In recent years, children's books have emerged as a welcome bright spot in the world of general bookselling, often accounting for a third or more of total book sales, even in years without Harry Potter. But promoting children's books without cutting into sales of adult titles often requires a delicate balance.
Too many children's books in a window can be a turnoff for customers on the hunt for, say, the latest James Patterson or a good romance; they might think it's a children's store and never enter. Tucking children's books out of sight on an upper level or in the back of a bookstore isn't the answer either. Indeed, for many booksellers, the challenge is to integrate the two sections without seeming to favor one over the other. But there's more to it than drawing clear distinctions between the children's and adult sections—it's called crossover, and any booksellers worth their salt (and salary) will want to turn adult readers on to such books as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, or Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now.
Below are tips from some who have successfully negotiated the merchandising shoals.
Blue Willow Bookshop (Houston, Tex.)Windows on the world. Blue Willow Bookshop is divided down the center: adult books on one side, children's on the other. To make sure adult readers don't feel slighted, owner Valerie Koehler relies on visual cues throughout the store. “We keep adult books behind the register and adult books at the cash wrap,” she explains. “Our door opens to the right so you see the adult side first. We have two bay windows and one is always an adult window. Yet people still walk in and ask, 'Is this a children's store?' ”In her store newsletter and on her Web site, Koehler is careful to include adult titles, and this year she featured adult books on the front cover of Blue Willow's holiday catalogue. When Koehler gives book talks in the community, she mentions adult books as well as children's titles. Still, she doesn't always find it easy to get out the message that the store carries a strong inventory of both children's and adult titles. “I have to work on customer and industry perceptions,” says Koehler, who attends industry seminars for adult booksellers and requests adult authors for her reading series.Shown here: Blue Willow's picture book window, and a bookshelf showcasing the store's selection of plush toys, each paired with its matching book.Square Books Jr. (Oxford, Miss.)
Don't leave empty-handed. Four years ago Square Books in Oxford, Miss., decided to give kids' books a space of their own by expanding into a separate storefront across the street. Despite its kid-centric name (Square Books Jr.), walls adorned with children's posters and artwork, and displays of plush toys and children's art supplies, people still come in and think that they're at Square Books, says children's buyer Jill Moore. Rather than risk losing customers by sending them back to the “adult” store, Moore and other SBJ staffers frequently make the trek across the Square and personally shop for the titles customers request, while the customer waits. Then they can ring up all the customer's purchases together. Their counterparts at Square Books do the same with children's titles.
Shown here: customers are greeted by a giant plush dinosaur, who wears a t-shirt showing a picture of the front of the store.
The Flying Pig Bookstore (Shelburne, Vt.)
Logo-nomics. Originally founded as a children's-only bookstore, The Flying Pig Bookstore faced a challenge a year ago when it moved from Charlotte, Vt., to nearby Shelburne and became a general bookstore. “It's tricky,” says Elizabeth Bluemle, who co-owns the store with Josie Leavitt, “because our logo is childlike and purple and our walls are painted Dr. Seuss-blue. Then it's very hard to find the right wording. Recently I asked a man, 'Are you looking for adult books?' Horrified, he said 'no' and left.”
By adding a tagline to Flying Pig's advertising and print materials that says “Psst! Not just kids' books anymore” and discounting all adult hardcovers by 25%, Bluemle and Leavitt have begun to balance out their business, which is currently evenly split between adult and kids. Bluemle also credits an events schedule heavily weighted toward adult authors, like Phoebe Damrosch (Service Included) and Vermont comic Rusty Dewees (Scrawlins), with changing customer expectations.
Shown here: Flying Pig keeps its name in front of shoppers with clever touches like this display table in the children's section, a three-dimensional version of the store logo.
Watermark Books and Café (Wichita, Kans.)
School advisory. Thirty-year-old Watermark Books and Café caters to families, and dedicates one-quarter of its 5,000 sq. ft. of selling space to children's titles. “Schools are a core part of our children's business,” says majority owner Sarah Bagby. “They order in bulk and buy more hardcovers.” She works with area schools to bring in children's authors and sends out monthly e-mails to teachers. She also looks to her Young Readers Advisory Group, ages nine to 15, who meet quarterly, for advice on books suitable for teachers. The kids' section is set off by low-hanging lights in primary colors, and displays books on old-fashioned wooden tables and hutches.
Word (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Breaking the color code. After running a used bookstore in suburban New York for six years, Christine Onorati was ready for a change. Not only did she switch to new books, but she made her corner store in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn as eye-catching as the books she carries. Orange curtains and vibrant colors initially led potential customers to assume that it was children's only. “People don't expect to see a bright bookstore,” says Onorati. Since families with young children are a significant presence in her neighborhood, she tried to get the word out that the store is a general bookstore in other ways. She deliberately put “children's” at the end of Word's tagline: Books, Stationery, Gifts, Kids' Stuff. And she avoids window displays with kids' books, except to promote author signings—but even those are almost exclusively to promote adult titles.
Phoenix Books (Essex, Vt.)
The name game. When Michael DeSanto and his wife, Renée Reiner, who previously owned The Book Rack & Children's Pages, decided to open a new bookstore after a four-year hiatus, they were careful to avoid confusion by taking the word “children's” out of the name. They also relegated kids' titles to the back; formerly that was the first thing that customers saw when they walked in the door. Lest any doubts remained about it being a general bookstore, the pair created a “metro” atmosphere, which extends to the café, where customers can order beer and wine.
“Before,” says DeSanto, “40% of the space was children's, and it didn't bring in 40% of the sales. The fundamental mistake was that we had children's stuff on the right side of the store, and we gave over our display area to children's.” At Phoenix Books, adult books take up half of the square footage, and the café and the children's section each have one quarter. That tracks the way sales are going: two-thirds adult and one-third children's, says DeSanto, who is pleased with early results. January 1 marked the “official” opening of the store.
Shown here: though Phoenix Books is too new to have all its signage up, the cash wrap, toward the rear of the store, draws readers back to the children's department.
Vroman's Bookstore (Pasadena, Calif.)
Mixing it up. At Pasadena, Calif.-based Vroman's, children's department manager and buyer Kris Vreeland has its own particular hurdle—getting children's book customers up to its second floor. She has placed several lures on the ground floor, including a children's-book display table (shown here), which is strategically placed by the back entrance closest to the parking lot. She also makes sure that at least one children's book is always included in any staff-picks displays, and she adds crossover titles to the display table near the registers.