This is the first in a new series that looks at how children’s bookstores are responding to the needs of their communities at a time when many are closed to the public because of the pandemic.
For indie booksellers it’s not exactly a case of go big or go home, where many of their customers are already self-isolating, but of showing their commitment to the community during the pandemic. “This is our moment as indie businesses,” said Cynthia Compton, PW blogger and owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Ind., outside of Indianapolis. “We always talk about how we are part of the community we serve, and how we want customers to shop local. This is when the rubber hits the road.”
After Indiana governor Eric Holcomb asked non-essential businesses to close last week, Compton sent her staffers home with tablets so that they could access the store’s POS system, answer emails and Facebook and Instagram messages, and respond to website queries and orders. Last week, Compton pulled orders in the morning and delivered them in the afternoon. This week, she added additional delivery services, which she finds less expensive and safer than shipping. “With Amazon warehouses right here in town,” she noted, “we are very conscious of our competition. So we need to be both more personal and more prompt in our service.”
Many of Compton’s customers are looking for workbooks and supplementary educational items. But she’s also doing well with fiction, puzzles, games, and treats for kids who are home without their friends and activities. And many customers are requesting the same types of items that they purchased pre-Covid-19: birthday bags with wrapped gifts, balloons, glitter, birthday blowers, and a paper crown. The store is also starting to get orders for Easter baskets and gifts, enough that Compton has set up a basket station in the back room.
But 4 Kids is only one of a number of bookstores and toy stores that have risen to the challenge of finding new ways to connect with customers: on social media and more old school by phone. At Books of Wonder’s two locations in New York City, owner Peter Glassman is working on maintaining the store’s school book fairs that had been slated for the spring. Local school P.S. 187, which serves K–8 students, is going digital with its April 13–25 book fair. Since the store’s book fairs often have an online component so that busy parents can make time to attend, Books of Wonder has found it relatively easy to transition them to online-only. But, Glassman warned, “if you haven’t done an online book fair before, there’s a lot of prep involved.” And that prep is even more time-consuming as he tries to keep up with publishers like HMH shutting their warehouses because of the coronavirus. Even so, Glassman is hoping to convert more upcoming book fairs, both public and private, to online only.
Glassman has also been transferring in-store events online, like upcoming virtual launches with Marisa Kanter (What I Like About You, Simon & Schuster) and Claribel Ortega’s (Ghost Squad, Scholastic Press) on April 6 on Instagram and April 7 on YouTube, respectively. As the store’s selling has moved to online-only (with a few phone calls, too), online sales have jumped 40% over the past two weeks. Although Glassman tries to ship as many orders out from his W. 84th St. store as possible, if he doesn’t have the requested book or several titles in a multi-book order, he uses Ingram’s Direct to Home service to fulfill the order rather than hold up the shipment.
At Eagle Eye Books in Decatur, Ga., marketing and merchandise manager Jamille Christman said that currently most kids’ sales are for educational titles. Even the picture books, which dominate call-in requests, are educational, like Katie Dayne’s What Are Germs? (Usborne). Online children’s workbooks have proved popular, with some disappearing almost as fast as toilet paper from grocery store shelves. Last week, the store received a shipment from Workman and immediately sold out of the first grade Brain Quest workbook.
Eagle Eye, which offers curbside pickup, has also tried discounting its gift cards to boost sales. But that hasn’t been a successful tactic, largely, Christman explained, because customers are buying the cards regardless of the discount. In fact some people request that the store not give them a discount, since they want the full price to go back to Eagle Eye. “We are truly humbled by the amount of love and support we have seen,” she added.
Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney’s bookstore, An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Mass., has also seen an uptick in nonfiction for kids, which could be related to homeschooling, said general manager Deb Sundin. And like Books of Wonder, it has begun experimenting with virtual events, starting last Friday with Virtual Trivia, which drew nearly 1,600 registered participants for the free event. The store is in the midst of scheduling virtual events with authors and providing other types of content online.
“Our whole team,” Sundin said, “is working on ways we can help our community, from making protective masks to holding virtual storytimes and more events. Jeff is committed to having the store make a real difference during this unprecedented time. We’re confident that we will come out of this stronger than before.”