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Bookish Halloween: 'All Work & No Play...' 

Begin with Neil Gaiman: "Books are the way the dead communicate with us." I read this sentence recently in his prose collection The View from the Cheap Seats. That moment was, strangely enough, bookended by a visit yesterday to the autumn gardens at Yaddo, the legendary--and purportedly haunted--artists retreat in Saratoga Springs N.Y.; and, in early October, to The Stanley hotel in Estes Park, Colo., a ghostly locale that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining and has been hosting Twin Terror Weekends, including a RedRum Mystery Dinner.

If that's not a prelude to Halloween, I don't know what is.

Yaddo's garden five days before Halloween

Yaddo isn't far from my house. If you were here today, we could take a "Ghosts in the Yaddo Garden Tour," during which you'd "experience the Spirits of the Gardens. Feel the energy and creativity of the forces of the Earth. Share in the spiritual intrigue from Native Americans, Edgar Allan Poe, the Trask family and other contemporary visitors!"

In 2014, author Peggy Riley wrote of her time there: "Yaddo is imbued with ghosts: ghosts of four children who didn't survive to inherit a mansion; ghosts of artists who have lived and worked there; ghosts of artists still living and working, who last worked in the chair you sit in, who stared at the walls as hard as you. They are all still there, at Yaddo, haunting the rooms, living in the pages of the books they leave behind, the Yaddo library filled with Yaddo writers: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, etc. etc...."

Although I was an excellent Halloween kid, I've never considered myself an accomplished Halloween adult. I do, however, seem to wander door to virtual door collecting treats this time of year. Like this WalletHub data:

  • $8.38 billion: Projected Halloween-related spending in 2016 ($3.14 billion on costumes)
  • $547.9 million: Halloween candy sales (fourth biggest candy-selling holiday)
  • $300+ million: Annual revenue from ticket sales to haunted attractions (80% of which are charity-operated)
  • 72%: Share of parents who say they steal Halloween candy from their kids.

And I find it hard to resist seasonal clickbait:

I'm also intrigued by the many and varied ways indie booksellers get into the spirits of the season.

Scary reading at Nantucket Bookworks

Nantucket Bookworks, Nantucket, Mass.: "It's getting spooky over at Bookworks! Trick or Treat with candy, hats, trinkets, witch tights, tattoo sleeves, masks, & MORE! Pick up a scary book to read this October while you are at it."

Green Apple Books, San Francisco, Calif.: "Spooky staff picks!... Keep reading to discover which scary books keep our staff up at night!"

Tubby & Coo's Mid-City Book Shop, New Orleans, La., e-newsletter: "The bookstore hosts two Halloween costume parties. Saturday's party caters to adults with games, adult trick-or-treating and Are You Afraid of the Dark-style stories; a child-friendly party Sunday has readings from Goosebumps, trick-or-treating and a costume contest."

Andover Bookstore, Andover, Mass. (e-newsletter): "Kids Halloween Party! On Saturday, October 29th at 2 p.m. we will be having a Halloween costume party! We'll read Halloween themed picture books, decorate Trick-or-Treat bags, have a costume parade around Andover Village Square, and more! It will be fun for all ages. The party is completely free and open to all!"

The Spiral Bookcase, Philadelphia, Pa.: "WITCH WEEK is going strong!"

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, Calif., "has been celebrating Halloween all month, with an array of events that seek to put a little fear or quirkiness in your life. That continues this week."

Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass. (e-newsletter): "I don't know how many folks out there still do handmade Halloween costumes, but between my efforts on behalf of my two kids, and the intrepid seamstresses-and-sters among the Booksmith staff, I know of at least a dozen pairs of hands that have been pricked by pins and needles this week. So, while we won't build your costume for you, we do have a ton of fun and frightful books and accessories for Halloween, courtesy of our kids' booksellers and the Giftsmith. Come in and check it all out, quick, before a zombie eats your brain!"

Halloween, it seems, has crept up on me this year after all, despite my best efforts to keep it at bay. I'm like one of those nice families that decide to stay in their new home even after the walls start to bleed and a disembodied voice screams, "Get out!"

The Shining Ball 2016 at The Stanley Hotel

It was my brother's idea to visit the grand old Stanley hotel a couple of weeks ago. I learned that in 1974, Stephen King and his wife spent a night there as the only guests one day before it closed for the winter. "Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect--maybe the archetypical--setting for a ghost story," he recalled. Disappointed with Stanley Kubrick's film version of The Shining, King became the force behind a late 1990s TV miniseries, which was filmed at the Stanley.

But it is Kubrick's terrifying image of the terminally blocked writer and his only reader, horrified by what she encounters on the page, that haunts me still. If these words don't scare you, nothing ever will: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

Happy bookish Halloween... if you dare.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2869


MPIBA Show: 'Two Deep Breaths, Then Go' 

One of the things that we hear a lot of in terms of feedback and questions is, 'How's it going in other regions? What's going on right now with the indie channel?' We're very happy to say that the indie channel is strong.

--Dan Cullen, American Booksellers Association senior strategy officer, speaking at the MPIBA's general meeting

So there I was a couple of weeks ago, sitting in a room filled with energized booksellers at the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association's Fall Discovery Show. There was good news--15 new bookstore members, 221 booksellers in attendance--and animated conversations among bookstore owners who were (Dare I say it?) feeling pretty good about the book trade.

Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop and Fred Ramey, co-publisher of Unbridled Books
Gary Jobson and Eliot Treichel

But just for a moment, like a passing dark cloud, I recalled an author lunch during the 2008 MPIBA show in Colorado Springs. I'd been sitting at a table with several booksellers who were discussing how much longer they could reasonably justify staying in business. "Bookselling in Challenging Times" was one of the education sessions that year.

The times, as our latest Noble Lit Laureate has often reminded us, are a-changing. Education sessions at this year's MPIBA show featured options like Profiting from Non-Profit Partnerships; Increasing Book Sales at Events; Diversity Through Merchandising; and The Mathematics of Bookselling. Raising your bookseller game, rather than just surviving it, was a predominant theme. The exhibit hall was active and interactive. That 2008 survivalist mentality seemed a distant memory, a bad dream.

Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston Tex., said she liked that the show was "relaxed. People are really engaging with each other. The reps are excited to talk with booksellers. Long time booksellers engage with new booksellers. In the sessions, when booksellers ask questions they are answered by everyone in the room. The sessions are geared toward many levels of booksellers which is helpful for the newer stores. The many events for gathering (meals, banquet, Books & Brew, etc.) give ample opportunity for everyone to meet. It's a great show."

Gary Robson, general manager and CEO of This House of Books, Billings, Mont., agreed: "The name 'Discovery Show' is perfect for this conference, because it's all about discovering new authors, new books, and new connections. The authors I meet in Denver in October are often the ones putting on book events in my store later in the year, and the exhibit hall gives me a chance to catch up with sales reps that don't always make it up to Montana for store visits. This year I had an opportunity to not only learn from the education sessions, but teach as well. The beauty of teaching a seminar like 'Bookselling by the Numbers' is that the research process is as educational for me as it is for the attendees."

Frontlist buying session: Tattered Cover's Cathy Langer and Stephanie Coleman with Norton sales rep Meg Sherman

And, fortunately, bookselling history is about much more than the dark ages of 2008. At the beginning of an informative session called Frontlist Prep from a Pro, Cathy Langer, director of buying for Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store, shared a bit of nostalgia: "I started at the store in 1977, when we were one teeny, tiny store, working off yellow and brown inventory cards. That was helpful for buying and restocking, but we also did a lot of buying out of blind gut buying. We say buying is an art and a science. Back then, there was a lot less hard science and a lot more art. Things have really changed over the years."

No small part of that change has been booksellers' evolving engagement with the Internet. A Social Media for Frontline Booksellers session reminded me that even a decade ago, such discussions were often about convincing half the room that a store website might not be the worst idea ever. Now these sessions drill much deeper into the finer points of social media strategies as an everyday part of operating a 21st-century indie bookstore. Convincing booksellers that they should be involved seems almost as outdated as inventory cards.

Social media session: Jeremy Ellis of Brazos Bookstore and Ally Gilliland of The Bookworm of Edwards

At the social media session, Jeremy Ellis of Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex., said, "One of the secrets about bookselling is that everybody sells the same books, but nobody has you. You are the unique thing. The real product of an independent bookstore is the bookseller. That's the only thing that's truly unique. And so, being yourself as much as you can be on these platforms conveys your real brand. It has nothing to do with the logo; it has nothing to do with your color scheme. Your brand is the promise of who you are."

So where do we go from here? At the Reading the West Book Awards Luncheon, Eliot Treichel, winner of the children's category for his YA novel A Series of Small Maneuvers, shared some life-altering words of wisdom from his first whitewater kayaking instructor, who counseled: "Two deep breaths, then go."

Expressing gratitude to the MPIBA and indie booksellers, Treichel recalled spending his first year of college in Missoula, Mont.: "I was lonely and homesick and all of that, except that a few blocks from my dorm was this bookstore called Freddy's Feed & Read, which became a second home to me.... So whenever I travel to a town, I always look for a bookstore. I've come to realize that that's what bookstores are. They're homes. Whatever city I go to, no matter how lost I feel, how turned around, if I go to a bookstore there's a sense of orientation."

When I consider that 2008 Bookselling in Challenging Times education session, and all that has happened since in our chosen field, I can't help but think the best advice is at once the simplest and most complex: "Two deep breaths, then go."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2864


MPIBA Fall Discovery Show's Extended Family

After all these years and all these regional fall book conferences, I think I've become an accomplished collector of quotations from guest authors expressing their appreciation for independent booksellers. Last week, during the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show in Denver, I had the chance to add some vintage quotes to my collection and to reflect on the extended family that is indie bookselling, a "region" without boundaries.

It is a growing family. The 2016 MPIBA show had 221 booksellers in attendance, a solid number helped by the addition of 15 new bookstores. "Both the board of directors as well as myself were elated by the turnout and success of this year's Fall Discovery Show," said executive director Laura Ayrey. "With the onslaught of so many new booksellers this year you could feel the excitement in the air in the exhibit hall and at the author events. They were soaking up every bit of knowledge they could from our seasoned booksellers. I feel confident in saying it was our best show yet."

Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, summed it up nicely at the General Meeting when she said, "Bookselling is a nice family to be in."

Erin Stead

The notion of an extended bookselling family occurred to me when I heard Erin Stead (The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles) recount her bookselling days at Books of Wonder in Manhattan during the Children's Author & Illustrator Breakfast. "I think that booksellers are my family, and that sounds really disingenuous, I guess, but the truth is that I still consider myself a bookseller first and not an illustrator," she said. "If you're wondering, I still go into stores and front and face compulsively."

At Books of Wonder, Stead "worked with some wonderful people who are all still my friends today. And without these people I wouldn't be published.... Working in the store was the greatest education I had for my job.... My first two days they just put a thousand picture books in front of me and said we want you to read all of them and figure out what you like, figure out what you don't like, and figure out why. And it was the best thing I could have gotten. And then at the end I had to shelve them all.... It was a wonderful education."

During the Author Banquet, T.C. Boyle (The Terranauts) expressed his gratitude to indie booksellers "for supporting my book from the very beginning when I was known only to my mother, wife and daughter. Speaking of that daughter, by the way, she works at Skylight Books in L.A." He recalled an event a couple of years ago for his collected stories at which "she introduced me, but, more than that, I read one story, and she read one, too." Boyle also noted that his connection to the indie bookseller family continues to deepen: "I know many of you; I've been to your stores, and I hope that I will continue to do that."

Author Elan Mastai with MPIBA show volunteer Deb Slater & show photographer Tori Henson

Elan Mastai (All Our Wrong Todays), a speaker at the Author of Future Releases Breakfast, said: "One of the reasons it's lovely to be here meeting booksellers from around the area is my local independent bookstore, Book City in Toronto. I'm there like every other day.... Probably half the books I buy are because they're just handsold to me by one of the folks who works at the bookstore, like Kylie or Graham or Stacey.... Independent bookstores are a huge part of my life. For me, that's the place that I'm happiest.

"Every time I go to a new city, I always end up in a bookstore. My wife is an avid reader as well, though not quite as obsessive as I am. She's like, 'They have the same books back home.' It's not the same! Because you go to an independent bookstore and it's a vibe. They have certain books that they're going to highlight. I love the handwritten notes. I love talking to people about the books that I wouldn't expect. Maybe it's a local author. Maybe it's an international author.... So I just want to say that you guys are doing the good work out there and I really appreciate it. It makes my quality of life a lot better."

David Shannon

David Shannon (Duck on a Tractor), noted that his book Duck on a Bike "came out a long time ago," but a sequel was possible because "thanks to you guys it was still selling; it was still in the hands of kids; it was current enough for OneBook 4 Colorado to choose it. And that's all independent bookstores and school libraries that are doing that. So we decided we could do the sequel. I would just like to thank you right now personally for allowing me to do this book." He apologized for having to leave immediately after the event to visit his daughter in college. She had been the inspiration for his 2004 book Alice the Fairy. "She's all grown up," he said. "So thank you for being my friends for the whole life of my kid."

All just a part of being in an extended family, bookseller style. More on MPIBA's Fall Discovery Show 2016 in next week's column.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2859


NEIBA Fall Conference: 'These Relationships Matter'

These relationships matter. These relationships are relationships that matter to me, they matter to my family, they matter to my sons, and I want them to matter. I love the fact that I live in a town that has an independent bookstore.... I believe in our relationship. And I believe in what you do. --Dawn Tripp, author of Georgia, speaking at NEIBA's fall conference about the great relationships she and her family have had with independent bookstores

Along with the keynotes, the author breakfasts, the cocktail reception, the awards banquet and conversations in the exhibit hall, the New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference also provided a valuable forum for learning with its education sessions. They were all, in various ways, about relationship-building among booksellers, customers, publishers, sales reps and authors.

"Maybe the best attended session was What Reps See [Check out BPRNE's online photo album from store visits]. People were sitting in the hall! And the room holds 90!" said NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer. "Kudos to two excellent NECBA sessions. And my personal wish for more attention paid to nonfiction was realized in a well-attended panel that included a plea to publishers to push for more Indie Next nonfiction candidates. Even our first shot at an Open Forum with round tables set up so anyone could talk about anything turned out to be lively and informative."

Annie Philbrick, Matt Shaw, Liza Bernard & Dana Brigham

Since it is one of my favorite topics, I couldn't resist the Customer Service session, which featured a panel of "fellow evangelists for superior customer service" that included Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books, Mystic, Conn., & Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, Westerley, R.I.; Matt Shaw of Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck, N.Y.; Liza Bernard of the Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, Vt.; and Dana Brigham of Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass.

Topics ranged from staff training/retraining to store atmosphere to phone etiquette and more, including how to handle difficult customers (Brigham: "One thing I always tell staff is: 'Think of the person in front of you as your beloved grandmother.' ") or the perennial frontline bookseller nametag/T-shirt/apron debate (Philbrick: "Name tags are a little bit tricky.... I don't really care as long as you have something that shows you work here.").

At Brookline Booksmith, each new employee is paired with a trainer for a couple of days to focus on "all things bookstore, with a hefty emphasis on customer service," said Brigham. "All of us look to customer service skills as we're reviewing résumés and as we're interviewing to get a sense of who's likely to be a good customer service person.... In the end, if we don't have the customer service, we don't have the customer. If we don't have the customer, we're in trouble."

Bernard noted that while Norwich Bookstore does have a handbook, "I found that until somebody's been in the store for two or three weeks, it doesn't really make any sense. So they're supposed to read it, and then go back and read it again." She also employs the mentoring technique for new hires: "I don't just have them watch. There's a narrative behind the reason we do things the way we do," she said, citing examples such as why they hold books at the front desk rather than the register, and why they don't give a title when notifying customers by phone that their book is in.

"We hire a lot based on our gut, and feeling whether this person is going to be part of who we are and be able to interact with customers on the floor," said Philbrick, noting that new booksellers begin with shelving. "We found there's so many little things to learn. We tend to teach them when that incident comes up. All the time, we are emphasizing to them that the most important thing is customer service.... You're in a very public space, and you need to be able to greet people and take care of them." 

One question generated a lot of discussion: Is the customer always right?

"I think the customer is right in that from their perspective they have a valid whatever-it-is, and our job as customer service providers is to try and get into their head or their heart or their anger, whatever it is that they're giving you, and take it and then massage it and get rid of it," said Bernard, adding that one of the best ways to respond is: "Thank you, I didn't realize this was a problem. Can you say more about it? Okay, I will deal with this.' That's a validation. So while they may not be right, they're valid.... Actually, some of those really high conflict situations, after they're resolved, are more rewarding than some of the easy ones."

Noting that the customer "is right in their experience," but may not be right "in the totality of the situation," Shaw said that "all you can really do is apologize to them for a negative encounter.... And then check in with your booksellers for details."

The idea of store atmosphere as customer service was brought up by Shaw, who observed that "something I always think about in relation to customer service is actually just how the store looks... the general upkeep and maintenance that is so important to how the store looks and feels and, a lot of customers would say, smells when they come in.... That welcoming atmosphere and living room atmosphere that will translate into making a better customer service atmosphere."

"A lot of customers feel this ownership of the store. And you want it to be a comforting place that's clean and light and not too dusty," Philbrick added.

While the patience-testing "parenting styles of some of our customers" can be a challenge in children's sections, Brigham said: "We just go through on an hourly basis... make it a clean, welcoming space again.... That requires quite a lot of tongue biting by our booksellers, but it's important to be nonjudgmental."

Shaw added that "these sweeps through the stores are an excellent way to engage with customers."

Brigham ultimately offered the simplest formula for great bookstore customer relationships: "We want every customer to have a better than expected experience."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2855


'In Conversation' at the NEIBA Fall Conference

I just ran the numbers. The word "conversation" has appeared in about 300 (more than half) of my columns, dating back to 2006. And here it is again, because that is precisely the word that came to mind often during last week's New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference in Providence, R.I., where the atmosphere was a generous blend of conversation, energy and enthusiasm. And books, of course... lots of books.   

Zadie Smith and Christopher Castellani

It all launched Tuesday at an extraordinary keynote event, featuring Zadie Smith (Swing Time) "in conversation" with author Christopher Castellani, who began by saying, "We've already started our conversation, so you're just joining us."

Smith covered a wide range of topics, including the challenges of writing in first person ("It's quite curious the power that the 'I' has."); power dynamics ("Nobody thinks of themselves as an unimportant country or an unimportant person, but the world is structured in such a way that you're made to accept that role, or asked to accept it."); privilege ("There is no such thing as a perfectly right or authentic position to exist in.... I kind of work from the assumption that everyone is in some kind of existential pain."); cultural appropriation ("To me it's always a specific matter between an artist and a subject, between a reader and what they read. I can't generalize on the topic."); and the bond between authors and readers ("The relationship is fundamentally unfinished unless there is someone on the other side to talk about it with.... I do absolutely need readers.").

(l.-r.) Tom Wickersham (Brookline Booksmith), Zadie Smith, Karl Krueger (Penguin Random House), Carole Horne (Harvard Book Store), Christopher Castellani (Grub Street), and Ellen Jarrett (Porter Square Books)

Claire Benedict of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt., described the keynote as "the highlight of my NEIBA experience. Her thoughtful and compassionate discussion on everything from cultural appropriation to Facebook to Anthony Weiner was inspiring. I particularly appreciated what she said about cultural appropriation being more about aesthetic failure than ethical failure--I couldn't agree more. I now have a massive crush on Zadie and am smack dab in the middle of her gorgeous new novel."

Jan Hall of Partners Village Store, Westport, Mass., agreed: "I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation between Zadie Smith and Chris (another favorite author). Hearing her speak has added several other dimensions to reading Swing Time. I can now hear her voice, and respect more the story's time, place and characters. Zadie Smith is both elegant in visage, and eloquent in words."

The keynote, which NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer called an "extraordinary and a wonderful way to open the conference," proved to be an excellent launching pad for three days of panels, meetings, exhibits and celebrations, along with less formal yet equally important bouts of "talking books." Fischer noted that while the number of exhibitors at this year's conference was up 7% and authors (64) up 10%, bookseller attendance (400) was level with 2015, though we both agreed it felt like there were more booksellers.

"It has to be because the vibe was so positive and the enthusiasm for the authors and education was so apparent," Fischer said. I'll write in more detail next week about some of the education sessions I attended, since so much useful information was shared. This week's focus is on the events.

Andrea Beaty

As is often the case, authors celebrating booksellers was an ongoing theme. At the Children's Author & Illustrator Breakfast, Andrea Beaty (Ada Twist, Scientist), said, "You are the lifeblood of children's books.... The love you've shown for all my books has been breathtaking." She ended the presentation by reciting her "Ode to an Indie," which began "I want to say thanks to you indie booksellers/ Thank you book gals, and thank you book fellers," and concluded:

You are the heart of great kids lit.
Without your fine work we would lose much of it.
Not to get mushy, but I think it's true
That so many great books would be lost without you.

So thank you once more, yes thank you indeed,
For just the tonic this cranky world needs.
Your shops and your books soothe us like dogs with their bones,
And the best thing of all, you don't even need drones.

Fischer noted that he was "very happy with what we've done making the Awards Banquet such a festive evening of food and drink, authors and recognition of reps and bookstores." In addition to honoring Anne DeCourcey as this year's Gilman Award winner for outstanding rep, Norwich Bookstore for its Indie Spirit Award, and Elizabeth Strout as President's Award recipient, the banquet showcased the 2016 New England Book Awards winners and finalists.

In brief remarks, finalists Robin MacArthur (Half Wild: Stories) described indie bookstores as "holy places"; and Howard Frank Mosher (God's Kingdom) offered his thanks "for all you've done for clueless scribblers like me and for millions of readers throughout New England. Thank you so much for everything you've done for constitutional rights."

Sabaa Tahir

During the author breakfast on the final day, Sabaa Tahir (A Torch Against the Night) spoke of the range of people she writes for, adding: "You are the purveyors of such stories. Because it was someone very much like you who gave me my first story that, by extension, set me on this very crazy and twisty and weird path that has led me here in front of you. So, I want to say thank you for all that you do for readers, whether they're young or they're old."

And Min Jin Lee (Pachinko), whose first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, had been a BookSense #1 Pick a decade ago, summed it all up nicely: "If it had not been for independent booksellers, I would not be here today. I would not have a career."

"With 400 booksellers representing just over 100 stores we are firmly a retail booksellers conference," Fischer observed. "Our education is focused on bookseller education and the authors we choose are there so they can meet booksellers and booksellers can learn more about their books. The strong sales that most of our stores have been having for the past couple of years continued through the summer. Fall is teed up to be very strong which feeds in to a positive mood about the business in general. And wasn't it a relief to not harp on e-books and Amazon and to stick to our knitting and do what we've all been doing so well for so long--sell books!" The NEIBA conversation continues next week.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2850

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