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Reading & the 'True Spirit' of the Holidays

Shelf Awareness -- December 21, 2006

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

I think the idea for this final column of 2006 occurred to me sometime last week at the bookstore, as I gift-wrapped yet another copy of the new CD by controversial singer/songwriter Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens). The ecumenical irony of this particular Christmas present was hard to ignore. Did it signify a coming together of disparate faiths and political ideologies in the true spirit of the season or was it simply consumer obliviousness? I'm still not sure, and I'm afraid to ask.

The search for the "true spirit" of the holiday season is not an easy task, and is perhaps made even more complicated because the reader in me tends to identify with the boy by the feeble fire, while the person whose livelihood depends upon selling books can't help feeling just a little sympathy for old Ebenezer counting out his coins.

As a longtime bookseller, I've grown accustomed to experiencing the holiday season as an ongoing drama of comparing daily sales figures to last year's numbers and obsessing over re-ordering strategies.

This is at once an exhilarating and intimidating time of the year. Some days "bah, humbug" doesn't seem like an overreaction to unpredictable weather, late deliveries or demanding customers. Wise and prescient ghosts of past, present and future seldom visit us with neat, plot twisting solutions to our multilayered dilemmas.

So how do we remember in such times that this mad world we've chosen to live and work in is still primarily about something as simple and complex as putting the right words together so that someone will read them?

When I was a kid, the words "true spirit of Christmas" were wrapped up beautifully in the stories I read and heard, stories from Dickens as well as the nuns at school. These tales reminded urchins like me that the holidays were about more than tinsel and toys, and I suspect I will always feel an emotional tug for young Scrooge reading by the feeble fire as well as Nativity scenes. I'm sure you have your own variations on that theme.

And if you are reading these words, chances are that you read as I read, to sift the world's cacophony into understandable (on good days, at least) measures.

We read to live. We read to find our way in the world. We read this time of year to encounter, if we can, the true spirit of the holiday season. That spirit is not always apparent, nor where you'd think it might be. For example, I found it this week while reading in unexpected places. Why these small gems brought the holiday spirit to me I'm not sure, but somehow reading them mattered:

I read about the Iraqi soccer team (a 20-man squad that includes Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds) winning a Silver Medal at the Asian games in Qatar last weekend.

I read that Beliefnet, a comprehensive Web site exploring a multitude of faiths, named the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., as its Most Inspiring Person of 2006.

I read this in Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal for Christmas day, 1839: "All life is a compromise. We are haunted by an ambition of a celestial greatness and baulked of it by all manner of paltry impediments."  

I found some of the true spirit in this NASA photo of shuttle astronauts dangling precariously in the air high above the big blue marble, "haunted by an ambition of a celestial greatness."

My wish is that you find the true spirit this holiday season, too, wherever you happen to read it.

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

The capital letters and the exclamation point belong to that old rascal Mr. Dickens. Feel free to edit and paraphrase to suit your own needs and beliefs.

I wish you great reading in 2007


Searching for Virtual Holiday Spirit

Shelf Awareness -- December 12, 2006

I wanted to be in a proper seasonal mood, but since I hadn't attained pure retail bliss yet, I sought further inspiration with a little bookstore Web site window shopping.

My holiday quest was inspired by a few recent non-virtual experiences, including the sudden appearance of a 12-ft. high, fully illuminated inflatable snowman, tethered to the snowless front lawn of a house nearby. Vermont strives for, and occasionally attains, a Currier & Ives print effect this time of year, but we can fall decidedly short of that goal now and then. A Michelin Man Christmas doesn't help the cause.

Another bit of inspiration came during my recent trip to New York, where, in a single day, I visited the elegant Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, heard a concert by the Tallis Scholars (16th century polyphony) at St. Thomas Church on 53rd and Fifth Avenue, and then counterbalanced this with an evening stroll down to Rockefeller Center--dazzling lights, loud music, boisterous crowds as well as the addition, like excess spice to mulled cider, of seasonal offerings by street musicians like one musically challenged trumpeter, who wrenched Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas note by painful note out of his battered horn.

The weird and wonderful mood created by this assortment of ingredients dropped into the holiday blender made me wonder what might be happening online. So, like Santa on Christmas Eve, I decided to make a whirlwind Yuletide tour of bookstore Web sites.

I quickly discovered that far too many bookshops had chosen to Scrooge out of the season, but there was enough digital decorating going on to merit attention. Here's a sampling:

Independent bookstores are often located in beautiful buildings. Town House Books and the Book Vault took advantage of their visual advantage by altering home page photographs to reflect the season.  

Despite annual news reports about "the Christmas wars" and our increasing reliance upon "Happy Holidays" to cover all of the seasonal bases, Bookland's site found a simple and inclusive way to acknowledge diversity.

There are numerous book donation efforts going on this time of year, almost all of them for children, and an amazing number are called "book angel" programs. This is either a sign that angels have transcended the Christmas wars or that some images are just too strong to be ignored or diluted. In any case, book donations are always a good idea, and this year Anderson's Bookshop, Politics & Prose Bookstore, Russo's Books and Tattered Cover Book Store were among indies offering variations on the theme.  

Holiday catalogues are a bookstore staple. Few things warm a bookseller's heart more than hearing the words, "I saw this book in your catalogue," except perhaps when they are followed by, "I'd like 10 copies." Many bookstores posted their catalogues online, including Brookline Booksmith, Elliott Bay Book Company, McLean & Eakin Booksellers and R.J. Julia. An appropriately homicidal shopping guide was up for Murder By the Book (Can you say "slay ride," boys and girls?).

Special deals turned up here and there. The Regulator Bookshop gave customers a $5 gift card with online orders over $40; Powell's offered a 30% discount on its holiday catalogue titles; and Harvard Book Store's "Holiday Hundred" were discounted 20%. Baker Books offered staff picks as well as a link to the NEIBA catalogue. Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops had a nice charity/catalogue combo on its home page and the Northshire Bookstore used its e-mail newsletter to highlight book recommendations, Book Angel donations and a holiday message to the community.

Such messages of peace, good cheer, and customer appreciation are a holiday tradition. I found them posted at bookstores nationwide, including Cornerstone Books, Port in a Storm Bookstore, the Reader's Loft and Liberty Bay Books. And I loved the announcement of a children's event at Bound to Read and community events at Pass Christian Books.

My virtual sleigh ride made me aware of what Santa calls the "naughty and nice factor." Athough mine was a random and limited sampling, what struck me most was how many bookstore Web sites completely ignored the online marketing option during this most important season of their business year. (Should I mention the site that is still announcing its "new summer hours"?)

I think Emerson Lake, & Palmer addressed the subject best in the song, "I Believe in Father Christmas":

Hallelujah Noel be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get we deserve.


Black Friday 'Based on a True Story'

Shelf Awareness -- November 28, 2006

Take a deep breath. Black Friday weekend is over and now the plot thickens. You already know the story because it doesn't really change much from year to year: consumer mob scenes, absurd discounts on "limited quantities," stock shortages, crashing superstore Web sites and 24/7 coverage of this peculiar cross between the Oklahoma Land Rush and shark attacks.

For the 15th straight year, I worked the sales floor at Northshire Bookstore during this extremely busy (though seldom busiest, despite the media hype) shopping day.

On a national scale, Black Friday is always what it pretends to be, influencing consumer behavior the way The Da Vinci Code manipulates religious prejudice by suggesting that it's all "based on a true story." That this happens only a day after the annual debut of Santa Claus in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade should be a clue that we love to have our myths shaken and stirred.

Civilization in decline? Full contact consumerism in ascendance?

What's a poor bookseller to do?

Sell books.

What was it like at the last three feet for this bookseller on Black Friday? It was something like this:

  • Busy. Not at first, though gradually the crowds thickened. Had they attacked the malls first? They weren't saying. If you've never faced, from the business end of a cash register, onrushing waves of book/toy/CD/DVD/tchotchke-laden customers, I can say only that it is an amazing sight to behold.
  • Relatively civilized. Both customers and staff behaved themselves admirably under pressure. Even at its busiest, the bookstore retains its status as a peaceable refuge, especially when compared to the dozens of amateur films now posted on Google Video that document retail mayhem nationwide. In the press, my favorite headlines this year included "Attention, Early Holiday Shoppers: We Have a Fisticuffs Special in Aisle 2" (New York Times), "Teens Charged with Setting off acid bombs in Wal-Mart" (CNN.com) and "Crime-wise, 'Black Friday' was quieter than most" (Flint [Mich.] Journal).
  • Twice during the day I rang out customers who paid for their substantial purchases with "enemy" credit cards (one from Borders and one from Amazon). I don't know why I find this both amusing and worrisome, but I do.
  • The buzziest book of the day was the one that didn't get published (O.J. Simpson's If I Did It, heretofore known as If We'd Sold It). I had more conversations with customers about this non-starter than about any other title.  
  • A conservative estimate of cell phone use as part of gift buying strategy would now approach the 90th percentile. Patrons were on their cells relentlessly, contacting one another in town or in the store (it's a big bookstore). I've noticed that cells have revolutionized one classic challenge for booksellers. Many customers used to begin a conversation with me by asking a variation of the question, "My [insert relative's name here] sent me to get a book that was reviewed by [insert NPR, New York Times, etc. here], but I can't remember the title." Now a quick phone call home often pre-empts the thrill of the chase for frontline booksellers.  
  • One predictable aspect of Black Friday's litany that never changes at the bookstore is the number of times someone says, "I can't believe I'm shopping today." Black Friday is postmodern consumerism, in that the characters (customers) are not only aware of their role in the plot, but also conveniently provide exegesis.  
  • The art of handselling changes at this time of year. Conversations tend to edge away from "I'm looking for a great read" and move toward "I need a book for my father/mother/brother/uncle, etc." When people buy a book for themselves, they often feel guilty and confess at point of sale. Booksellers conveniently absolve them as part of good customer service.  
  • About gift wrapping, I will say only that books are easy and three-foot-high stuffed penguins are hard.  
  • Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this post-holiday retail holy day is that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore can be part of the action, too, and that books can be quietly handsold in the swarm of bodies and cacophony of voices. While none of this happens at Sony Playstation 3/Nintendo Wii/T.M.X. Elmo levels of hysteria, it is intense enough.
And now all we have to do as an industry is to hold our collective breaths while we wait for the season's happy ending. After all, it's fiction, right?--

A Conversation with Len Vlahos, Part 3

Shelf Awareness -- November 17, 2006

Our discussion concludes (or pauses) with an overview of Booksense.com's search engine and a quick peek at some Web sites that Len Vlahos, director of BookSense.com, considers interesting variations on the theme.


Robert Gray: How would you rate the search engine for BookSense,com? What does it do well? What could it do better? I don't know whether you want to compare or contrast it directly with Amazon's, but I do know a lot of frontline booksellers still covertly use Amazon to answer customer questions on the sales floor quickly.
Len Vlahos: O.K., I'm probably a bit biased, but our search engine is really, really, really, really good. This past January we did a major overhaul and upgrade to the search engine, which, we believe, put our members on more equal footing with their competitors. And at the very least, our search engine is clearly, we believe, the best available to independent booksellers.
We made four crucial changes to our search engine:
a. The search results are now ordered by a combination of matching the search term to items in the database, Book Sense Bestseller sales and on-order quantities from Ingram. It used to be that you'd type "John Adams" into the keyword search and get nothing but books by authors named John Adams. Now the McCullough paperback comes out on top. Likewise a search on the keyword "kite" now displays the trade paper of Kite Runner first, and the rest of the books in the list (Curious George Flies a Kite, etc.) are all relevant results. This system allows us to anticipate what the customer might be looking for with a much greater degree of accuracy. I encourage you to visit independent bookseller Web sites NOT powered by BookSense.com and try these two searches, or any other search term you can dream up. We're confident that our results are far and away the best. (We even score pretty well against the corporate search engines.)
b. We license our book data from Ingram. Specifically, we use iPage (both iPage Active and iPage Extended). This database is truly remarkable for the breadth, depth and quality of the data. The problem is sometimes there's too much data. So with the new search engine, we've given stores the ability optionally to exclude books by inventory status. For example, a bookseller can exclude from search results all Out of Print and/or Special Order books. This allows each store to tailor the selection displayed in the search results to that store's liking. Some stores are excluding some categories; others are including all. The important thing for BookSense.com, with the search or anything else, is that the product be more flexible to meet the varying needs of our very independent members.
c. We've added "stemming." This means that different versions of the same root word will find the right result. Search for "Easter Rise" and you'll get "Easter Rising" even though it's not really a match.
d. The search is faster and more stable than it's ever been before.

To your specific point about frontline booksellers covertly using Amazon.com to answer customer questions, that has definitely been true in the past, but we are anecdotally hearing it's changing for stores with BookSense.com Web sites, largely because our search is so much better than it used to be.
RG: You showcase four Booksense Web sites (Tattered Cover, etc.) on your site as examples of what can be done with the template. Are there other pages you'd highlight as exemplary? Anything wild? Innovative?    
LV: Village Books' staff picks page is one of the prettiest uses of the template I've seen. St. Helen's Bookshop is the exclusive home of signed Chuck Palahniuk books, which has been a huge financial boon to the store. (Through the sale of signed-Chuck books alone, they pay for their Web site). Alabama Booksmith has a very interesting signed first editions program. Vroman's Bookstore has created both a MySpace page and a Blog (and link to both from their home page).


Like most conversations, this one is incomplete (perhaps a better word is unfinished), but I hope it gives you a general sense of what the Booksense.com approach and philosophy currently entail. You can visit Booksense.com's site for more information. And we'll keep talking. You can send questions and comments to fresheyesnow@yahoo.com. I will share them with readers in upcoming columns.

As has been shown here during the past five months, many bookstores use Booksense.com's service. Many do not. I've highlighted alternatives in the past, and will continue to do so. If you've seen one you love, please let me know.

Ultimately all of this leads to the Big Question, posed some time ago by Pink Floyd:

Is there anybody out there?

Oh, yes.

The follow-up, and more important, question is: How do we let them know that there is somebody (aka bookstores) "in here."


A Conversation with Len Vlahos, Part 2

Shelf Awareness -- November 16, 2006

Yesterday we spoke with Len Vlahos, director of Booksense.com, about the present, and future, role of bookstore Web sites, as well as the relative merits of Booksense.com Web sites in particular. This time we ask him about the dark side.

Robert Gray: What are the disadvantages in using Booksense.com?

Len Vlahos: There are no disadvantages! Just kidding.
The product is templated, so of course the look and feel is somewhat restrictive in that booksellers must work within the framework of the template. We did add a new template at BEA this year, so we now have two main families of templates (each with multiple color choices and backgrounds). Here's an example of each: Fountain Bookstore and Village Books.

That said, there is a non-templated solution we refer to as a "self-authored site" or SAS. In this case a bookseller develops, maintains and hosts the front-end and integrates our back-end tools--database, search engine, shopping cart, etc. Here are a few examples of stores using an SAS solution: Cody's Books, Joseph-Beth Booksellers and Elliott Bay Book Co.

In addition to being templated, another current shortcoming is that we don't yet handle non-book product (DVD, music, toys, used books, apparel, etc.) in any significant way. However, in preparing for the ISBN-13, we're well positioned to add non-book modules in the future. It's on our development to-do list, but we don't yet have an ETA.
RG: Some bookstores have been loyal BookSense.com stores for a long time. Others have been with you for a period and then left. Still others opted from the outset to use alternatives to build and sustain their Web sites. Having observed these patterns and talked to your clients for some time now, do you have a sense of why booksellers stay with you, leave or never join in the first place?
LV: I think the booksellers who STAY with us do so for a few reasons:
a. The product is very good for the price. It provides a way for booksellers to promote their stores, promote their events and allow their customers to search for and buy books. This is all available at below-market cost. If a bookseller were to try to build a comparable system on their own, it would be much more expensive. (As noted earlier, having a presence online--BookSense.com or otherwise--is becoming a reality and requirement of 21st century retailing.)
b. We're continually improving and upgrading the product in response to user requests. We spend a lot of time talking with, and, more important, listening to our users. Most of the innovation and technical change in the BookSense.com product has been the direct result of bookseller feedback. We hold a users group meeting at BEA every year, and we convene the BookSense.com Users Council (a group of volunteer booksellers providing advice and feedback) at least once a year.
c. Our customer service is excellent. Our team is very quick and thorough in responding to member questions and concerns.

Most often members LEAVE the program because they perceive the cost to be high: BookSense.com costs $225 a month ($245 if you're uploading your inventory), and we know that's not an insignificant sum, particularly for smaller-volume stores. Some of those stores come to the program with an expectation that they're going to pay for their Web site directly through online sales. When that happens, it's the exception, not the rule. We try help our members understand that the Web site is at least as much a marketing tool as it is a sales tool, and not to enter this arena with unrealistic expectations. In addition, we know that a lot of transactions that may start online (with a book search or event list), are completed in the bricks-and-mortar store.
As to why booksellers NEVER join at all, there are probably a few reasons. First, you need to be an ABA member, a storefront retailer and a participant in the Book Sense marketing program. I also think the notion of having to manage a Web site can seem overwhelming. There are only so many hours in the day and we definitely appreciate how many of those hours are quickly filled with the myriad tasks facing booksellers. (A lot of us, myself included, are former booksellers.) What we've tried to do with BookSense.com is make the management of a site as simple as possible, hopefully shrinking the demand on a bookseller's time, but that message is not always easy to communicate.
RG: Many booksellers who tell me they became disenchanted with the service cite the monthly fees versus online sales as a prime reason for leaving. Were their expectations unreasonable? What can or should an indie expect from a BookSense.com site as far as selling titles online is concerned? And if they aren't selling books, what do you tell them to convince them to stay with the plan?
LV: I think I've answered the money/sales questions, but would like to make two other quick points here:
a. ABA doesn't try to "convince" members to stay with the program if it's clearly not to the benefit of the member. We're a not-for-profit association, and our mission is to promote and protect the interests of our independent bookstore members. If BookSense.com isn't working as a solution, we advise our members to drop it, and have, on occasion steered them toward other solutions.
b. That said, it's hard to evaluate the success or failure of a Web site (as either a marketing or sales tool) if that site hasn't been properly promoted, so we do encourage our members to market their Web sites adequately. Often I find myself in a great bookstore with a great Web site (BookSense.com or otherwise) and see no evidence that a Web site exists. We've been preaching this message at our educational sessions, and I think it's starting to take root; I'm hearing of more stores including the store's URL on store signs, window posters, etc.


In Part 3, we'll discuss the Booksense.com search engine and Len Vlahos will share examples of some of his favorite bookstore variations on the Booksense.com theme