Even without Covid-19, the hottest days of summer would be a quiet time for powerHouse Bookstores’ two Brooklyn storefronts. But as the emergency of the outbreak turns into a way of life for many, the consequences of any drop in sales was too great for co-owner Susanne Konig to accept. Instead, she launched a unique online summer camp for readers that has been a beacon of success in a challenging time.
A six-week online program that puts newly released books in the hands of middle grade readers, the camp launched in mid-July with two dozen participants logging in from New York to California. Each week, kids are visited by a different book’s author. They ask questions and then have a book club after the author departs.
“The goal of the camp is to give kids an outlet to freely discuss books that interest them, in a fun environment,” said bookseller Brittany Jarvis, who runs the program.
Konig and Jarvis hatched the idea in the early days of summer when it became clear that reopening to customers was not going to be enough to drive sales. “We didn’t have storytime in the store, and our virtual storytime had no sales,” Konig said. But when New York City announced that summer camps would be closed, Konig and Jarvis realized that there might be an opportunity to do a camp of their own.
They decided to charge $250 per person for the camp, which includes a copy of all six books. Jarvis then chose six new releases and reached out to publisher representatives. For Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group publicist Morgan Rath, the idea of picking authors with new releases held enormous appeal. “It’s an inventive new way to highlight our authors and get them in front of kid readers," Roth said.
The six books that powerHouse selected are; What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado (Penguin/Paulsen), Con Quest! by Sam Maggs (Macmillan//Imprint), The Girl and the Witch’s Garden by Erin Bowman (Simon & Schuster), One Year at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks (First Second), The Brave by James Bird (Feiwel and Friends), and The Mysterious Messenger by Gilbert Ford (Henry Holt).
Within days of announcing the camp, 24 families had signed up, and Konig decided to close enrollment. When the camp launched, Jarvis said she was overwhelmed by the depth of engagement from kids. “They are so engaged with the content and ask really insightful questions that blew me away,” Jarvis said.
Their excitement has energized the authors who drop in to discuss their books, prompting them to come up with creative ways to have fun with their readers. For instance, Con Quest! author Maggs did a scavenger hunt where kids had 60 seconds to find anything fandom related around them and share.
The success of the program is important for Konig as she looks for new ways to ensure the stores’ long-term survival in the face of the ongoing outbreak. It draws on the expertise of her booksellers, which is an important offset to days that are quiet in the store, and compared with previous in-store summer readings for authors with new books, the sales and engagement of the attendees is far greater. “I think this is actually more lucrative for us than what we did before, and it’s not as time-consuming,” Konig said.
Konig and Jarvis are now thinking through ways to run similar programs during the school year in ways that will still be exciting to kids who might be suffering from Zoom fatigue. But in the moment, the camp has given a much-needed boost to the bookstore, showing that there is a way forward that can succeed and also bring joy to kids during a challenging time.
“My whole goal was to make sure that this was a really enjoyable experience for everyone involved,” Jarvis said, “and I think we accomplished just that.”