Independent bookstores and their business neighbors have been promoting localism through month-long scavenger hunts to find Waldo for the past eight summers—nine if you count the 2011 Where’s Waldo? promotion on Cape Cod, which was created by Carol Chittenden, then owner of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Mass. That event served as the prototype for today’s Find Waldo Local campaign, sponsored by Candlewick Books in Somerville, Mass., and the American Booksellers Association.
Last month, 264 bookstores and thousands of nearby businesses came together to help young people and their families find the skinny, bespectacled picture book character in the red-and-white T-shirt created by Martin Handford, as well as his arch nemesis Odlaw (or Waldo spelled backwards), who are often hidden in plain sight. Although Candlewick has capped the number of participating bookstores, this year the press expanded the program geographically to include Canada, where a small group of stores tested the concept. Next year, Candlewick is considering increasing the number of participating stores given the interest the promotion continues to garner after nearly a decade, according to Elise Supovitz, executive director of independent retail and Canada sales.
“Find Waldo Local has boosted awareness of shopping locally in communities across the U.S. while educating children from an early age about the value of patronizing indie businesses,” Supovitz said. “A few bookstores have told us that Find Waldo Local actually inspired the formation of their local business alliances.”
The program has assisted the localism movement in other ways, arguably contributing to independent bookstores’ recovery from the Great Recession that began at the end of 2008. “For us, the first year we did it,” said Cindi Whittemore, owner of Ink Spell Books in Half Moon Bay, Calif., “we were coming off the recession and we were 20% up that month.” She compares Find Waldo Local sales to those at the holiday season. “Honestly,” she added, “it’s the most fantastic thing we do each year. It reminds everybody that we’re here, when it’s just so easy to go to Amazon.”
“[Find Waldo Local] is one of my passions; it makes our town,” said Alice Hutchinson, owner of Byrd’s Books in Bethel, Conn. At her store, it is more successful than Independent Bookstore Day or Shop Local Day on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Hutchinson estimates that Find Waldo Local brings in as many as 1,200 people not just to her store but to the other participating merchants—and many Waldo-seekers have never visited some of the businesses before.
For Patty Norman, children’s specialist at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma, Calif., which had just over 1,000 kids sign up this year, Find Waldo Local is “much more fun [and] much more successful” than Independent Bookstore Day. “We’ve done it every year, and we would absolutely do it again. Quite frankly, the town would revolt if we didn’t,” she said. Plus the store makes sure to have presents for the parents, too, at the closing party: like a bourbon tasting, a wine tasting, coffee, and other items. “The room got extra quiet when we were calling the adult raffle ticket numbers,” she noted. “Those grown-ups were very well behaved.”
Cheryl McKeon, manager of Book Passage at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, said that Find Waldo Local works particularly well at the marketplace, because the 40 shops in the building are all locally owned; it’s a prerequisite to be a tenant there. “[The promotion] really does foster that sense of supporting the businesses. People come back and say, we had to buy olive oil, or I had to buy a piece of pottery I didn’t know I needed,” she said.
One of the reasons that Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., participates is that “[the event] dovetails with its mission to build strong community connections,” said bookseller and children’s events planner Jill Sweeney-Boxa, who has heard from Waldo-seekers and merchants alike that it’s one of their favorite summer traditions. “Like Independent Bookstore Day, Find Waldo Local sparks great ‘read/play/shop at your local indie’ moments. We look forward to feeling that vibe ramp up each July.” Plus, she added, the store enjoys the increase in store traffic and the uptick in browsing and sales.
At Kidsbooks in Vancouver, Canada, one of the beta tester stores, co-owner Kelly McKinnon called the promotion “absolutely worth doing.” She said it’s one of the best authorless events they have had since the Harry Potter days. Kidsbooks’s retail sales were up 4% at the store during the month of July. “Is that because of the promotion? Or would we have been down without it?” she wondered. “I don’t know. But I can tell you that every day parents were thanking us for putting together the hunt. We built new connections with our neighboring businesses, and those neighbors were absolutely thrilled with the promotion.” She also got a closing party assist from her PRH rep, who came ready to help as Waldo.