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Friday
Jan182008

Boomers 'Will Age, But They Won't Get Old'

Shelf Awareness: Friday, January 18, 2008

"Baby boomers, more than any other demographic group, will shape the future of the marketplace. They are in control and will remain so for decades to come. For boomers, getting older does not mean resigning oneself to a deceleration into death. They will continue to be actively involved in their lifestyles, spending lots of money and searching for more new things to try. . . . Boomers will age, but they won't grow old."--Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Live Today . . . And They're Just Getting Started by J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman.

Last week, I offered a conversation starter. The responses were thoughtful and intriguing.

Chris Curry of A Novel Experience bookstore, Zebulon, Ga., is a boomer who notes that "although most of my contemporaries have embraced the Internet and most electronic gadgets for work and play, I think they are still inclined to prefer face-to-face socializing and 'community.' It seems that the Internet connection is handy for many of us who will probably continue working hard, changing careers and embarking on new ventures throughout our life spans, but when we encounter the concrete realities of aging, cyberspace just doesn't cut it. It's the human, real-time friend who can bring over chicken soup.

"So, I think bookstores with an authentic customer-service philosophy will continue to serve as one of the 'third places' of the community. They will be valued as such by boomers who need that irreplaceable human contact. Community-seeking will get the boomers into the town square and into the bookstore--then it's our job to sell them a book!"

A child of the boomer generation and a bookseller for 11 years, Missie Olm of the Reader's Loft, Green Bay, Wis., which has a client base "predominantly" of boomers, observed that "while boomers are reading [nonfiction] for pleasure, they are reading around the subject areas that specifically interest them. What I've found to work best in selling books to this generation is to listen. They care about their subject area and are often more informed on it than I may ever be. Ask questions.

"Fiction-reading boomers are a different and more varied group. I'm not sure it's possible to pigeonhole their reading tastes/buying habits on that side, other than to say that they generally have a very clear sense of what they like and don't like in a book. This actually makes the job easier, once you have--yes, again--listened."

David Henkes of University Book Store, Bellevue, Wash., believes that "boomers will continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar stores because they have a strong sense of independent business patronage. Realizing that deals are to be had online, boomers will continue to embrace the nostalgia, the social connection, of leaving the home and going to the local bookstore."

Another University Bookstore bookseller, Kiki Hood, added that "boomers seem to understand the art of the browse. They come into our store not necessarily looking for anything in particular, but merely to see what's here. I think they also engage more senses, smelling the subtle odor of ink, feeling the heft and the texture of the page, overhearing conversations. I think they will continue to come in to the actual store because they can speak to booksellers (and sometimes other customers) who might send them in a new direction." 

As a BB selling to other BBs, Karen Frank of the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., has noticed "a marked tendency to appreciate both things and ideas that buck the trends (the '60s, anyone?). We are still rebels and seekers, though more open to the freedom new technology brings. Searching for meaning is still an issue. Individuality, tempered with social conscience, will continue to influence older readers to cherish and support any oasis of art and fine craftsmanship, whether physical or intellectual.

"I find the older customers much more willing to try a debut author and passionate about helping to educate the younger generation in the precious legacy of literature and art. I believe independent bookshops, music shops and art galleries should not surrender to the digital age, but work to reinvent and enhance the experience by using the amazing tools being invented daily in addition to the time honored conversations, beautiful objects and atmosphere that are so important for a full life . . . no matter what the age."

Keep talking to me. Inquiring boomers want to know.

 

Thursday
Jan102008

What Do Baby Boomers Want (to Read)?

Shelf Awareness: January 10, 2008

If you have made it past that headline, I thank you for your patience and understanding. Boomers can be annoying, even to other boomers. I know; I'm a BB myself. On the other hand, boomers are, and will continue to be, a driving force in the bookselling world for one big reason: They still read for pleasure.

I want to pose a couple of questions this week to independent booksellers:

  1. What are your thoughts about long-term marketing to BBs?
  2. By the year 2018, will boomers still be shopping in bricks-and-mortar bookstores or primarily online?

I'd really like to know what you think. Call it a conversation starter for 2008.

Our industry keeps mourning the loss of young readers, but I wonder whether we're taking "older" readers for granted. I worry about indie bookstores in this regard because, though painfully out of context, "something's happening here."

In a recent New York Times article, headlined "Six Decades at the Center of Attention, and Counting," Charles Duhigg wrote that, "with 37 million Americans over the age of 65, and 30 million more expected to cross that thin gray line in the next decade, the boomers and older consumers still represent billions of dollars in potential sales. So once again, companies are scrambling to update their slicing and dicing of the senior marketplace."

We already knew this, of course, but as Duhigg added, "what they are finding, advertising executives say, is that some old tactics don't work anymore. Older consumers don't want to be treated like teenagers; what's more, they don't want to believe they fall into any niche at all."

The knockout punch was delivered by Blaine Branchik, an associate professor of marketing at Quinnipiac University, who told the Times, "Seniors, particularly baby boomers, each believe they belong to a market segment made up of exactly one person. Many believe the only thing they have in common is that they are all so unique that they have nothing in common."

Boomers who turned 60 last week will not go gently into that good night. They will continue to reinvent themselves, individually as well as collectively. We will hear that 60 is the new 40 and 70 is the new 50, and eventually that 90 is the new 70.

Technology will play a key role in this one-person marketing strategy. As boomers age, many of the stereotypes about what might be called Electronics Deficiency Syndrome will vanish. On the road to hip dotage, a substantial percentage of aging boomers will be tech-savvy in ways their parents' generation never was.

As Matt Richtel pointed out in the Times last fall, "Technology investors and entrepreneurs, long obsessed with connecting to teenagers and 20-somethings, are starting a host of new social networking sites aimed at baby boomers and graying computer users. The sites have names like Eons, Rezoom, Multiply, Maya's Mom, Boomj and Boomertown. They look like Facebook--with wrinkles. And they are seeking to capitalize on what investors say may be a profitable characteristic of older Internet users: they are less likely than youngsters to flit from one trendy site to the next."

Maybe BBs have always preferred their individuality on a global scale.

At sales floor level in the bookstore, I've notice a marked decline in the number of older customers boasting about their Luddite status or the innate brilliance of their android progeny with iPod ear implants and dexterous, texting fingertips. Boomers have never shown a tendency to surrender center stage, and it is hard to imagine that they won't carry at least some of their 'tude into old age.

According to Richtel "there are 78 million boomers--roughly three times the number of teenagers--and most of them are Internet users who learned computer skills in the workplace. Indeed, the number of Internet users who are older than 55 is roughly the same as those who are aged 18 to 34, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a market research firm."

But . . . boomers still read and they still buy books.

The dilemma here is whether, as they turn 65, 70, 75, they will continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar bookshops or will point-and-click their purchases because the Internet is where they have found community and individuality.

Check your crystal balls and tell me what you see in the future. Boomer jokes also welcome.

 

Thursday
Jan032008

Finding the Still Center of a Spinning Wheel

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, January 3, 2007

How does a frontline bookseller prepare for this?

By Christmas Eve, you feel they will keep coming at you forever. You know that the book business is in trouble and that indie booksellers are hanging on by their fingernails. You read for a living. You love handselling, and you realize that fewer people are reading for pleasure now. You really are grateful for this relentless invasion of gift buyers, but you can't help marveling at how many people have managed to arrive at your cash register simultaneously.

And they keep coming, wave after wave, until--despite your best intentions and the spirit of the season--they begin to merge into a single, multi-limbed organism, and what you see when you look out from behind the counter are piles of books, CDs, DVDs, toys and sidelines that have somehow managed to grow arms and legs. You're in a Ralph Steadman drawing, and there's no escape.

The questions come at you from all sides and some of them are repeated dozens of times: Is Water for Elephants any good? Does A Thousand Splendid Suns come in paperback? Why isn't Eat, Pray, Love with the fiction bestsellers? Could you page my husband? Where's your rest room?

You are asked to wrap the unwrappable and box the unboxable.

Standing at your besieged cash register, your last line of defense, you are the only representative of the publishing industry that most of these people will ever meet. So you do your best to smile and converse with the multitudes as your hands move repeatedly through a series of long-practiced, fluid and instinctive movements with the dexterity of a Blackjack dealer--the scanning of items, the ceremonial currency exchange, the bagging or the gift wrapping.

Thank you very much.

Sometimes you shift to another counter, just for the change. Sometimes, in rare moments of illusory calm, you straighten shelves and displays. Sometimes you restock. Sometimes you fling yourself recklessly into the throng to handsell and sometimes, amazingly, you do.

Always, everywhere, you do whatever you can to make it work. You must. Bets have been booked; books have been bet. The stakes are high.

The book world is a gamblers' paradise and December is high season. After a year of preparation, authors, agents, editors, publishers, booksellers and everyone else connected with the tens of thousands of books in the kitty are "all in" for the final month. They've played the odds, taken educated risks, put their money where their mouths (or reading eyes) are.  

So, how does a frontline bookseller prepare for all this?

I watched Croupier.

Not only is this film--starring Clive Owen and directed by Mike Hodges--one of the great movies about writers, it is also an ideal training film for surviving the retail holiday onslaught.

Owen plays Jack Manfred, an aspiring novelist with an inherent gift for casino work as a dealer and croupier. The film opens with a slow-motion shot of Jack at his roulette table. The crowd elbows in, getting their bets down, but he is in a silent world of his own creation: "Now, he had become the still center of that spinning wheel of misfortune. The world turned round him, leaving him miraculously untouched. The croupier had reached his goal. He no longer heard the sound of the ball."

At the cash register, in the heat of the game during the past few weeks, I experienced that sense of detachment sometimes. In the film, Jack feels "up above the world, a writer looking down on his subject . . . a detached . . . observer."

But of course the game pulls you back in, again and again, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

The week after Christmas is a curious thing. The retail intensity continues, but the upbeat adrenaline that infused a season of joy to the world and peace on earth often devolves into the impatience of product returns and grumpy children of all ages.

You begin to understand why 2007 is represented by an old man with a scythe, while 2008 is a newborn baby. The year, in its last week, shows its age.

And then, quite suddenly, it's all over. Just like that. You won or you lost. The chips are swept from the table and the dealer announces a new game.

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets for 2008.

 

Saturday
Dec222007

Wishing You a 'Fezziwig Smile' for the Holidays

Shelf Awareness: Friday, December 21, 2007

Whether you believe the spirit of Christmas resides in the Christian or Dickensian or Santa Clausian or Wal-Martian tradition, the next four days will engulf you. I'll be spending this weekend on the bookstore's crazed sales floor. By Christmas Eve, I will have seen the holiday in all its guises, both merry and not-so-merry, played out on a very public stage. Certain things can be predicted:

  • Someone will ask, with frustration and anger twisting their features, "Where is your humor book section?"
  • Someone will complain because the Christmas cards and calendars aren't on sale yet.
  • Someone will request book gift suggestions for a relative who doesn't like to read.
  • Someone will threaten their kids with "no presents" if they don't start behaving "right now!"
  • Someone will say, "Merry Christmas," with intent to provoke, and I'll say, "Merry Christmas," in return because it generates a smile and sometimes even a "thank you."
  • Someone, cast adrift in the gift-buying maelstrom, will still be looking for a good read and ask for a recommendation.

We are a curious species.

Before hurling myself into the deep end of the holiday retail pool, I wanted to wrap up a year in which many books were published and many dire economic predictions were made for our industry. Where could I turn for perspective?

I opted for a little time traveling. Readers solved the mystery of the fourth dimension long ago, even if physicists still struggle with it. You want to travel in time? Read. Oddly, the best advice for this journey comes from the film version of the Time Machine, in which Filby so memorably tells George, "Relax, try to relax. You've all the time in the world."

Sometimes we forget, but readers do have all the time in the world. Literally. At their fingertips. As 2007 draws to a close, I'm turning the clock back a century to give you a peek at the 1907 Christmas season, as seen in the pages of the New York Times.

Yes, they were just as confused as we are. Among the headlines with a familiar ring from 1907 were "Holiday exercises held in a way to satisfy all religious beliefs: sectarianism is avoided," "No war toys for children," "Employees in financial district don't expect usual big bonuses," "Record Christmas travel" and even a meteorological prediction: "Cold for Christmas, says weather man: Yesterday's storm gave buyers a late start, but the stores were crowded before noon."  

There was a report on an exhibition of the year's books at the National Arts Club, noting that a similar event 29 years before, called a "Book Fair," had been less successful, since "the buying and selling of books at wholesale and retail was the principal object." Happily, in 1907, the "mere buying and selling of books has been prohibited in this year's exhibition by a ruling of the Library Committee of the Arts Club, the desire of the latter being to divest their enterprise, as much as possible, of the purely commercial features which it might otherwise take on."

My favorite discovery came from "An Englishman's views on an American Christmas," in which the writer recounted his adventures "buying--buying--buying as if the Christmas 'stores' had just opened and were due to close again in six minutes. It's all so American, but none the less Christmassy. They get the right spirit, too, but like everything else in America, they get it in a hurry and all at once. . . . here the idea seems to be to wait until the last minute, then draw all the money from the bank and rush to the Christmas shops to spend it wildly--recklessly--joyously--madly. It's pandemonium! But it's great, old chap. It's Christmas!"

In the December 28 edition of the Times, the headline "Boston's holiday book trade keen" introduced an article on bookshop sales in that city, where "the holiday season has left a Fezziwig smile, and a comfortable willingness to erect a handsome tombstone over the dead past of 1907."

With the turn of a virtual page, we're back in the present and at the end of our year. I want to thank the great people I interviewed for this column in 2007, met at trade shows, conversed with by email and phone; and I want to especially thank all of you for reading.

However you choose to celebrate this weekend and next, I wish you a merry Christmas, a new year filled with extraordinary books and, of course, a "Fezziwig smile."

 

Sunday
Dec162007

Paper Calendars Still Rule the Day

Shelf Awareness: December 14, 2007

At Christmas time we spent a feverish ten days struggling with Christmas cards and calendars, which are tiresome things to sell but good business while the season lasts. It used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment is exploited. The touts from the Christmas card firms used to come round with their catalogues as early as June. A phrase from one of their invoices sticks in my memory. It was: "2 doz. Infant Jesus with rabbits."--George Orwell, "Bookshop Memories" (1936)

On Wednesday, at the China Internet Information Center's website, I read that "wall calendars, which used to be decent seasons gift to a friend, have unceremoniously receded from the city's consumer market. The Yantai Daily has reported that Xinhua Bookstores in the city's urban area have stopped selling them completely. Wall calendars are no longer considered a must in [peoples'] daily life as many new digital devices can do the work better and easier."

That news certainly hasn't reached bookstores in Vermont, where customers still seem to care about paper calendars--big time.

How big?

"But I get the same one every year and you always used to carry it!"

That big.

"Where are your calendars?" customers often ask when they first enter the bookshop this time of year. For many of them, it is the gift of first, as well as last, resort. And customers seldom arrive at the checkout counter with just one. Multiple buys are the rule.

For booksellers, dealing with calendar inventory is a year-round affair. Orwell's "good business while the season lasts" has evolved into a season that never ends. Bookstores started ordering their 2008 calendars last spring while still selling the 2007s. They blew out most of their remaining 2007 stock during mid-year sales--Memorial Day Weekend, perhaps--just weeks before deliveries of the 2008 models began rolling in.

Despite the fact that a bookstore may carry dozens of variations on theme, size, and function--wall and engagement and page-a-day calendars; Zen Gardens and Great Fish of North America and Snowboarding and John Deere Tractor and Fruit Crate Labels and Modigliani and Bad President calendars--at least one customer a day will be disappointed that we don't carry the specific one they're looking for.

In Vermont, we also offer suitably regional options by artists Sabra Field and Wolf Kahn and Woody Jackson (his is actually a "cowlendar"); and traditional scenic versions like the Vermont Life and Covered Bridges of Vermont calendars. Ours is a state of time as well as a state of mind.

Is it all worth it? Is it really so important? Is there still a role for paper calendars in a digitized world?

Well, how many calendars did you receive as gifts last year? How many did you give? How many did you buy for yourself after you re-gifted the ones that came your way? How many times did you replace the perfect engagement calendar you bought in October with a better one you saw in January, and then again with one that was on sale in March?

How many calendars did you sell last year? What role do these "tiresome things" play in your bookstore's bottom line?

The biggest challenge when writing about calendars is to avoid sounding like Andy Rooney, whining in a cranky, gravelly voice, "Remember when calendars were something the insurance guy or the fuel company left at your house; something you hung in an obscure corner of the kitchen and scribbled on all year long? Whatever happened . . . ?"

Maybe it's Orwell's memory of the "2 doz. Infant Jesus with rabbits" or just a bad case of holiday season dysfunction disorder, but I'm reminded of a black velvet painting I once noticed for sale at an impromptu gas station parking lot exhibition. Picture this: Santa Claus kneeling before the manger in Bethlehem, paying his jolly respects to the baby Jesus. Mary looked justifiably concerned for her son's welfare.

What a calendar that would have made.

Neither cynicism nor nostalgia is really the point, however. Paper calendars are still in the game. Will they ever be rendered obsolete by the digitized alternatives that are within such easy reach in our quiver of personal electronic devices?

Shouldn't they be obsolete already?

Perhaps, but for now calendar season just lasts and lasts.