with the many hats we all wear at indies, but you can’t really do long term planning, advocacy, or attend Local First meetings or Chamber of Commerce meetings when you’re working behind the counter or receiving shipments.
The next panel was moderated by a very funny and very knowledgeable Jim Lehrer. He interviewed Karen Mills who’s the head of the SBA. His questions were insightful and broad: “What can the SBA do for bookstores?” It may sound silly, but there weren’t many of us who knew just what they offered for the small business. And the running joke was there should be a Tiny Business Administration (when I was meeting the Leahy staffer, he said, “it should actually be the Micro Business Administration because so many businesses are so small”). As soon as this session was done, I ran back to my room to go to the SBA’s website to see what I credits I could claim on my taxes and what loans could be available to me. I was encouraged by the degree of help available that I didn’t know about.
Lunch was boxed and uneventful. I had neglected to check the box the allowed my access to my representatives, but Penny and Liza from the Norwich Bookstore graciously allowed to tag along with them. I must confess, I’m not usually dumbstruck, but a giddiness over took me as we entered the Senate building on our way to meet with Senator Leahy’s staff. I kept thinking as I looked at the offices, many of whom were being redecorated for the incoming, newly elected Senators, these are Senator’s offices. This is where laws get made, this is a place that exudes power. I kept thinking about all the television shows I’ve seen about Washington, and here I was walking the halls of the Senate building looking for an office. It was quite awe-inspiring.
To be able to speak directly to a Senator’s assistant, or the an actual Congressman, as was the case with Peter Welch, was quite moving. To have someone in an actual position of power listen to us vent about tax fairness and credit card fees was really amazing. We were given websites and names of people we could speak with when we got home to keep the ball rolling. Then we went to the House Gallery to listen to Congressmen give testimony about the health care debate, which was quite extraordinary.
One of the best parts of the day was having coffee with Liza and Penny talking about bookselling. So often we work in isolation, and to be able to discuss the finer details of the business with fellow colleagues is a joy.
More tomorrow, about today’s educational sessions.

Winter Institute 6

Josie Leavitt - January 18, 2011

Today Elizabeth and I leave the ABA’s sixth Winter Institute, known as WI6, in Washington, D.C. Five hundred booksellers will gather for three days of educational sessions, lunches and author receptions. Really, what could be better… oh, lots of great galleys.
I am looking forward to WI6 for many reasons. The main reason is to see my bookselling friends again. WI6 is six months after the annual book trade show, BEA, and because its focus is only on bookseller education, there is no show floor. Therefore, there’s not that mad scramble to see as much as possible. Plus, this show, I’m not hobbled by health issues, so I can actually walk around.
My goal this week is to learn, from my colleagues and the educational session facilitators. The sessions that I’m particularly excited about are the ones that deal with how to survive in these changing times. I will be happily attending the following sessions, some of this might involve cloning myself, but there is much to learn (descriptions taken from WI6 program):
The New Reality:  Alternative Business Models for Independent Bookstore A business model based on book sales alone is growing more challenging each year, but a few creative ideas can make a difference. This panel will feature booksellers who have embraced new business models that expand the bookstore business beyond the book.
How To Create New Business Models Through Strategic Thinking
From selling children’s clothes and creating stores within stores to offering local delivery, indie booksellers are using their ingenuity and their roots in the community to create new and interesting ways to sustain their book sales. The process involves recognizing opportunity and using strategic thinking. This session will walk you through the strategic thinking process and leave you with the tools to plan new ventures.
Buying And Selling Non-Book Roundtable In this roundtable you will discover new tactics, share some of your own, and enjoy a conversation with your colleagues about sidelines.
What Really Drives Choice In The Children’s Book Market? The 2010 ABC & Bowker PubTrack Survey How do consumers value children’s books, and what makes them choose one over another? In fall 2010, Bowker PubTrack and the Association of Booksellers for Children set out to understand these questions in collaboration with children’s publishers. Focusing on purchasing for three core groups, and covering everything from how much input children have in buying decisions, to trends in digital book content, these key findings present the first-ever real data about what is driving today’s children’s book market.
Event Planners Roundtable If you are an event planner, this roundtable is where you want to be! Come join your colleagues in a discussion that will cover many aspects of planning events.
And, as great as these look, there are more I’d like to attend, but that would involve altering the space-time continuum, so I’ll be happy with what I can glean from the ones I can actually be a part of. The thing that I just adore about Winter Institute are the chance encounters with other booksellers where we problem-solve. I learn so much from my colleagues, it amazes and makes me happy every time.
Next week, I’ll have a recap of all the educational sessions and highlights of what I learned.

The “Dream” Then and Now

Elizabeth Bluemle - January 17, 2011

On today, Martin Luther King Day, it seems to me one of the best ways to spend it is to read his powerful words and those of Langston Hughes, and reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go before meeting the call for meaningful equality among all people in our nation. On the heels of the tragedy in Arizona, it seems particularly important to “forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline,” rather than devolving into bitterness, hatred, or violence.
You can read the entire text of the “I have a dream” speech here, in its entirety, or watch it here. Below is a section from the end that resonates so deeply, followed by the poem, “Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes. Both do such a beautiful job of illuminating where we’ve come from, and where we yet need to go.

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today.

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

“I have a dream today.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

“This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

“This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’

“And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

“Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

“Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

“But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

“Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

“Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Isn’t in incredible that almost fifty years later, those words still make you want to stand up and cheer?! We’ve come such a long, long way, but still have a long way to go. Langston Hughes’s poem below strikes notes resonant of the economic disparities that still plague our country, and imagines an inclusive American dream.

Let America be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
The free?
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!


Those of us in the field of children’s book publishing have a unique opportunity to help shape—through the vision of our books and the makeup of our multitude of publishers, editors, writers, artists, agents, and designers. ShelfTalker has addressed some of these aspects here and here, and we need to revisit and revise these ideas frequently, with hope and purpose and forward motion.
Happy Martin Luther King Day, everyone. Aren’t we lucky to have had that courageous, articulate, passionate man in our midst! May we continue to honor his memory—and that of Langston Hughes, and every human being who has dared to take a stand for equality and justice—by paying more than lip service to the dream of an equal, inclusive, and most colorful world.

Snow Day Planning

Josie Leavitt - January 14, 2011

For most of us in the Northeast, Wednesday brought a snowstorm of varying sizes. Here in northwestern Vermont our predicted one to three inches turned into more like eight to ten. The unexpectedly horrible weather had us closing the store early. It’s a rare treat for booksellers to actually get a snow day. And I learned that they’re just has much fun as an adult as they were when I was a kid. The only difference was, I didn’t play, I planned, and it was just as satisfying.
The rare time off together allowed Elizabeth and me to hunker down with weather and plan the year. This year we’re trying to focus on more author-less events. The most fun of the snow day was brainstorming great event ideas. Of course, we’re also going to the 6th Winter Institute next week, I’m sure we’ll get some other fun ideas. But there were three ideas that we had on Wednesday that we’ve already set up, and this rapid turnaround is a record for us.
One idea we had is a bike-tuning event in May to help kids get their bikes ready for the summer. The part of the event that makes me happy is the organization that will lead the event also takes old bikes and donates them to kids who need them, so we’re asking folks to bring in bikes their kids have outgrown to donate to the organization. This is the kind of community event I want to do more of in the coming year. I think these events have a lasting ripple effect for all involved.
We’ve always danced around the idea of having a store book group: should we, shouldn’t we? Well, we bit the bullet and I get to indulge in my passion for mysteries and dystopian novels: Mysteries and Mayhem will meet on the fourth Tuesday of the month starting in February. I’m excited about this. I’m not sure why after all these years, I finally feel that I can run a really good book group. Honestly, I think all I needed was a theme. Sometimes, it’s the simple things. I just hope other people like the book group, too.
Other author-less events we’re having are two parties. One is a tea party and the other is a fairy/pirate tea party. I’m always astonished at how successful these tea parties are. And, trust me when I say that there is a different kind of kid who will come to each party, because not all tea parties are the same. Tea parties are easy and once you’ve made the investment in tea sets, you’re pretty all set, except for food. Honestly, I like making the food for tea parties, it’s fun and it’s a great way to get the whole staff working as an assembly line making tiny tea sandwiches.
I’m curious what other stores are doing with their author-less events. If you feel like sharing, let us know what events your store is having that you’re excited about.