Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Table of Resolutions

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 29, 2011

The table of resolutions, pre- set-up. (Actually, this pic was taken in 2006, so it's "pre-" a lot of things.)

To ring in the New Year, we’re setting up our Flying Pig table with books designed to inspire resolutions. Oh, sure, we’ll have an obligatory healthy eating guide or two, but the focus will be on creative pursuits: books on writing, drawing, watercolor, comedy. So many people have secret (or semi-secret) back-burner passions, and the New Year is a terrific time to bring them to the forefront.
Of course, we’re also thinking about our own resolutions. Not just personal goals, but plans for the bookstore. Although a certain amount of winging it defines the Flying Pig approach, we do like to map out our year in hopes both pragmatic and poetic. These range from annual resolutions like, “Do more publisher orders” and “Claim co-op” (which are the bookstore equivalent of “Lose weight” and “Eat more veggies”) to specific visions of events (increasing our Tuesday Tastings and Sneak Peek Suppers series) to plans for expanding our customer base.
It should be a good year for resolutions. 2012 is full of anniversaries, achievements and oddities. It’s a leap year (so we’re tempted to host a frog-jumping contest and celebrate Mark Twain). The world’s first Winter Youth Olympics will take place later this month in Innsbruck, and London will host the Summer Olympics (for the third time). Queen Elizabeth will have been on the throne for 60 years on February 6. Books set in 2012 are listed in Wikipedia. Apparently, sunspot activity will peak in 2012, so don’t get too attached to your GPS systems and electronics. A NASA probe (the ‘New Horizons’) is expected to arrive close to Pluto for the first time sometime in the coming year. 2012 has also been designated Alan Turing Year; this might be a fine time to check out Chelsea House’s Alan Turing: Computing Genius and Wartime Code Breaker (Makers of Modern Science series), by Harry Henderson (9780816061754).
If you’re the type to ponder the Mayan calendar and global spiritual transformation, take a gander at the so-called “2012 phenomenon.” The world might end, or it may mark the beginning of a brand new era. Either way, we’re intrigued.
2012 is also the Year of the Dragon, an auspicious augur of success and happiness for everyone. Wahoo!
It is also, perhaps most importantly for ShelfTalker readers, the Year of the Picture Book, so designated by New England Children’s Booksellers at a conference in 2010, and enthusiastically embraced by the Association of Booksellers for Children. Expect to see some great initiatives this coming year on behalf of that most delicious and irreplaceable art form.
One of my personal book resolutions is to read at least one picture book a day, and find meaningful ways to highlight the best of the best, both old and new, in honor of The Year of the Picture Book. I’ll keep you posted on how this takes shape. One thing we’d like to do is celebrate a different picture book author/artist team each week all year long, both at the store and in this blog.
Another is to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, one of those classics I’ve never picked up (and I’m one of about 134 people in the country never to have seen the show).
A third is to contribute more reviews to the NECBA Review Project! I love this semi-annual resource for MG and YA book recommendations and ratings from my colleagues, and want to get my reviews back up to pre-2011 levels.
What does 2012 mean to you? What book-related resolutions have you made, that you can share to inspire others?

A Surprisingly Fun, Heartening Season

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 27, 2011

A retailer’s mad dash from Thanksgiving to Christmas is always crazy and stressful and wild, but it can also be wonderful. At the Flying Pig, this year’s holiday retail season was especially fun, and it wasn’t just because registers were ringing and people packed the store (although of course that was a big part of it). There was just something extra this year, and I think it was… appreciation. Customers really seemed to appreciate our being part of the community. They seemed to be more aware of shopping locally than during any season in our 15-year history. They appreciated the personal recommendations and extra effort we put in to tracking down their gift ideas, no matter how hard to get. And we certainly appreciated their business.
We heard so many heartening comments from customers. Some of our favorites:

  • “I hate Christmas shopping. But coming here is fun!” (We heard this a lot, especially in the last couple of weeks when we were all giddy and overcaffeinated and oversugared and basically swept up in the high-energy Preakness that is the 12 final days of retail. Our staff does have a lot of fun together, and since so many of us are working during the holiday season, there’s added festivity. It also helps that we offer sugar plums—bought from the Shelburne Country Store up the street—to all of our shoppers in a little dish by the registers. Who doesn’t love a treat, especially when a little overwhelmed by the mountain of Things to Get Done?)
  • “I found ALL of my Christmas/Chanukah presents here. And I didn’t spend a dime online.” (Local win!)
  • “You guys have the best stocking stuffers around.” (Sidelines are so so so much fun to buy for fourth quarter, and we love finding unusual, well-designed, snazzy items.)
  • “You got in that book so fast!” (Heh heh. One of the lesser-known advantages of being an indie is the ability to do just-in-time ordering overnight or in a couple of days. By the way, Random House gets huge kudos for shipping re-orders so fast they rival the distributors.)
  • “No one else had [fill in the title]! I can’t believe it was on your shelf!” (We have an inexplicable, slightly psychic thing that happens this time of year, where we re-order, on a whim, obscure titles no one’s asked for in a dog’s age; inevitably, someone comes a-looking and is pleasantly surprised.)
  • And the most delightful: when thanking customers after a purchase, we so often heard, with such sincere fervor, “No, thank YOU for being here. We love this bookstore.” It brings a lump to my throat just remembering that. It means so much to be appreciated, and to appreciate right back.

I think all of the Shop Local efforts and the economy’s ups and downs and the end of the war in Iraq and many other global realities have brought people’s thoughts and hearts close to home. And while we all love our gadgets and new technologies, it seems to me that the shiny-new-toy daze we can succumb to has worn off just enough to sharpen our senses and clear our eyes and make us re-embrace a certain measure of simplicity. It’s heartening to me that people, at least in our small spot of the world, seem appreciative again of their own communities—the solid, bricks-and-mortar gathering places where friends meet and laugh and share sugar plums—not to mention the simple, eternally satisfying feeling of a good book in the hands.
What have you found yourself appreciating this holiday season?

What It’s Like in the Trenches

Josie Leavitt - December 22, 2011

There comes a time when every bookseller realizes they have run out of time to order books at the holidays. I love this moment. It takes the pressure off. Gone are the frantic stock checks to see which distributor has the coveted special order for a customer. The last few days before this moment are some of the most intense for booksellers.
Every phone call or customer request during the week of Christmas and Hanukkah is a sprint. Gone is the leisurely ordering pace of other months. I found myself sending two, sometimes three orders a day to ensure securing a particular title and delivery when I need it. Some books are so hot (Plenty and Death Comes to Pemberley, to mention a few) that when they turn up in a stock check you order immediately to get the book rather than waiting until the end of the day and risk losing out because it’s now out of stock.
As I left work yesterday, Elizabeth was on hold with Baker and Taylor checking on a CD for South Pacific while making a note about just how to get the Complete Peanuts 1963-1966 that seemed to only be out of stock right now, but was in stock when the order was placed. It’s a very frustrating situation to explain to customers that stock levels fluctuate constantly. I tried in vain to explain to someone why the said Peanuts book was now really hard to get fast. She made it clear she didn’t really care about that. What she cared about, and rightly so, was when her book was going to come in.
I did not tear my hair out, but rather called the small publisher and asked about shipping. I was told I had just missed the cut-off for standard free shipping to get to me in time, so I had to do express, and order 25 more books that I wasn’t sure I could sell. But it was that or getting half my usual discount. Every day is like this. Over and over. As we help customers find books for every member of their family we are still putting out other fires. Where is the missing box from the distributor? Why am I being told I missed the order cut-off for next day shipping by two minutes? Why does the cash drawer that was perfect this morning now only contains twenties, five dollar bills, and dimes? We are so busy there is literally not enough time in the day to get it all done. That would explain why Elizabeth toils in the store well past dinner; it’s the only time she can think and get organized.
Oh, add to this chaos of calling in the myriad of special orders and the day can fly by at an alarmingly fast rate. It’s often 4 pm when there is a lull and all of us booksellers look at each other and someone says, “Have you eaten?” and we all realize we’re starving. Pizza is ordered and we snack on Christmas cookies and coffee while we wait for the delivery. No one has eaten since breakfast. It feels a little bit like a siege, but a very fun one. It didn’t help that the local newspaper had a front page article about a book we only had two of and said we were one of the two bookstores in the state that had the book. We were able to get 10 books and in the span of two hours we already had 15 special orders for it. We allocated the last stock in the warehouse and will keep our fingers crossed come Friday that the books actually come in. Had we had a week’s heads up, we could have brought in enough copies for all the folks who wanted one.
We are ready for anything. In one minute the store can go from three people browsing to completely full. And it stays full for hours. The two main registers are flying and the back computer in the office is also used to process sales. Customers stand in the office and look around. Some look  a little scared by all the stuff, although it’s actually pretty neat. Others love it. One guy today said he loved the energy of “the little room.” It was charming.
There are more people working than normal and that adds to the bustle. Our back counter area is not large enough to easily contain more than two people, so when up to three more folks are working, it can feel like a dance to just pull a special order from the shelf. And we have our Christmas miracles: books found that we thought we couldn’t get, finding a book that delights the customer, someone giving up a book after seeing someone else really, really wants it.
So, the time has come to stop ordering and I can breathe a little easier. I need that breath because the next two and a half days are the busiest of the year and it’ll be a blast.

Holiday Party

Josie Leavitt - December 19, 2011

Last night the entire staff of the Flying Pig had a holiday party. Sad as it might sound, this is the first one in four years. We decided to have a dinner in a private room at the local Italian restaurant whose chef shops at the store. In the midst of another record-breaking holiday season, celebrating together seemed very restorative and important.
We all work hard and there are several staffers who never work together and only see each during staff meetings, so a dinner with everyone and their spouses was great fun.  Elizabeth, the grand master of fun things, had managed to find flying pig trophies for everyone. Each woman (we are without a male co-worker at the moment) received her own trophy with a brief description of her merits. For instance, PJ, our youngest staffer’s said: Fantasy pro and lover of projects.  Everyone loved their trophies. Elizabeth even surprised me with one and I was touched.
Elizabeth made a toast thanking everyone for their hard work this year and there were several tears shed. It was a lovely speech. We all made toasts, some spot on imitations of each other and some much needed venting about a few of the more ridiculous retail moments we’ve had. We pretty much laughed through the dinner, causing one staffer’s husband to say, “No wonder you love working at the bookstore.”
Sometimes it’s easy in the day-to-day work world to forget to just spend time with these great people. It was so delightful to get out of the store and look around the table and think, “Damn, these guys are fun.’

Love Among the Latkes

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 16, 2011

Our friend and colleague—and occasional ShelfTalker guest blogger—Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, often brings the gift of wry mirth to stressful situations. While most of us are happily and completely brain-fried at the end of long days rushing around doing a hundred things at once—making recommendations, ringing sales, wrapping gifts, following up on special orders, tracking down elusive titles, unpacking and receiving and shelving and displaying boxes of books and sidelines, making signs, restocking items, calling special order folks, filling website orders, fielding sales calls, paying bills, etc. and so on—Kenny somehow manages to have enough creative energy to come up with really funny stuff after hours. I don’t know how he does it—I don’t want to know; probably some moldering portrait of a wag somewhere in his closet—but I’m really glad he does.
This season’s silliness resulted from Kenny noticing something sinister about holiday reading fare. Looking at a pile of Christmas romances, he started to wonder why there were no comparable Hanukkah titles. One punny title idea led to another, and soon, Kenny had a full-blown contest idea on his hands.
Join me in snortling over the following, direct from DDG Booksellers’ website, which has the added attraction of cover art.
Hanukkah Heat Contest!
When one sees a glaring imbalance in life one’s natural inclination is to correct it. Each holiday season we see a new batch of Christmas romances being published such as A Highlander for the Holidays, Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish, and A Texas Christmas. What of Hanukkah romances though? Think about it for a moment. The shocking truth will appear quickly. There isn’t a single Hanukkah bodice ripper in existence! That’s why we’re launching Hanukkah Heat, a new line of books to fill this glaring void with books like…
The Reluctant Rabbi
Rabbi Sam Davidson, serious and seriously handsome, was passionate only about Torah studies. Ruth Rosen was the most widely courted young woman in town. All eyes are on the dazzling Ruth but she has eyes only for the bookish young Rabbi. Ruth was in the office, polishing the congregation’s menorah and setting its supply of candles in neat, suggestive stacks and Sam was in the library delving into Talmudic lore, when they are unexpectedly trapped together in the Temple by a sudden spring snowstorm. Can Ruth awaken a different sort of passion in Sam’s scholarly breast?
Captured By A Maccabee
Sunday School teacher Esther Klein, widowed untimely, had settled into a life of uneasy calm. This Sunday was passing by just like the last 28 Sundays had passed since Marvin’s death. Esther put the Kugel she had prepared at home for snack time into the Temple’s oven and walked into the crowded classroom. Suddenly, an odd shimmering light appeared behind her accompanied by a crackling hum. From out of the light a Maccabeen warrior from the 2nd century BCE burst forth, his bare, rippling chest, brawny thews, and giant sword seeming somehow out of place in the Sunday School Classroom. With a shout the warrior leapt forward, threw Esther over his shoulder, and bounded back into the portal. Would Esther ever return to the 21st century, would anyone realize a kugel was left baking in the oven, would she find love in the brawny arms of Mattathias? All that Esther knew for now was that life had taken a decidedly spicier turn!
Other book suggestions we have received and that are already in the pipleline:
Let’s All Do the Hora!
Brazen Shamash
Lighting Her Lamp
You Say Gelt, I Say Guilt
Eight Steamy Nights
It’s Gimmel My Love
Under The Menorah
You Put The Magic In The Magic Oil
The Rakish Cantor
Still, this is barely a start, so we’re having a contest to get some more potential titles in the works. Just submit your title and a brief synopsis on the DDG bookseller site. The grand prize will be a DDG T-Shirt and lasting fame.
[Back to Elizabeth and ShelfTalker now:]
A couple of the above titles are mine, but my favorite, Let’s All Do the Hora!, comes from Flying Pig Bookseller Sandy First. When she texted that idea to me last night (as I worked until 2 am redoing displays and putting out new goodies at the store), I actually laughed aloud. I needed that.
Here’s another to add to the mix:
He Was Hanukkah, She Chanukah: A Mixed Marriage for Muriel

And I just know something clever can be done with hei and nun, not to mention shin.
Readers, please post your titles and synopses here, too, even if you enter the contest. I can’t wait to read them. Happy Hanukkah, everyone (First Night is December 20); may you always land on gimel.

Things I Want Authors to Know

Josie Leavitt - December 15, 2011

In the past few weeks I’ve had a few uncomfortable moments with authors questioning me about why I either don’t have their books or why their books aren’t more prominently featured. So, I’ve decided to address the inventory issue. Obviously, without authors, I’d have another job, and probably one far less satisfying that working in a bookstore. But there are somethings I wished all authors understood about my end of the business.
First off, I’m thrilled that you have gotten a book published — envious, in fact. But just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean I have to carry it. More than 200,000 books came out in 2009, according to Wikipedia. We cannot carry all of them, or even a large percent of them; actually it’s more like 8-10% of them. In a world where space was not an issue, I’d carry a lot more titles than I do, but I’m limited in what I can actually have on a shelf. I do my best to have my shelves represent what I believe will sell in my community.
We never mean to be hurtful when your book is not stocked. It’s not personal, it’s shelf space and it’s important to put it in perspective. My middle grade section, including Newbery and other award winners (where a lot of middle grade books also live), is exactly 63 linear feet. That’s not really a very large amount of shelf space, or actual shelves for that matter. We constantly juggle many needs to fill these shelves.
Our stock rotates so that we can make room for the season’s newer titles. Essentially, like a library, we periodically cull our stock and make returns. Finances right now, more than space, are driving the number of returns we make. There aren’t many bookstores that can afford to have an unsold book on their shelves for too long. Some stores give six weeks for a new title before they return it. For us, it’s far longer, probably too long, but I do like to give books more than a fair shake.
While I may not have your book on the shelf, it doesn’t mean I won’t carry it. I happily order books for customers every day. And often these are books that are new to me. I order books all the time and with the speed of distributors, and some publishers, I can have books in 24 hours at the earliest, three days at the latest. Being able to order so quickly really lets me carry hundreds of thousands of books. Let’s face it, most people can wait a day to get a book.
So, authors, I love you all, but I just wanted you to know what life looks like on my side of the counter. Have a great holiday and keep writing.

Small Gestures Mean a Lot

Josie Leavitt - December 13, 2011

I’ve probably written about how much I love living in a small town before, but two things happened yesterday that thrilled me about small town life.
I was slammed, there was no doubt about it. I reached into my little fridge and pulled out what I needed: an iced coffee. I took a sip and almost gagged. The coffee was old and had turned. Henry and Mary observed the whole episode. And in a blink of an eye, they had gone across the street and gotten me a replacement coffee. And the funny thing is both Mary and I have our own drinks at the coffee shop, so they knew what to order without even asking. I thanked them profusely and offered to pay, and they refused. They were just happy to get me my caffeine for the long selling day.
At the end of the day I had the brilliant idea to zip to the post office to mail out one media mail package. I’m not really sure what I was thinking. There was a line 25 people deep. I was about to turn around and leave when the last person in line offered to mail it for me. I was incredulous. She said she had to mail her packages, and was happy to mail mine. I was thrilled. I was also without any cash or a check. “I’ll just bring the receipt by the store.” Wow! Forty minutes later Anna came by with a receipt for $2.82. I paid her, offered her some sugar plums and vowed to return the favor when I had the chance.
You know, during the season when retailers hit the ground running from the start of the day until well past closing, these little gestures can totally turn a day around and I’m grateful for them; tomorrow I will buy someone a coffee.

A Great Day for Us

Josie Leavitt - December 12, 2011

This past Saturday Amazon launched its assault on bricks and mortar stores with its promotion giving folks $5 back for using its price checker app and then ordering online. I was very curious how the day was going to go. Outside of a Harry Potter release day, we had never had a better day.
I attribute this to several reasons.  The first is some backlash against Amazon. I had many customers say that they were Occupying the Flying Pig and spending their money with us. I even had new customers to the store from a town about 45 minutes away. The teenage girl came up to me with her iPhone set on an Amazon page (with a burst in the corner: save $5 with the price checker app — oh, silly of me to think they weren’t actually going to do books with the promo) of a Brad Meltzer book. We didn’t have it, but I asked who she was shopping for. We talked and I showed her some good mysteries. We settled on ordering large-print Dennis Lehane. That the family stayed with me for the whole ordering process (we drop-shipped it to their house) and didn’t just go back to Amazon, was perhaps the most heartening thing of the whole day.
The second thing that contributed to the day was my appearance on our local public radio show, Vermont Edition, to discuss winter reading. The show was loads of fun and, while I know it was a popular show aired twice a day, I had no idea just how many people listen to it. All day Saturday I heard from person after person who said who much they loved the books discussed on the show. That show was one of the most successful by-products of reaching a larger audience. It was very funny when the producer of the show decided to shop with us and overheard three customers saying they wish the book show was once a month. I have never felt the love so much from any other public venture.
And, the last reason is us. Our customers genuinely love shopping with us and the holidays just mean that all of them come to the store. It’s a like one big love fest. Saturday we saw customers who shopped with us the very first day we opened and new customers we see almost weekly. These are the people who count on us to know them and make great gift suggestions. For instance, a mom and her teenage son came in looking for gifts for younger cousins. I showed them a book on learning to draw fashion designs, knowing that Steph, the sister, loves to design clothes. They bought it and were touched that I thought about what Steph might like. All over America, indie booksellers are doing this with their customers. Nothing makes us happier than matching people with the right books.
And it’s far better to be matched to a book you’ll love by someone who actually knows you, and not an algorithm. Plus, we have sugar plums.

A New Low for Amazon

Josie Leavitt - December 8, 2011

I was having a lovely evening the other day until I read a Facebook post from a fellow bookseller about an Amazon promotion set to run on December 10th. The promotion: quite simply, to walk into any store, take a picture of the item with the price with your Amazon price checker app, and get $5 off on that item when you order it from Amazon. You’re allowed to do this three times on Saturday.
So, Jeff Bezos has decided or at least approved this scheme that all bricks and mortar stores should be visited, left empty-handed so folks can shop on Amazon while giving them price info from other stores. Wow. The thoughts I’m having about this promotion cannot be printed here. If I weren’t so riled up, I’d be despondent at such a horrible attack on stores. Perhaps folks will go to chain stores, and not arrive at small, independent stores, scan a QR code and leave.
The details of the promo (buried deep on Amazon’s home page) don’t mention bookstores, probably because Amazon doesn’t need to know about book prices, since they know we can’t compete with their books as loss-leader mentality. If I sound angry, it’s because I am. This feels like an underhanded business tactic. To encourage people to snoop at other stores and report back to Amazon so they “can keep their prices competitive” is pathetic.
Any independent bookstore has fought against Amazon since the day Amazon opened its website and started undercutting us on price. Some of us are tired of having to explain why our prices can’t be as low as Amazon’s. We’re tired of explaining why you can’t buy e-books from us if you have a Kindle. Honestly, I’m sick of Amazon. I’m tired of people saying, “But it’s so much cheaper than what you can offer.” Yes, it’s true, the new Steve Jobs book is 49% off at Amazon, and that’s 3 to 6% more than I can buy the book for from the publisher or a wholesaler. So, yes, I’m sick of Amazon acting as its own retail distribution center and getting a far better discount than I can. I’m tired of faithfully paying sales tax and having customers tell me how much they like saving money with Amazon.
Here’s what I do: I pay sales tax, I donate thousands of dollars to local schools, charities, Little Leagues, church pie suppers, school trips, Geobee prizes, etc. I support my community and that means going to local stores and buying things there. Price is not the only factor for me. I know there are lots of folks on budgets, and to them I say: lots of children’s books are not discounted at Amazon. And does Amazon bring authors to your children’s schools?  No.
I am not the only retailer who is mad. There has been a Facebook event started by Kim Gavin at Powell’s Books to rally around all indies. Occupy Amazon, on Saturday, Dec 12th, encourages folks to shop at any independent store this weekend. Folks are supporting the movement and it’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in my outrage, and there are lots of people who will go to a small business this weekend.
So, while it may seem Amazon has hit a new low, it’s had a galvanizing effect on folks, which is probably the last thing Jeff Bezos wanted. And that makes me very happy.

Really? Seriously? Now?

Josie Leavitt - December 6, 2011

Okay, so I have to complain about two things. Maybe it’s just me, but why am I getting boxes of galleys now? I just got a small box, a large white box, and an envelope today, all full of galleys for books that aren’t coming out for months.
One book came with much raffia and a pack of microwave popcorn, but it’s not coming out until May 2012. I received more than 20 boxes from the various delivery trucks yesterday. One box, overflowing with raffia and containing one book, is not going to hold my attention for long in the book deluge that was my store today.
The irony is, the book looks really good, but now I can’t find it. And even if I could find it, I won’t really have time to read anything until December 26th,when I’m not exhausted anymore. I have often wondered why publishers and the ABA send out promotional materials for books that are months from pub date during December when most booksellers I know go home and collapse. And if fatigue weren’t an issue, the sheer volume of books in and out the store makes keeping track of these things even harder. Boxes of galleys during January, on the other hand, are a lovely welcome treat.
The other complaint is the due date of publicity grids. Why, oh why am I being asked to plan my spring requests by December 9th? I can’t even think past the next day — why am I being asked to contemplate my spring? Honestly, would it be such a hardship if the publishers waited three weeks before they asked for the grids back? The prospect of booking great authors is exciting, but asking bookstores, especially smaller ones, to write event proposals during the busiest time of the year is a little cruel.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m thrilled to get galleys, I love them, just not in December. Although, I must admit, we all loved the popcorn at 5 pm when we needed a snack.