Every day, children’s booksellers have to overcome hurdles to sell more books and increase foot traffic. PW spoke with booksellers from 10 stores around the country and asked them to describe specific challenges that they have successfully overcome and how they did it.
For many, Amazon continues to be what Holly Weinkauf, owner of the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., calls “the general challenge we all face.” It’s also one for which few stores have found a successful long-term work-around. Weinkauf says that Red Balloon’s “biggest solution is making sure we have a staff of booksellers who are knowledgeable and energetic, and who enjoy helping kids as well as adults find the best books.”
1: Raising Booksellers
Books Inc. in Laurel Village, San Francisco
Time, for children’s specialist Summer Dawn Laurie, is one of the “big elephants in the room” when it comes to getting overbooked kids into the store. One way the store has tried to compete with children’s other activities is through its Junior Bookseller program. From mid-June through mid-August, kids can sign up to learn the art of bookselling: write shelftalkers, shelve books, set up displays, and hand-sell. The shifts vary, depending on the child’s age, from half an hour for an eight-year-old up to two or three hours for a teen. Payment is in galleys.
A “regular” bookseller is assigned to each Junior Bookseller. They take the child on a tour of the store and explain the different sections before giving out an assignment. When customers come in seeking help, Junior Booksellers are encouraged to talk about the books that they like. “It’s so great to see [the kids] talking to a grandparent,” says Laurie, who views the program as a win-win. The children who participate gain a deeper appreciation of the children’s section. “Parents love it,” she adds, “because it gives [kids] professional experience.” The kids get to take home their Junior Bookseller badge along with a certificate. The program takes place during the slow season and helps bring people into the store.
2: Keeping the Books
Bookbug, Kalamazoo, Mich.
As an owner of a 2,600-sq.-ft. store that dedicates half its space to children’s, Joanna Parzakonis sees her job as focusing on meeting the store’s goals. After signing up for Above the Treeline last year, she has become much more conscious of one in particular: inventory control. “We’re gearing up to be more aggressive with our returns and our cash flow,” she says. “On my side, I’m going to be more aggressive with the books I love.”
Although Parzakonis acknowledges that the store’s returns rate is low, she’d prefer not to increase it. Instead she’s looking at other ways to sell more copies of favorite books, many of which she ordered for events. She’s considering creating a subscription service for grandparents and other interested customers. The store already has an informal grandparent gift club, and Parzakonis does a lot of hand-selling to grandparents who tell her: “I don’t know what to choose. I don’t know what they’ve read.”
Subscriptions will include new releases and current staff favorites, among them two or three signed first editions. “I think it’s a model that’s wise and appealing to me as a consumer,” says Parzakonis, who wants to be that trusted source for books.
3: Partying for Customers
Jack and Allie’s Children’s Bookstore, Vernon, Conn.
As a new business owner, Barbara Haggerty Khan’s biggest problem has been getting customers into her store, which opened last May. She relies on birthday parties and posts about them on Facebook every weekend to get the word out. “Without a doubt, more new customers come into my store daily telling me they heard of Jack and Allie’s on Facebook than through any other method of advertisement,” Khan says. On Mondays, she invariably gets a call from someone who saw the party photos and wants more information.
As for selling books, Khan is convinced that parties are a good tool to boost sales. She encourages the birthday child to set up a wish list. Guests often buy the books or a store gift card. During the party, parents who stay in the store to wait for their children often end up shopping as well. Plus, she says, kids tell their parents about the books they discovered during the party. To encourage return visits, Khan sends each child home with a coupon. “Either way, a new family has joined our family,” she says.
4: Expanding Customer Life Span
Red Balloon Bookshop, St. Paul, Minn.
Although owner Holly Weinkauf knows that she can’t actually add years to a customer’s life, she can try to extend the number of years that a customer shops at her store. “Many people come to us when they have babies and small children, and this is a huge part of our business that we love,” Weinkauf says. “But sometimes people in our community think of us as a store for young children only.”
Since purchasing the bookstore three and a half years ago, Weinkauf has tried to encourage more older people, from teachers and childless adults in the neighborhood to teens, to shop at Red Balloon. She’s done that by being more “thoughtful” about the space she gives to adult books. She’s also added more face-outs, and she displays new adult titles in the front of the store. In addition, Red Balloon has hired more booksellers who are passionate about YA, and launched a teen book club as well as a YA book club for adults. “We’re aiming to encourage reading and build customers for life,” says Weinkauf, who has seen growth in both YA and adult while young readers sales remain strong. To boost teen sales even further, she’s considering creating a separate teen space in the bookstore basement.
5: Making Nonprofit Partnerships Pay
The Country Bookshop, Southern Pines, N.C.
“Our challenges of late have mainly been focused in the realm of encouraging customers to spend a portion of their book budget with the Country Bookshop rather than 100% online or with the local Books-A-Million,” says Angie Tally, children’s department manager at the 61-year-old bookstore. The store encourages volunteer service organizations like the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs and other nonprofits like the Weymouth Center for Arts and Humanities, which houses the North Carolina Writers Hall of Fame, to purchase books from them to help underserved kids. Bookshop staff in turn volunteers at the organizations, including serving on the boards.
In lieu of flowers or other gifts, the Southern Pines Kiwanis Club has begun giving books from the Country Bookshop to local Head Start program libraries in honor of its weekly speakers. The Rotary Club borrowed character standees from the bookstore for its Christmas parade float, which helped highlight the bookstore. And the Weymouth Center has begun working with the bookshop on its AIMS (Authors in Moore’s Schools) program in Moore County. “The Country Bookshop’s greatest hope,” Tally says, “is that the AIMS project will be able to provide books in public schools and Head Start programs hosting author events, [for those] who cannot afford to purchase their own copies.”
6: Reimagining Everything
Books and Cookies, Santa Monica, Calif.
When children’s book author Chudney Ross opened an almost 2,500-sq.-ft. bookstore in May 2011, she worried that the space was too big. She decided she could make it work by adding a cafe and story times. Almost three years later she bought out her lease, closed the store briefly, and moved across the street to a much smaller 1,200-sq.-ft. bookstore with a 600-sq.-ft. outdoor play space. She also flipped her mission, while continuing to emphasize literacy. “Now I’m more an enrichment center that’s also a bookstore,” Ross says. “Before I was a bookstore that did story time.”
Ross doesn’t miss the cafe, especially dealing with the health department. Now she sells packaged snacks. Nor does she miss the extra book department space or higher rent. Families come to the new location two or three times a week and pay to play in the backyard, which has safe climbing equipment for little ones and buckets of books and puzzles. Kids can play for free before or after music, yoga, or other classes. Ross charges for story times, too, and holds birthday parties for kids six and under outside. “I do think we are on the right track,” she says, referring to the changes that have enabled her to pay down her debt. “It’s all around the love of books.”
7: Upping Attendance at Events
4 Kids Books & Toys, Zionsville, Ind.
“Event attendance is the butterfly in everyone’s stomach—and it’s the size of a small elephant,” says Cynthia Compton, owner of an 11-year-old book and toy store in suburban Indianapolis. When the school day ends at 3:45, kids in her community often have sports practice, tutoring, dance, gymnastics, or SAT prep. If weeknights are full, so are weekends. “Add in sibling schedules, and availability of mom or dad to bring just one child to a bookstore for a signing,” Compton says. “Well, it’s tough. And publishers, understandably, want numbers.”
In the past few years, Compton has found it increasingly difficult to sell enough books with store visits alone, so she began adding more school visits with authors, with store events tacked on—that way she can guarantee better numbers for everyone involved. While it requires more scrambling to balance the authors’ schedules with those of the schools, Compton says that she’s gotten a lot of help from publishers to make it work. And school visits have helped move sales up during store visits. Plus, she’s been able to help get books to underserved kids. “We’ve had some success getting both foundations and service clubs to underwrite some school visits to more economically challenged parts of Indianapolis,” Compton says.
8: Raising the Roof on Sidelines
The King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City
“We use Above the Treeline to help make decisions about which books are paying their way and which need to go,” says bookshop owner Anne Holman and children’s buyer and manager Margaret Brennan Neville. “But as book lovers, it can be hard to let a title go.” Not only do books need to pay their way but the store needs more room for sidelines.
With a $5,000 James Patterson grant and sweat equity from staffers and friends, the store has been able to raise the dropped ceiling in its children’s room by about four feet to make room for more plush and other gift items. The room was formerly a service bay in a gas station. To hide the furnace and duct work in the ceiling, they built a tree house around them. Although work halted for the Christmas holidays, Holman hopes to finish soon to provide better display for gifts and books. “There are a lot of fun items that are book-oriented,” she notes. “If we can have a hardcover Curious George and a stuffed Curious George, we can make a lot more money, and keep the hardcover [edition in stock].”
9: Aiding Lone Rangers
Northshire Bookstore Saratoga, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“ ‘I’m just looking’ often seems like code for ‘I’m actually looking on my own for a specific type of book. But I don’t want to tell you what it is,’ ” observes author and children’s bookseller Jennifer Armstrong. Without skillful intervention, “lone rangers,” as she likes to call these potential customers, can walk out without making a purchase. Or they sometimes buy developmentally inappropriate books, choosing, for instance, well-publicized YA books for young children because they recognize the titles.
In part, Armstrong chalks this up to people being unaware of what booksellers actually do besides ring up purchases and theft control. She relies on “discreet lurking” to educate customers about the store’s knowledgeable staff. Sometimes Armstrong will pull a title she overhears customers say they’re looking for; or she will supply the name of the author and indicate where the book is shelved. “If I have a cart of books to shelve, I often just do a few at a time,” Armstrong says. “It’s a polite cover if I happen to be shelving titles a few sections over. It gives a customer an opportunity to ask me on her own time.” She sees it as a matter of training the community. “For so long they’ve been on their own, shopping online in solitude,” Armstrong says. “The bookstore is a resource they have to learn how to use.”
10: Reaching Reluctant Readers
Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, Mass.
For children’s department director Hannah Moushabeck, one of the biggest challenges is “the dedicated reluctant reader or anti-reader, who is more interested in playing video games then picking up a book,” she notes. “I would see this frustrated expression of simultaneous boredom and anger flash across the face of a young customer when their parents shoved them in my direction and asked, ‘What do you recommend for him?’”
Moushabeck likes to use reverse psychology and pick up a book with appropriate reading level and content, but tell the reluctant reader, “No. This book is too grown up for you. There are a lot of scary bits.” Then she enthusiastically describes the plot and uses a lot of hand gestures and sound effects. Then she stops just before a particularly important plot point. When the readers asks, “What happens next?” she tells him that he has to read it to find out. To reach kids whose parents don’t ask, the store has a lot of displays to let kids know that if they liked a specific movie, they will like this book.