(From l.) panelists Kristen McLean,
Cynthia Compton and Rose Joseph
discuss strategies for building a children’s section in a general-interest store.

It’s no surprise, in a region whose economy has been particularly hard-hit in recent years, that Rust Belt booksellers would do whatever it takes to attract new customers and to increase sales. With children’s books the only growth category in book publishing right now, a number of general bookstores are considering ramping up their stock of children’s books, and, of course, adding children’s sections to their stores.

It was these kinds of general booksellers—about 50 of them—who gathered this past Sunday morning to hear Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, along with booksellers Cynthia Compton of 4 Kids Books in Indianapolis and Rose Joseph of Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park, Ill., discuss the nuts and bolts of setting up a children’s section in a general-interest bookstore.

After discussing logistics, like baby-proofing the children’s section, and making it family-friendly, McLean suggested incorporating in the space a “sense of whimsy, a sense of fun, and a sense of the unexpected,” to clearly distinguish it from the rest of the store. McLean and the two booksellers urged their audience to make it as easy as possible for patrons to find books without having to ask for help from store staff, and to “handsell without handselling.”

Compton recommended “buying in themes,” such as “princesses” or “cars/trucks,” and to mix books with different reading levels within themes. “”Children will read up if they’re fascinated with a theme,” she said.

Seasonal displays are also essential, Compton, saying that themes and seasonal titles are “probably two-thirds of my buying points. After that, the classics.” She estimates that she includes about 100—150 backlist titles in each section that are her “must-haves.”

Turn is essential, the two booksellers and McLean insisted, and they warned booksellers not to over-order, to be “ruthless” when ordering stock. “Look at the whole list before ordering,” Compton said, “Be very selective. Don’t buy midlist titles. Don’t order books out of pity.”

The trio recommended stocking titles that are included in the ABC catalog, as these are books that have received awards or have been highly recommended by booksellers, instead of being titles that are being pushed by publishers. “The catalog drives sales,” McLean insisted.

Compton also suggested focusing on one or two areas, to gain a reputation for expertise in those areas. “Expertise as a bookseller can be used as a marketing tool,” McLean added. Joseph suggested including any special expertise on the store’s Web site, as “Magic Tree gets calls and orders from everywhere” regarding its foreign language and multicultural offerings for young readers.

Compton suggested that setting up an advisory panel of YA readers, teens who write book reviews in exchange for free ARCs, is a smart move that might benefit the bookseller in the long-term. “If kids get ARCs, they’ll bring their friends,” she said, adding that she hired two employees who had previously been teen readers/reviewers for her.

In the end, McLean said, heed their suggestions, certainly, but “take them with a grain of salt. Do what’s best for your store.”