At the Town Hall at Wi10, Emöke B’Racz, owner of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, challenged her colleagues to “go home and be creative” about increasing their margins. Although B’Racz was referring to using the extra income to pay employees what they’re worth, being creative is something that children’s booksellers have long excelled at, not just to support wages but to make their stores stand out. Two panels presented by the ABC Group of the American Booksellers Association discussed ways that booksellers have grown margins and increased sales: by holding successful book fairs and adding book-of-the-month clubs and baby registries.

Launching a Book Fair Company

As panelist Emily Scheinman, who launched Bananaseed Book Fairs – an independent book fair company in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004 – noted, “This is a quarter to a half-billion dollar business. Independents deserve part of it.” Scheinman, who has a background in education, started small and ran two book fairs out of her garage in the spring and fall. Now she rents a 1,000 sq. ft. warehouse and operates 50 book fairs a year, some as large as $50,000 for a single fair.

Because Scheinman doesn’t have a bookstore, a few years ago she partnered with Books Inc. on an author visit at a fair. She promoted the concept of shopping Bananaseed during the book fair, but shopping local at Books Inc. the rest of the year. “I think this could be a national model,” said Scheinman.

Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Ill., also started small, in the basement of its Downer Grove store. Since then Anderson’s has moved its warehouse to its seventh location and created Anderson’s Bookfair Company, which relies on eight staffers and a fleet of trucks to deliver its rolling carts and other material to each fair. “It’s all about the margins,” said owner Becky Anderson, who told booksellers that by adding a wholesale division, they can gain four percentage points and much-needed efficiencies. “Unlike retail,” she reminded booksellers, “we’re giving away a chunk up front: 20 to 25% [to the schools].”

Although Anderson’s book fairs have grown considerably, she told booksellers they don’t need rolling carts, or trucks, to get started. Her store began with cardboard boxes. She also recommended using authors in the schools programs as leverage to get book fairs. “If you partner with us by being our customer, we’ll reward you with an author event,” she said. Anderson’s brings 320 authors to schools each year. In March, Dav Pilkey will address 1,600 third graders.

To make sure schools understand what they need to do to set up a successful book fair, Anderson’s holds seminars. They also put all the forms the schools need, including print-ready posters, on their website. The book fair division uses co-op to make as many as 250,000 flyers for students to take home in their backpacks, and they pass out swag to teachers and librarians.

Although Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh has a smaller book fair operation, it offers area schools many of the same advantages as Anderson’s and Bananaseed. “We know our community,” said panelist Anne Schmalfeld, who handles institutional sales, and values the local connection. She tailors each fair to the school or church, where it is held. The store keeps a separate book fair inventory, and sorts everything in the back, packing and unpacking book fair inventory to ensure it stays in the correct order as it arrives.

This year Quail Ridge added a new component to its book fairs: attendees can order books online and the store will deliver them to the book fair. Schmalfeld also recommended that bookstores piggyback in-store author events with their book fairs by scheduling the author also to appear at the school where the fair is being held. Some book fairs in her community will invite a food truck to make it easier for families to attend an evening author event.

Moderator Linda McLoughlin Figel, owner of five-year-old {pages}, a bookstore in Manhattan Beach, Calif., regards her store as a hybrid when it comes to book fairs, since it recently purchased a book fair company. “We’re really serving a market in our store area and want it to look like {pages},” she said. That includes representing the store’s inventory at its fairs. In addition to children’s books, it includes a table of adult reads, based on what’s popular at {pages}. At book fairs she likes to set up a table with picks from a popular school librarian. She also adds shelf talkers written by teachers; she offers them a $5 gift card as an incentive.

Creating Successful Book-of-the-Month Clubs and Baby Registries

While most book fairs are tied to the school year, book-of-the-month clubs operate year round. At Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., which has one of the largest with 300 subscribers, panelist Kerri Poore likes to think of it as “personal shopping.” The store keeps a binder with all the children and their likes and dislikes and consults it every month, or every other month, before it pulls the child’s next selection. Politics & Prose keeps signup cards on its counter so that customers can add new grandchildren to the list.

Poore regards selecting titles as “a great way” for staff to learn the stock. “It’s really quite fun to do what you love, without the customer looking over your shoulder,” she adds. At Politics & Prose, the staff wraps the first book a child received and the one they get for their birthday. All books include a gift card with the name of the person who purchased them. For storing names and addresses, Poore relies on Each book is charged when it is sent.

By contrast, Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville has 50 subscriptions, which it handles as a one-time charge. “I find it easier to do it that way,” said panelist Leslie Hawkins. “It’s just one transaction. For us, it helps with the cash flow and led to a very good Christmas season.” Most of her book club memberships are purchased from people around the country, who have never been in her store. She charges a flat fee that includes postage, starting at $80 for a six-month board book subscription. When a subscription is up, she sends a thank-you card with a reminder to renew.

At Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, panelist Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo says her store creates wish lists and registries through IndieCommerce and encourages customers to sign up for weddings or other occasions. Schools can create public pages to let parents know what books they need. For handling credit cards for ongoing BOM clubs, Stockton-Bagnulo recommends what Greenlight uses for its first-edition club for adults: it charges one cent at signup, so that it can store the credit card information.

For most booksellers the registries and BOM clubs provide a way to earn extra money. But John Hugo, owner of HugoBookstores, with several stores in Massachusetts, warned that shipping overseas can lead to losses rather than profits. The store lost a $600 package in Germany that wasn’t covered by insurance. As a result HugoBookstores has discontinued international shipping.