Monthly Archives: November 2011

Cheats for Tired Brains

Josie Leavitt - November 30, 2011

All booksellers are entering the season when sometimes our brains turn to mush. For me this usually happens towards the end of the day,  when I’m the most tired, and sadly this is often the time of day when folks getting off of work have time to shop. With 15 holiday seasons under my belt, I’ve found some great ways to help a tired brain that don’t involve caffeine and sugar.
– Know your store’s newsletter inside out. (I’ll be blogging about our newsletter later in the week.) The best way to help customers with recommendations is often your store’s own work.
– Read the trades online to know what’s going to be talked about in the media during the day. It’s amazing how quickly there can be a slew of requests for a book that was just on a radio show. Here’s why booksellers need to know this things: these books are often the titles that get completely muddled when a customer wants to order it. To be fair, most customers hear these stories while they’re driving and haven’t had time to write it down. I try to press people for the time they heard about the book in question. I know the public radio schedule well enough to know what show to look up to find the book.
– Know how to get your local public radio station’s websites. These are amazing founts of information. Also, looking something up at the computer can often give you a breather that might be enough time to help you remember the title.
– Try to know what the local paper might be recommending as this often makes the phone ring off the hook with requests. Our local paper is notorious for recommending books that are either out of print or not yet released. Sometimes, they come from tiny publishers and it’s in any bookseller’s interest to know how to get that book before too many call asking about it.
– Ask your colleagues for help when you get stuck. I find my fellow booksellers can really save me when I’m drowning. Our staff has been together for so many years that we know when someone might be struggling and need a little help.
– Don’t be afraid to use a lifeline. I’ve often called Elizabeth when I’m completely stumped by a title request. Customer don’t even seem to mind this, in fact they’re usually impressed by the extra effort. They’re thrilled when that call turns into a found title.
– Don’t forget to eat lunch at a reasonable hour. Lunch at 4 pm is not helpful to anyone. There’s nothing worse than a blood sugar crash in the middle of the after-school rush. If I eat lunch that late I’m cranky and my brain has lost its ability to recall any book I’ve ever read.
– Lastly, try to have fun, even your brain has turned to goo. The holidays are intense, but they should be fun. I’ve already made plans with other tenants in the building that I can run up to their office for a 10-minute break when we’ve got a lull and I need to refresh my brain. It helps they have a puppy to play with, too.

Small Business Saturday Success

Josie Leavitt - November 28, 2011

This past Saturday American Express sponsored Small Business Saturday for the second time. This is a day when the credit card company encourages people to shop at small businesses by offering a rebate on purchases made with their Amex card. Judging by a 100% increase in our American Express charges, I’d say folks knew about the promotion.
What was so lovely about Saturday was the glee in customers’ faces as I’d ring them up and they’d say, “I’m here for Small Business Saturday. You are my business.” I’d smile back and thank them. It was heartening to see so many new faces on Saturday. People actually thought about what small business to go to and were happy to let us know they’d chosen us.
I think slowly the message is starting to seep in that it’s vital to shop at small businesses. It’s a little sad that American Express doing this promotion has had more of an immediate and positive effect on business than the Shop Local campaign has had. This got me thinking about the power of the message and the size of the voice creating the message.
American Express has had an enormous social media campaign that seems to have reached every shopper in the country. Anyone on Facebook couldn’t have missed it. They made it sound fun and important at the same time. Plus, once you registered your card, there was the lovely rebate awaiting you. I’m not a huge Amex fan, I don’t have one personally and they are expensive for retailers to process, but I loved this promotion. It excited shoppers to spend money and do something good at the same time. This appeared to be a very winning combination on Saturday.
So, my question is: will the Small Business Saturday shoppers realize that everyday should be a Shop Small Business day, even without a rebate? I sure hope so.

Black Friday at the Pig

Josie Leavitt - November 25, 2011

It’s the morning of Black Friday. I’ve got my Santa hat on while I busily count the register drawers. It’s too early for customers. I looked back through my sales for the past three years  and the masses of customers don’t tend to arrive till the afternoon. While this pattern works well for getting the store ready, it also makes for a crazy afternoon.
I love this season of bookselling. The folks coming for recommendations, our ability to come up with interesting books that will make someone very happy, make me love my job. Of course, at the end of the busy days, I’m exhausted, but in an exhilarated kind of way. We also put a small dish of sugar plum candies at the register. I find there’s nothing as lovely as a tasty, holiday themed candy to make someone’s shopping go just a little better. Plus, enjoying a candy can take the sting out of a large purchase.
So, shoppers, enjoy yourselves this weekend. Shop locally and be kind to all the folks behind the counters, we’re working hard for you, and if you can, have a sugar plum, they’re divine.

Giving Thanks with Laughter

Josie Leavitt - November 23, 2011

I spent last night performing stand-up comedy at the women’s prison in Vermont. And I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun performing, ever. The performance was arranged to get the women energized about the stand-up comedy class I’m teaching in the winter. I was touched by the women’s stories and intelligence. Several women came up to me to thank me for making them laugh.
This got me thinking about the power of laughter, not just for prisoners but for all of us. I was helping a 13-year-old young man try to find a book today and all he wanted was something funny. He mentioned that with Thanksgiving week, “I actually have time to read what I want to read.” And he wanted to laugh. I am hearing this more and more. Kids want books that are funny because, well, they’re fun. That’s not to say there’s no room for the fabulous dystopian novel or dark realistic fiction, but I think kids want to laugh more. He happily took Going Bovine and An Abundance of Katherines. I felt good knowing that this week, a young man was just going to laugh over some books.
Every Thanksgiving I laugh. I laugh at the memories of disastrous meals in the past and why I always have to call my mom to remember how to long to cook a turkey. One of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving is reading David Sedaris holiday stories. I’ve read them dozens of times and I still laugh every time.
So, here’s wishing all of you out there a fabulous holiday full of love and laughter. And if the turkey burns, or a political fight breaks out, see the funny side of it and have a good laugh or two.

Our 15th Anniversary Party

Josie Leavitt - November 21, 2011

Yesterday we celebrated our 15th anniversary, and what a day it was. The party ran from 12-4 and a grand time was had by all.
We had cake, not just a cake, but a stunning one.  The great logo of a pig reading on a cake was designed by illustrator Kevan Atteberry and was  a HUGE hit with all. Luckily, there was exactly one piece left, and as the person who worked alone yesterday, I felt no guilt enjoying it.
The store was actually so busy that I wasn’t able to take many photos. Elizabeth and I were quite busy saying hi to the many folks who came in just to wish us well. I was very moved by this outpouring of love for the store. I think folks, now more than ever, have really come to view us as a wonderful part of their community. The fragility of independent bookstores is not lost on our customers and they seem ever more grateful and appreciative that we are here.
Our staff, all five of them were working together in the afternoon, and that was just as much as the cake and the party. I was reminded anew how much I love working with these people. Yes, we’re all a little crazy, but somehow it just works. And as we gear up for the holidays, a day where we all had fun is a great thing.
The party was slamming busy. Lots of folks taking advantage of our one-day holiday sale. We were wrapping (which is not easy to do with a massive cake on the back counter), we were recommending, we were having Prosecco at two in the afternoon (a tradition I can totally get behind) and laughing.
I stood with Elizabeth in the back room during all the festivities and took it all in. Fifteen years is a long time and it’s been great fun to build the store with her. Here’s hoping we have a great holiday season and another fifteen years.
I think this picture sums up why we do this.  Three best friends all reading the same book amid the hubbub. They didn’t care about the cake, they cared about the Wimpy Kid book and they took a moment to enjoy it.
It’s thousands of moments like that make this job a delight.

Ann Patchett and Me

Josie Leavitt - November 18, 2011

I have been following with great interest Ann Patchett’s desire to bring an independent bookstore back to Nashville.  As we approach our 15th anniversary this weekend, I can’t help but notice the differences and similarities.
– We opened a store because there wasn’t a bookstore nearby, just as Ann was aggrieved that Nashville was lacking an indie. We opened in Charlotte, Vt., population 3,500. Nashville’s population is just over 600,000. What’s scary to me is that a city of over half a million couldn’t keep a bookstore going. Here’s hoping Ann’s store can buck the trend.
– Ann had her idea in the spring and the bookstore appears to be a few days from opening. We had our idea to open when the building (the only commercial building on what amounts to Main Street) was up for rent. We signed the lease on September, 1 1996, and opened on November 23, 1996, roughly 10 weeks from idea to opening day. Ann took six months, probably a much more sane amount of time, and invested $300,000. We had $65,000 to start with.
– Ann did not know anything about retail bookstores when she had this idea. Ann got a partner who did.
– We did not know anything about retail bookstores when we had the idea for our store. We learned on the fly and while this was fun, it was probably not the best business model.
– We started as a kids’-only store and quickly realized that we needed to have adult books, so we expanded our store to be a general bookstore with a great kids’ section. Our kids’ section is fully half the store and that works for us. To have the kids “as far away from the front door as possible”, as Ann was advised, could be a mistake (read the whole New York Times article here). If people can’t find the kids’ section they won’t shop in it.
– This is not part of the list, but I want to share this tidbit with Ann: Here’s the great thing about the kids’ section: adults may not buy books for themselves when times are tough, but they’re still going to get their kids birthday presents and holiday presents. For the most part, this is the part of the store that hasn’t yet been taken over by the e-book.  This is borne out by our second bestselling section: hardcover picture books.
– Ann is famous.
– We were not. In fact we had just moved to Vermont in June 1996 and outside of our neighbors, who were our very first customers, no one knew us when we opened our store.
– Ann’s bookstore will always have signed Ann Patchett books. I have never had a signed Ann Patchett book. I’ve requested Ann for an author visit five years in a row, and have been told no by the publisher every year.
– We both love books and want to live a town where an indie bookstore is a vital part of the community. I wish Ann and her partner the best of luck and here’s hoping we’re both still open 15 years from now.

Holiday Survival Guide

Josie Leavitt - November 17, 2011

I cannot believe that Thanksgiving is next week. It was 60 degrees in Vermont yesterday. That’s unbelievable. Warm weather does not inspire holiday shopping. It’s actually kind of freaky here: some mums are still blooming, the mosquitoes (a late crop from Hurricane Irene) are still buzzing in people’s ears, and yet, Thanksgiving is a week away. This means that there are just over five weeks until Christmas and Hanukkah. I cannot believe it. And while I may be disbelieving, I still have to prepare for the holiday shopping onslaught, so I made a guide for bookstores to not just survive the holiday season, but thrive.
– The first thing to remember is: it should still be fun. There needs to be a sense of fun for every day of the holiday season. It’s too easy to succumb to the panic that can surround working in retail during the holiday. Wear a silly hat or elf shoes and it’ll be amazing how much silliness this can bring to any transaction that might be difficult. Also, there is nothing more disarming than someone trying to help a customer while wearing elf ears. It just takes the edge off potential anger.
– Be prepared. Nothing can be more frustrating than running out simple things like bags, gift wrap and gift cards. These staples are vital for a smooth flowing holiday season. Without them at best you run the risk of looking foolish, and at worst, you can anger customers.
– Keep your store really well stocked. I know it can be a guessing game as to what customers will want, but not having some of the big books of the season is foolish.
– If you haven’t ordered stocking stuffers, get them in as soon as you can. People are buying presents now and having cute add-ons for the stocking, or the fourth night of Hanukkah, can only help your sales.
– Keep your displays looking fresh and change them every week. This is a great way to keep the store look vital and appealing.
– Every morning look over what you actually have on the shelves. There’s nothing more frustrating for customers than having a bookstore staffer enthusiastically recommend a book only to discover it’s not in the store and needs to be ordered.
– Do something charitable for the holidays that customers can participate in. Giving something back to your community is a lovely thing to do and it’s a win-win if customers buy books to help the charity.
– Be kind to your staff. Treats or coffee can do a lot to brighten the day of someone who is working extremely hard.
– Find ways to remind folks to continue to shop locally after the holidays. Oftentimes the holidays brings new or very occasional customers to the store. Make them feel welcome, but also try to find out why they don’t shop at your store all the time.
– Make every customer interaction a positive one. Nothing will get customers coming back more than having a great time at your store.
– Lastly, have books from every section you are passionate about. Nothing helps sway a tentative shopper more than your conviction and belief in a book.

A Very Simple and Good Idea

Josie Leavitt - November 15, 2011

Every year I have to balance between the need to stock the National Book Award winners and not being able to get them because there’s a rush on the winner’s books. It’s important to have them as people come in after the awards are announced wanting the winners. And not having them in a timely way diminishes the store in some way.
I have given up trying to guess which books might win and bringing in five copies of the books I think will win only to have to return them because I’ve guessed wrong.  I usually stock at least one copy of the shortlisted books, but I always need more. And I never ever guess right.
My W.W. Norton rep just emailed this afternoon about placing an order for the winners. Luckily for Norton, they have two books in serious contention and it’s likely they’ll win. Here’s the beauty of this plan: the books will only ship if they’ve won. There’s a five-book minimum which was easy to meet with The Swerve  and Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.
This is a brilliant and simple idea. No risk for the bookstore and it makes me look prescient for having stock of the winners. I wish all the publishers would do this for award winners.

An Event Being Worthy of a Medal Winner and a Writer With Heart

Josie Leavitt - November 14, 2011

The last event of our 15th anniversary celebration was on Saturday — and what a glorious way to end. We were graced with Paul O. Zelinsky and Emily Jenkins, who presented the very lovely Toys Come Home: Being The Early Experiences of an Intelligent Stingray, a Brave Buffalo, and a Brand-new Something Called Plastic. 
Our event room was full of adoring fans, many of whom could recite the first two books word for word.  We don’t usually have dual-author events (save for the Patersons, last week), so I was very curious to see how the artist and the writer would work together. It was bliss.
First off, it’s clear these two get along quite well. Paul said he got Emily’s story and was only worried about ruining it with the art, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. The art and the story are so perfectly melded, I can’t imagine the book working without each person’s contribution. Emily writes with heart. You believe these stuffed animals having an active inner life and Paul brings them to life in a totally believable way.
As soon as Paul started to draw, half the kids fled their seats to sit dead center right up front so they could see exactly what Paul was doing. Adults were leaning forward and marveling how, in a few strokes of his charcoal pencil, he created a real buffalo and then showed how he softened it to be a toy. The real excitement of the event happened when Emily read a short chapter and Paul drew it. It was as if he was animating the chapter. To have an artist of Paul’s caliber draw along to a story was pure magic.
I loved Emily’s telling how she came to write the story. It seems her beloved squirrel toy went missing after a flight to see her dad when she was a child. She was crying about it and her dad told her to imagine the adventures the squirrel was going on rather than being sad for him. And it worked. She stopped crying and somewhere a seed was planted for a story to emerge years later.
The Q&A portion of the event was equally entertaining. One person asked Emily if she could make the noise that Spark makes. And she did. It was part grunt, part deep woof.  The child was satisfied. An adult posed a question to Paul and said, “Paul, this is for you…” Immediately after he answered that question, a boy about five years old shot his hand up in the air. Emily called on him and he said, “Paul, this is for you, I like your work very much.” We all about died of cuteness.
One thing Emily said that really resonated with all attendees under the age of 15 was,”Don’t you ever notice how your stuffed animals are never quite in the position they were in when you left in the morning?” Kids were nodding their heads in agreement.
I must admit, I went home and looked around at the few stuffed animals I have, and sure enough…
[Elizabeth is now hijacking this post to add one more irresistible tidbit: that Paul is an unrepentant carnivore, even when it comes to the animals in this book. Earlier in his tour with Emily, he ate bison. (Poor Lumphy.) On Friday, we went to a restaurant only to find — I kid you not — skate on the menu. Yep, poor little Sting Ray right there under the salmon. What are the chances?! It had to be the only restaurant in all of Vermont serving skate, and that’s where I took Paul Zelinsky.

So of course Paul ordered it. And of course I took a picture. And of course Paul, being an artist, couldn’t resist putting a little something extra on it:

Paul O. Zelinsky, skate eater. Photo by EB. Tinkering by POZ.

I have to say, we have the best jobs in the world.]

Who’s Winning Awards in January?

Josie Leavitt - November 11, 2011

It was a gloomy day yesterday and I consoled myself by looking at picture books, which always leads me to wondering who’s going to win the Caldecott this year.

I think a lot of folks are saying Wonderstruck will repeat the success of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and as much as I love this book, I don’t think so.  I just think Hugo broke the ground on this style of book and Wonderstruck‘s format is too similar.

It’s no surprise just how much I love Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson, but will it win? There’s a lot of text and that might make it not win the Caldecott, but I have a sneaking feeling it’s going to win some bling. Several other non-fiction books also seem likely to win.
A book that I adore is Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell. A seemingly simple book, this book really captures the mind of a young Jane Goodall in a way that will appeal to most children.  The book A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston is chock full of info about butterflies and is absolutely stunning.
Will You Be My Friend? by Peter Brown strikes all the right notes for child enjoyment, and the art is wonderful and accessible.
So, what are you guessing will win come January?
Please comment below and when it’s time for the announcements, I’ll post who got the most correct titles and they’ll win the annual PW ShelfTalker Bow of Gratitude. Remember, points are given for number of correct titles in the correct order: winner, honor, etc. Guesses accepted until 6am the morning of the announcements.