"The school market is about the only place we make our money," says Dana Harper of Brystone Children's Books in Fort Worth, Tex. "It's 90% of our business."
While other children's booksellers may be more dependent on sales to parents and grandparents, Harper's experience is not uncommon. Booksellers have long counted on the teacher market to boost the bottom line, which explains why stores regularly court educators with special discounts, workshops and extra services.
Still, in some parts of the country, school business has declined. Ellen Mager, owner of 25-year-old Booktenders' Secret Garden in Doylestown, Pa., reports that sales are down, despite her bringing authors to area schools. Part of the problem, she says, is the increased cost of author and illustrator visits, which have risen to between $1500 and $2500, and can greatly reduce a school's discretionary funds. Another part of the problem is book clubs: "If teachers are buying a set of something, they'll go through Scholastic," Mager says.
With school budgets shrinking in many communities, school libraries have been forced to rely on the cataloging services of library wholesalers and rebinders like Follett Corporation and Baker & Taylor, rather than purchase books through a bookstore. Then, of course, there's Amazon, which gives deeper discounts than the 15%—20% most brick-and-mortar stores offer.
So now, more than ever, booksellers must find ways to get and keep their educational customers. Some specialty children's stores like Dragonwings Bookstore in Waupaca, Wis., are entering the business for the first time, while general retailers like Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex., have relied on teacher sales from the start. The Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., may have reduced its teachers' aid selection by 75% since it opened in 1984, but it continues to hold on to teacher sales for trade books. And 21-year-old Yellow Book Road in La Mesa, Calif., which is completing its first year under new ownership at a new location, is building sales almost exclusively through teachers, as Brystone does.
Some ideas that have worked so far:
• Know your librarians.
A few years ago, a chance request from a school librarian looking for help to get new trade titles on a monthly basis got Dragonwings owner Ellen Davis into the school business. Since then she's added another elementary and two middle-school libraries. "The school librarians don't have time to read and research new books, and I need to know what's new," says Davis, who finds school library selections an easy add-on. As a result of the library program, she's also gotten more teacher foot traffic.
With Wisconsin's emphasis on healthy food in the schools, Davis offers librarians an alternative to traditional reading prizes like candy and junk food. Instead, she gives them "Dragon" dollars good at her store, and review copies. Davis is also setting up a Dragonwings blog to post student book reviews.
• Develop your Web presence.
At The Yellow Book Road, one thing Mary Hayward and her business partner, Kristin Baranski, retained from the previous owners is the store Web site, yellowbookroad.com. Teachers looking for Yellow Book Road's pre-made leveled reading sets, which head Web searches for "leveled sets," order from as far away as the East Coast.
"We have terms with the school districts, so teachers can walk in the door with purchase orders," says Hayward. The store's Web site also allows educators to use a purchase order online, something they can't do at Amazon.
• Share your knowledge.
The biggest thing [in terms of school sales] is just being available," says Blue Willow Bookshop owner Valerie Koehler. Between a staffer who reads most of the teen and tween titles and Koehler, who follows picture books, Blue Willow staffers are able to give teachers a good sense of the age group that each book is appropriate for, and why.
In addition to her regular e-mail newsletter, Koehler added Blue Willow University, a monthly online newsletter that's curriculum-based. Currently, the newsletter goes out to 450 educators.
• Be flexible on bids.
Teachers may be buying single copies of books and teachers aids online, but they still ask local retailers to bid on assortments of books. For buyer Jim Malody at Red Balloon Bookshop, it's key to win those bids. "If you can get in one bid, you can establish a relationship." By being flexible about the percentage that the bookstore needs to make on each bid, Malody says, "we're holding steady on the books schools buy."
• Use volunteers.
Chauni Haslet, owner of the 25-year-old All for Kids Books & Music in Seattle, is disturbed by the amount of time it takes rebinders to get books onto classroom shelves, often months after the buzz is gone. Haslet can't supply books, but a local nonprofit, Northwest Literacy Foundation, does get new trade books into the schools by using volunteers to do the cataloging.
"If we had to rely on schools for our business, we wouldn't be in business," says Haslet, who can't compete with large rebinders. However, the store's work with teachers recently paid off when teachers insisted that All for Kids be included in bidding to provide multicultural books using leftover funds from the school year.