This series looks at how children’s booksellers are responding to the needs of their communities at a time when most stores are closed to the public because of the pandemic.
When they were forced to close their doors to in-store traffic because of Covid-19, a number of booksellers turned their stores into mini-warehouses and began offering curbside pickup and free shipping. But the transition came at a cost, not just for postage or gas but for bubble wrap, packing tape, and boxes. In a Zoom call with other members of the American Booksellers Association earlier this month, Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., said that she had found a way to recoup some of those expenses by giving customers a choice between free shipping and paying shipping costs.
“I’m thrilled to say,” Hermans told PW, “that about 40% of people are opting-in to pay for shipping.” That doesn’t change the entire calculus of store orders. They still have slim margins: more than half of Oblong’s customers want the store to absorb shipping and most of the books sold are being sourced at a lower discount from wholesalers and distributors rather than publishers.
Besides shipping increases, Hermans has found another way for customers to help. She recently added a donation button to the home page of the store’s website. A few people have opted to make sizable gifts, but Hermans said that she’s happy for donations of any size.
And Hermans is getting a higher margin on at least one forthcoming adult title for which the store has been offering preorders: The Rural Diaries (HarperOne, May) by actor and local resident Hilarie Burton. Hermans is getting ready to ship 2,000 signed copies from her garage over the next few weeks.
Bookstore owner Danny Caine, at Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans., shares Hermans’s concerns about shipping deficits, in his case from $1 Pandemic Shipping. Although the promotion has proved to be “very popular,” he noted, “we lose money on each sale.” Two weeks ago Caine took a Twitter poll to find out how much of a difference reduced shipping makes. More than 98% of the 675 people who responded chose $2.99 shipping over $1, with some writing that they’d be willing to pay more, especially if it helps cover another person’s shipping costs.
As a result, Caine raised shipping fees to $2.99 and introduced another new program, called “shipping tipping.” He encourages customers to add an additional $2.99 to their online shopping cart to cover shipping for a stranger who needs it. So far, nearly 100 customers have included a ship tip. However, deliveries in Lawrence remain free.
Shipping monthly subscription boxes has long been a significant part of the business for The Reading Bug in San Carlos, Calif. When owner Lauren Savage launched the program in 2015, she regarded the subscription box business as a second store. Although the number of customers who order the boxes fluctuates—last year’s high was 1,600—with schools closed, Savage has seen rapid growth. Savage says that the store is shipping a third more boxes than typical for this time of year and that customers are retaining their subscriptions longer.
To fill the need for books in between box deliveries, The Reading Bug began offering care packages: bundles of books, crafts, games, and workbooks. Pre-selected bundles are available by age, from two to “big kids and grown-ups,” along with personalized care packages. “Parents need stuff for their kids to do in between schoolwork, because there is just not enough of it to keep them occupied for a full ‘school day.’ ” Savage said. “They want to make sure it is educational, but as a parent I also want my kids to have hands-on activities that are fun while they learn. That’s where our subscriptions and care packages are making such an impact.”
Rather than sell book bundles, Heather Hebert, manager of Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa., has been encouraging families to give them away to benefit Tree House Books, a Philadelphia literacy program. The initiative is part of the store’s weeklong online celebration of Independent Bookstore Day, #virtualbookstoreparty.
Children’s Book World has worked with Tree House for many years and donated ARCs and f&gs to the organization’s Out of School Literacy Programs and for its Giving Library, which provides free books to children to take home. So when Hebert learned about Tree House’s book bundle drive, she said that she thought it was a “fantastic” idea. A lot of her customers look for ways to help the larger community, and this one has the added advantage of being a family project. Tree House, which is picking up all bundles within a 40-minute radius, is asking kids to make a label with homemade tags about what’s in the bundle and to write a letter to the recipient about why they love the book or other book recommendations.
While Children’s Book World has been closed, it’s been relying on its affiliate site at Bookshop and its Just Right Book Box promotion. By answering a few questions, the store’s booksellers create a custom list of book suggestions by age for kids—the most frequently requested age group is nine to 13—and adults. “We are so happy to be back to doing what we love doing, recommending books,” Hebert said. The first week JRBB was introduced, the store had more than 300 book list requests.
At Old Town Bookstore in Alexandria, Va., owner Ally Fitzpatrick is encouraging customers to send some “Book Love,” by making a donation for book bundles to Wright to Read literacy program, which pairs tutors and reading coaches with public school students. “Our booksellers create the care packages based on the specific needs of the program,” said store owner Ally Kirkpatrick, who matches customer donations by 20% and pays for packing materials and shipping costs to Campagna Center, which administers the program locally. To protect the kids’ privacy, the packages are then shipped to them directly.
“Working with a nonprofit partner has been very helpful, since they already had identified the kids who are most in need of this support, and defined their reading levels,” Kirkpatrick said. “That took a big chunk of the complexity out of the process.” In the first three weeks of April, the store distributed $1,500 worth of books. Now she’s working with a local hospital to make care packages of books available to essential workers on the front lines of Covid-19.
When the store reopens, Kirkpatrick is looking forward to exchanging the reading challenge sheets included with the book bundles for a free book.
See our previous articles in the series here.