Real Isn’t How You Are Made

Cynthia Compton - October 28, 2019

“So, you’re just a children’s bookseller, right?”
I looked up from my laptop screen, which functioned this weekend as my point-of-sale, store management tool, and receipt printer at an offsite event for crime and mystery writers, where I had been working for the last three days.
“Well, I don’t think there’s a “JUST” in that question, but yes, I do own a children’s bookstore. May I ring those up for you?”  I gestured toward the stack of mysteries and thrillers in her hands, as I reached beneath the table for one of our store canvas totes, for her purchase surely totaled over $100.
“I just meant… you sell kids’ books. You aren’t a REAL bookstore, right?”

The line behind the customer was growing, for at this conference, like most, there are 15 minute breaks between sessions, in which the book vendor tables are swamped, as attendees grab titles from authors they just heard speak, and are in a hurry to pay for them to get a good spot in the autographing line. It wasn’t the time for a good old-fashioned literary consciousness raising conversation, but as I slipped bookmarks in her selections, swapped out one title for a copy without a ripped cover, swiped her credit card and quickly stacked the books in the order of the signing table seating arrangement, I smiled somewhat ruefully and looked up again.
“We are indeed real, and it’s an honor to be invited to this event again. I believe this is our fifth year, and gosh, the speakers have been terrific, haven’t they? Have you read the latest by the guest of honor? It kept me up all night.”
She adjusted the straps of our tote bag over her shoulders, picked up her credit card, and headed off to the autographing area, while I smiled at the next customer in line. “What great choices!  Here, let me take a quick picture of those with my phone, and then you buzz over to the signing lines. I’ll have you rung up and you can stop by later to pay us — I remember your email address from this morning, and we’ll just start an account, shall we?
Gratefully and with some comic posing, all four of the next customers in line showed me their stacks, draping their name tag lanyards over the top, so that we could identify each attendee’s list and start an account, and off they headed to meet their beloved authors in person. As I took a breath and began to straighten my improvised cash wrap counter for the next deluge, I thought about the earlier customer’s comments. It is a bit of a stretch, I suppose, for those readers and authors of murder mysteries and hard boiled detective stories to think that a children’s store was their official conference bookseller — but also, to think that those booksellers not only know how to stack and flap jackets, but have read the literature, know the authors and their myriad series, and can navigate the flow chart of author pseudonyms just like we identify publisher imprints and flinch almost imperceptibly at the short discounts of self-pubbed glossy paperbacks with garishly bright covers and unusual font choices. They don’t know that we have scanned the first and last chapters to memorize which titles come in which order (“Start with the orange one. She took a break then and started the other series, so you can either read them simultaneously or skip to the greenish one. Personally, I would just read all the ones with the blond woman on the cover, in any order, and then start the others.”)
As one of the few standalone brick and mortar indie bookstores in my community (shout-out here to the legendary Shirley Mullin of Kids Ink, the totally cool Elysia at Irvington Vinyl and Books , and our many friends and colleagues at Indy Reads we don’t run into each other very often, and there are lots of events in our city that require booksellers. And so at our store at least, we often pack and carry distinctly “adult” titles to conferences, workshops and author signings. It’s not our store’s bread and butter, but it’s certainly our jam — for we place orders for neurology conferences, business retreats, and genre-specific festivals like this weekend’s Magna Cum Murder, sponsored by Ball State University.
Does it really matter what our store specialty claims to be? No, because first and foremost, we are booksellers. We believe in the power of the written word, we honor and celebrate every literary preference and interest, and mostly, we know how this business works. Ordering titles on effective poisoning techniques for murder might not be my normal Friday frontlist selection, but the publishers are friends, the readers are passionate, and we can READ. Many times, my staff discovers whole new genres for their personal reading from prepping for a conference, or in the slow hours at the event, during the plated luncheons and plenary sessions, dive into backlist on everything from pathology to piracy — and come back exclaiming “You guys!! You HAVE TO READ THIS. We will never, ever sell it in the shop, but SERIOUSLY. Read this.” We know how to calm anxious authors before appearances, and we carry gum, chocolate, aspirin and safety pins in our apron pockets. We can send reports to publicists while we take event photos with our smartphones, and we gently and kindly siphon off over-enthusiastic fans who dominate signing lines and meet and greets. We can set up and take down hundreds of books silently, like literary ninjas, in just moments between the opening of the loading dock and the serving of the continental breakfast, and our ability to find a wifi signal is only exceeded by our skills in purloining luggage carts and hand trucks, that we adroitly wrangle around impossible corners and groaning service elevators.
We do, of course, sell children’s books, and we will happily return to our well lit, charmingly arranged stores to lead story times and discuss the value of graphic novels for new readers with authority (while we bounce a grumpy teething infant on our hip to give an exhausted mom a short break). But are we real booksellers? Absolutely we are, and what can we help you with today?

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
—Margery Williams, from her 1922 classic for all ages The Velveteen Rabbit

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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