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#SMSDTX--Refueling in Flight

Only seven more shopping days till Christmas (#SMSDTX). There is no cause for alarm... at this time.

Titcomb's Books dressed up for the holidays

Sure, the holiday retail season tries the patience and feet of the best booksellers. You're facing the usual requests to recommend books for people "who don't read much," and once again you find it amazing, even a little unsettling, to discover how many titles actually fit that category. You've probably adjusted to the holiday music playing incessantly over your shop's speakers, punctuated at regular intervals by semi-desperate calls for retail rescue ("Oh, Holy night, the--'We need help at the front service desk, please!'--of our dear savior's birth."). You've even made your peace with the fact that at least half of the customers who take advantage of your gift-wrapping service can't resist this friendly reminder: "Don't forget to take the price tags off!"

Christmas week: Need I say more? You are about to enter the wackiest stretch of the year for any bookseller. Okay... deep breaths. Inhale. Exhale. You've been through this before. You can do it again.

One of the more intriguing aspects of this time of year is something I'll call "refueling in flight." Every day is a prime refueling day for bookstores during the holiday season, as customers take a hearty bite out of your stock (a good thing) and the staff scrambles to keep the sales floor looking fresh.

A book carton "fort" in the receiving area at Literati Bookstore on Wednesday

The beleaguered shipping and receiving department--which, in smaller bookshops, may well be you--is swamped with stacks and stacks of boxes, incoming as well as outgoing. Deliveries are sorted in a frenzied, triage-like prioritizing exercise. The pressure is intense to get those cartons opened, received and out to the sales floor for shelving immediately.

Imagine two jets connecting for a mid-air refueling. It usually works, but it can still be a little scary.

Given the size of orders this time of year, an outsider might think you're constantly facing empty shelves and displays, but somehow everything runs smoothly (on the good days), so customers generally encounter a well-stocked and organized bookstore when they come in. Most booksellers abhor empty space, a personality quirk that comes in handy right now.

Brewster Book Store's festive decor.

When it all works, your staff moves in seamless choreography throughout the day. There's a lot at stake and refueling in flight is a tricky maneuver. Automatic pilot is not an option. You must rely on a lot of people--buyers, publishers, distributors, delivery companies, receivers and booksellers--doing their individual jobs with focus and coordination. It may seem chaotic at times to you, but damn it sure looks smooth and precise from a distance.

I suspect that most of your customers have only the slightest awareness of the team effort required to refuel in flight at full holiday speed. They see the loaded book carts and are aware of booksellers moving about quickly with armloads of stock. They know books don't shelve themselves. They also know, however, that you will immediately drop everything to help them find the right book, as if you had nothing else to do. They don't need to see the seams. That's part of the magic of bookselling.

Taking a break at Mitchell's Book Corner.

Yesterday's e-newsletter from BookPeople, Austin, Tex., summed it up nicely: "It's the last weekend before the big holiday. Do we look stressed? No way! This is the most fun time of the year. It's like having a non-stop house party. You all come to visit, we give you our favorite books for your favorite people, when the line gets long we hand out candy---everything is merry and bright!... We have books. We have socks. We have more stocking stuffers than we can fit into a single Instagram feed. We're here. We're helpful. We're caffeinated and we're ready to recommend all of the best books we read this year."

Your goal--largely unspoken even if you are acutely aware of it--is to present the bookshop to every customer who comes through the door, regardless of the time of day, as if you'd just finished preparing it for that person alone. And before you leave each night--even after a long, long, long day--you still try with your last reserves of strength (or at least the illusion thereof) to get the sales floor back in shape for tomorrow's opening. It isn't easy, but you'll make the magic happen day after grueling day until Christmas Eve. Refueling in flight may be rife with disastrous possibilities, but it's the only way to fly this time of year. So fasten your holiday bookseller seatbelt and enjoy the bumpy ride. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2657


'Tis the Season for Holiday Bookselling

Surviving Christmas in bookshops boils down to a few simple factors: books, customers, staff, booze and gift-wrap. If one can find the magical alchemy of those five factors, seasonal balance is achieved and Santa rains gifts of splendor, leaving behind a fine whiff of health and happiness. Which is important, because January is hangover country. --Booksellers NZ in an article headlined "Surviving Santa"

In 1962, the New York Times noted that Scribner's Bookstore in New York City started its holiday season "in early November, by sending out a catalogue to some 40,000 regular customers. By mid-November, the Gift Table is set up--art books, cook books, indeed books from archaeology to zoology.... Igor Kropotkin, the manager of the store and president of the American Booksellers Association, says that Christmas trade accounts for between 35% and 40% of the year's business."

That number might still ring a silver bell or two for many booksellers, who annually seek creative ways to attract customers, boost sales, build community and, well, celebrate this high stakes retail season. I've been doing a little online window shopping recently, exploring local news coverage, social media posts and e-mail newsletters for indie bookseller holiday treats. Here's a sampling of what I've found thus far:

Last night, author Allan Gurganus performed his holiday story, "A Fool for Christmas," at the Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C.: "If you, like me, have been having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit this year, given the grim goings on in the world, Allan's heartwarming tale will bring us just the tonic we need."

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City will present What the Dickens?: Sixth Annual A Christmas Carol Marathon tomorrow. Sponsored by Penguin Classics, the event features "dozens of terrific writers and performers" reading the classic holiday story. "Drop in early and often to catch a few surprise performers or linger through the afternoon for the whole, spirited tale."

Also tomorrow, Battenkill Books in Cambridge, N.Y., is hosting a Christmas Cookie Contest, judged by Ellen Stimson, author of An Old-Fashioned Christmas: Sweet Traditions for Hearth & Home.

Photo Ops

Media Coverage
"For a curious and intelligent person, what could be better than a Literary Concierge?" Nicole Magistro, owner of the Bookworm of Edwards, asked Vail Daily in a piece on holiday gift giving and the success of the bookseller's Literary Concierge services Give 15 for kids and Trust Me, You'll Love It for adults. "These gifts were mostly from grandparents to their far-flung families. But we soon realized there were plenty of other folks who wanted this kind of personal and regular recommendation."

Describing Bethlehem, Pa., as "a perfect place to visit during the holiday season," the Burlington County Times recommended a stop at the Moravian Bookshop, which "just happens to be the oldest bookshop in the country. Established in 1745, the shop has a full-service book department, a large Christmas and home goods section, a gift shop and cafe."

Holiday display at Fact & Fiction (photo: Tom Bauer/Missoulian)

Last weekend, downtown Missoula, Mont., held its annual Parade of Lights and the Missoulian featured a photo of the window display at Fact and Fiction Books, which highlights a brilliantly conceived paper snowman/author hard at work typing the great American winter novel with his tree branch arms.

I opened this brief peek at holiday bookselling with some words of wisdom from Booksellers NZ. As it happens, the same article also concludes with a useful dose of perspective for the season: "There is vast experience and kindness out there in bookshop-land, those who court success in this trade of ours work hard to find that magical alchemy of stock, staff and customers, understanding that it all links together to form a profitable and joyous union that makes the quiet closing of the doors at the end of the day on the twenty-forth of December, and the sigh that follows, deeply satisfying." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2652


How a Great Book Found Me at #NEIBA2015

"The American landscape is palimpsest. Layers upon layers of names and meanings lie beneath the official surface.... Yes, I am palimpsest, too, a place made over but trying to trace back." --Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape

Sometimes a book finds me. I know you have your own tales to tell, but occasionally I like to share the path by which a particularly fine work made its way into my hands and, subsequently, my life.

Joan Grenier

This story begins in October during the author reception at the New England Independent Booksellers Association's Fall Conference. Since I've spent a substantial part of my life passionately handselling books, I was prepared for the moment when Joan Grenier, owner of the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., stopped me and said, "I want you to meet someone." That was how I was introduced to Lauret Savoy, author of Trace (Counterpoint), which has become one of my favorite reads of the year.

As we booksellers like to say: You've got to read this book! Grenier recently, and eloquently, summed up why: "The writing is poetic and thoughtful. Lauret interweaves her family history, American history and landscape in a manner I don't think I have ever seen done before. She is a mixed race woman and professor of geology and environmental studies. Her search for her ancestors leads her to many landscapes, including the borderlands of the southwest, the Grand Canyon, Washington D.C., and her birthplace in California. Inevitably the role of race in American history is part of her family's history. She details the inaccuracies, silences and omissions throughout American history, including the Black Codes in Washington D.C. and South Carolina, land grabs from Mexico and Native peoples, and the disappearance of African American towns. This is an important book as we struggle to understand and overcome the wrongs of history and the impact on our current lives."

She also called Trace "a perfect indie book. It was an Indie Next selection and booksellers from Rhode Island to California and Washington have sung its praises. I have certainly been engaging with our customers about this book. We included Trace in our holiday newsletter and have it displayed in several locations throughout our store."

Savoy, who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, told me she wanted her book "to cross boundaries" by exploring "how human experience and the history of the land itself have, in fragmented tellings, artificially pulled apart what cannot be disentangled: nature and 'race.' Above all, my hope is that Trace trespasses and re-members, making connections often unrecognized, such as the siting of the nation's capital and the economic motives of slavery. None of these links is coincidental. Few appear in public history. All touch us."

A bookstore aficionado from an early age, Savoy recalled: "As soon as books replaced toys as my main interests, when I was about nine years old, bookstores became havens. We had moved from California to Washington, D.C., before then and the western lands I considered home needed to be replaced in some way (even though they could never be replaced). What seemed available were eastern lands and their history. Family visits to bookstores like Brentano's felt like treasure hunts. And most times I did find treasure, whether in books on the Civil War, regional natural history or American literature. I remember hoping that the worlds of ideas held on the shelves could somehow offset disturbing media images and troubling school lessons."

She visited the Odyssey Bookshop during her first week at Mount Holyoke College: "It became another type of refuge, and Joan became a friend and supporter. Not only were books a source of ideas and inspiration, but so too were the writers themselves who came to do readings. Terry Tempest Williams, for example, spoke with me long into the night after a reading on her tour for An Unspoken Hunger. That was 1994.  

photo: Emily Crowe

"I felt that, at the Odyssey, I had joined a community of readers and writers, out-of-the box thinkers. And I began to feel a necessary push. I struggled for many years to write Trace, throwing away first, second, third, fourth attempts because I didn't trust my voice or the value of what I was trying to do. Visits to the bookshop began have a painful sharpness. I feared that, unlike every author whose work filled the shelves, I would never 'be a writer.' Yes, my name is on other books, but one is more academic and two others are edited collections. What mattered was that I stop silencing and sabotaging myself. So I finally promised to stop throwing away my words. Joan was a sounding board all along the way."

She added: "And you know firsthand how supportive she was at the recent NEIBA gathering in Providence, a one-woman dynamo!" That I do.

Last month, Savoy's reading at Odyssey "was standing room only with colleagues, students and customers excited to be present," said Grenier. "Lauret gave a powerful reading and during the q&a we learned that Lauret's journey to explore this land and her family will continue with several other possible books. People are still talking about the reading and how wonderful the evening was."

I wish I'd been there, but I'm thankful that Trace found me. Sometimes great reads do that. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2647


A Moment of Calm Before the Retail Storm

I feel most at peace in a bookstore, or in between the pages of a book. Somewhere where I am surrounded by ink on a page, the quiet whisperings of printed words.

--Note left by a customer on the public typewriter at Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Note to booksellers: By this time next week, you'll begin feeling the first breezes of a retail storm that will, ideally, engulf you in the annual Black Friday, Indies First/Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday retail maelstrom.

Just for a moment, however, while you still can, consider the blessed silence of a bookstore before it opens. Not silence, really, but rather a particularly delicious flavor of quiet. Inside the shop, you may still hear muted sounds: the distant murmur of traffic, the furnace kicking on, indecipherable snatches of conversation as people walk by on the sidewalk. But the books, even the audiobooks, keep their words to themselves for now. There is a peace here. You know all about what Literati's customer called the "quiet whisperings of printed words."

Feel better? Now you can think about Thanksgiving weekend. The crowds will most assuredly descend upon you. It is what crowds do. Something compels people to wake up on the day after Thanksgiving and say to each other: "It's the busiest shopping weekend of the year. The stores will be mobbed; people will be rude and annoying; and traffic will be absolutely unbearable. We sure don't want to miss that!" And on Small Business Saturday, you'll be one among hundreds of booksellers who hope to feel that stiff retail wind in their sails as well.

Thanksgiving Day, however, is the calm before the storm. Most independent bookstores are closed... and quiet... and the booksellers are, well, thankful.

Village Books & Paper Dreams, Bellingham, Wash., noted it "is closed for Thanksgiving so all of our employees can enjoy the holiday with family and friends. Have a wonderful day!"

In a recent e-newsletter, the Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., wrote: "As we go into November, a month associated with bounty and gratitude, we want to take a moment let you know how thankful we are for having you as a customer. We will be celebrating a Week of Gratitude, leading up to Thanksgiving, as our way of showing our appreciation of all of the people who make our job one that is fun to go in to every day."

For Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass., "Thanksgiving is about family, and our global family is being tested in the fire right now. In a metaphorical sense, I hope that in the coming months we open up the kitchen and let the children do some of the cooking; that we can forgive the teenagers for their surly, self-destructive behavior and invite them to the table; and that we will really listen when our elders say grace. And that we will look at ourselves in the mirror and decide that the buck stops here. Peace in this world always begins with you."

Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., is partnering with Workman and Food Bank for NYC: "For every copy of Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day purchased from Greenlight, one copy will be donated to Food Bank for NYC for use in their nutrition education programs.... As we're looking forward to Thanksgiving feasting, it's a great time to give the gift of cooking good food to those in our city who need it most. Thanks for your support on this project, and happy cooking and giving!"

Inspired by REI's #optoutside campaign, Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., will open its doors late on Black Friday: "We are encouraging our staff to enjoy some family time, finish a few more pages and get outside! We'll be ready with our recommendations at noon on Friday and on Small Business Saturday, when we will have some of our favorite local authors on hand to talk books and help you shop."

Thanksgiving Day can be complicated for booksellers. The family gathers, with so many relatives and friends enjoying a long weekend off while you worry if you've ordered enough copies of this year's National Book Award winners; or chart storm patterns online at NOAA (weather being a critical ingredient in your weekend's success); or rework the staff schedule in your mind, hoping you've got enough sales floor coverage so customers are as overwhelmed with good service as you will be with the crowds. While those around you wrap up leftovers or sleep through bad football games, you'll be thinking about last minute tasks and everything that might go wrong. The stakes are high. Really high.

Here's a little holiday tip: exhale. On Thanksgiving Day, just take a few moments to think about your bookstore. It is quiet. It is waiting for you. It is ready. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2639


Binc: 'Book People Helping Each Other'

As the holiday season approaches, I thought it might be an appropriate moment to showcase the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which has been providing financial assistance to booksellers in need since 1996. During the New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference, I discussed Binc's ongoing role with executive director Pam French, and checked in with her again this week because the organization's major fundraising campaign kicks off December 1.

"We are encouraging booksellers and others in the industry to see the foundation as their foundation, an example of book people helping each other," French said. "A donation to Binc will allow booksellers to take part in writing the next chapter on bookseller assistance (which also happens to be the theme of the annual campaign) and to continue providing bookseller assistance for years to come."

As of November 9, Binc had distributed $50,331 to 26 booksellers and their families this year. It had received 35 requests overall year-to-date and is actively managing several of those not yet resolved. In 2014, Binc fielded on average one request per week.

"We are still learning the cadence of requests," French noted. "There is typically an increase in requests after the fall trade shows, and after Winter Institute. It reinforces the importance of being present at those events and continually spreading awareness. We plan for grant requests to increase each year, but this year the number has not increased. In my ideal world that's because everyone who has a need has contacted us, but there remains an awareness gap.  

"One trend that does appear is that requests for major medical are consistent, but now are more complex and take longer to complete. For example, we have had several grant requests related to cancer treatment care. The requests can take months to manage since the treatments are longer and the bills higher."

In 2015, Binc has also distributed $200,000 in higher education scholarships, a $2,000 matching grant to an indie bookstore and about $13,000 for the professional development scholarship initiative that provides booksellers financial assistance to attend industry events.

Pam French (l.) at the NEIBA show with Binc fundraising committee member Susan Schlesinger of Books on the Square in Providence, R.I.

Since she became executive director of what was then the Borders Group Foundation in 2009, French has witnessed Binc's core mission evolve significantly "from an organization focused solely on one employee population, with direct communication channels, to a nationwide organization and a variety of ways to connect with booksellers. We initially focused on letting the trade associations and bookstore owners know about Binc and earning credibility.

"Our original outreach was to the CEOs of the national trade associations. Oren Teicher and the ABA board have become some of our strongest allies/supporters. And once we learned about the regional trade associations, we contacted each executive director and introduced ourselves. The regional e.d.'s have helped us spread the word; they are truly great partners and have been invaluable in getting Binc off the ground. We cannot thank Oren, the ABA and each of the regional IBA e.d.'s enough."

What does the future hold for Binc? "In 2011 we gave ourselves three years to determine if the foundation was useful and effective given the expanded mission of serving all bookstore employees," French recalled. "After a survey in 2013, increased grant requests in 2014 and input from key partners the board of directors determined that the foundation had met our original goals of earning credibility, creating awareness and meeting the needs of booksellers, and that we should work towards becoming sustainable."

She noted that the foundation "is extremely fortunate to have had existing funds to use while we launched Binc nationwide, established industry partners and determined if a charity focused on helping booksellers was viable. Up until 2015, we had done some fundraising but it was not with the goal of becoming sustainable or on a broad scale. Once we determined that the foundation served a need within the industry, we also determined that we needed to raise funds to continue to help booksellers."

Binc has made progress toward its fundraising goals in 2015, but still has a way to go to become sustainable. "Our learning curve has been steep since nationwide fundraising is new to Binc," French observed. "We are working to connect with publishers, bookstores and individuals throughout the industry as financial supporters."

Since we are in the storytelling business, I asked her to share one recent experience that stood out as an example of the importance of Binc's mission. She recalled a grant recipient who'd been uncertain about qualifying for assistance. "I always encourage booksellers to contact us with questions," French noted. "Often their situation does qualify for a grant, or we can point them to other resources for assistance."

Later, the bookseller shared this reaction: "At our regional trade show I attended the general membership meeting and heard from a rep of Binc. I hadn't suffered any of the major catastrophes that I thought were a necessary qualification for a Binc grant, but the presentation at the membership meeting made me realize that maybe I didn't need a major catastrophe, just a series of small ones. Within a week of initially contacting Binc I was informed that I would be receiving a grant sufficient to get me caught up on rent, which would allow me to also get caught up on utilities (and some of my lost sleep). They saved my life and my sanity at a time when I was feeling nothing but frustration bordering on despair."

Something for all of us to consider during the holiday season. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2634