While Children’s Institute 9 emphasized connecting booksellers with authors and their books, the annual gathering also provided plenty of opportunities for professional networking. During the roundtables scheduled on both Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, Ci9 booksellers shared their expertise with each other on a variety of topics relating to the nuts-and-bolts of bookselling.
On Tuesday, booksellers had a choice among four roundtables: taking off with TikTok; community partnerships and the return on investment of doing good; organizational structure for small stores; and planning in-store operations for the holidays. PW attended three of these four roundtables.
The session on planning for the holiday season drew nearly 100 booksellers at times, all eager to share tips from last year as they head into yet another uncertain season as the Delta variant surges. At many points, veteran booksellers fielded queries from new bookstore owners about how many employees to have on hand, how to allocate staffing across various sales channels, and what to do to prepare for impending supply-chain issues.
Meg Wasmer, co-owner of Copper Dog Books in Beverly, Mass., said that much of her holiday ordering was complete and that stock had already arrived. Wasmer told fellow booksellers she felt it was necessary in order to ensure she has the books she needs on hand. “I don’t trust the supply chain,” she said.
Bookseller Alex Rhett, owner of Sandcastle Tales in Del Mar, Calif., said she was even putting books out with red ribbons, encouraging people to buy early, and that it was working. “I cannot trust things to come on time, so I just started selling,” Rhett said.
In addition to store inventory concerns, booksellers also suggested turning to volunteers or people who are willing to accept store credit in return for doing some seasonal support work during the holidays. Given rising Covid cases and a growing expectation that some customers will not want to shop in-store, they said the approach was a way to retain flexibility, assign dedicated staff to phone and e-commerce sales support, and stay within budget.
At the town hall for the last in-person Children’s Institute in 2019, booksellers called for more education dedicated to small store owners, and the ABA responded in kind at Ci9 with a roundtable specifically dedicated to organizational structures for smaller stores. The conversation covered sometimes minute details, many of which were geared toward increasing efficiency and enhancing operations.
A third session focused on ways that community engagement can benefit bookstores through partnerships and promotions that may not boost sales right away, but help in the long term. While the conversation covered many different partnership ideas, it also served as a broader discussion about promotion, marketing strategies, and customer service.
Pat Fowler, co-owner of Village Square Booksellers in Rockingham, Vt., encouraged her fellow booksellers to engage their communities in every way. In addition to direct community partnerships through the bookstore, Fowler, her husband, and her staff serve on numerous boards and commissions including the friends of the library, the Fourth of July parade, the downtown association, and the planning commission. Having a high-profile presence, she said, even extends to her car, where the license plate reads “VS Books.”
Kathy Burnette, owner of Brain Lair Books in South Bend, Ind., said that she pursues any and every opportunity to partner with nearby businesses. When she recently saw that a local pharmacy was serving as an Amazon pickup location, she asked the owner if it could be a Brain Lair book pickup location as well. The pharmacist is still considering her request, but Burnette said she feels that even if he declines, it was well worth making the request.
The session also gave booksellers and opportunity to hear from booksellers who have devised creative ways to make their entire existence about community. Word Up Community Bookstore’s Veronica Liu shared that the store is now helping to run three community fridges, including one at the bookstore. The project includes putting books in the fridges alongside vegetables that are purchased from BIPOC-owned farms in upstate New York.
Virtual Events Plus Optimizing Sales
On Wednesday, booksellers once again had a choice among four roundtables: measuring virtual events’ return on investment; optimizing sales with gift bundles, curated boxes, and sidelines; learning tools for academic achievement; and industry and the innovation of nontraditional stores PW attended two of these roundtables.
At one point 145 booksellers participated in the session on optimizing sales. While some booksellers advocated for filling boxes and bundles with books by award winners or local authors, others prefer to promote emerging authors, or authors who are not receiving the attention they deserve.
There was a consensus among booksellers that creativity without breaking the bank is key to bundling books with sidelines. “Stickers, origami paper, and cute little pencils, and pen sets, maybe a puzzle for the higher tier gift boxes,” one bookseller said of gifts for children.
Jennifer Richter of Inkwood Books in Haddonfield, N.J., suggested that bookstores might do what Inkwood does to support other indie retailers: it partners with local businesses to offer sidelines in gift boxes or bundles.
Several booksellers asked about return policies on bundles and boxes, prompting others to suggest that the bookseller send a questionnaire to customers ordering boxes or bundles, inquiring as to reading preferences. Melissa Taylor of E. Shaver, Bookseller in Savannah, Ga., reported that the store also asks the customer for the link to their Goodreads account, or that of the recipient, “to make sure we don’t duplicate something they have read or own.” Deion Cooper said that Foggy Pine Books, an online bookstore, encloses shipping lists with the boxes so that the recipient can easily return books.
During the virtual events roundtable, one of its two moderators, Cathy Berner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston insisted that virtual events “can be successful for stores regardless of location, size, and type.”
“What is the purpose of a virtual event?” she asked, “Is it sales? Is it to provide content to our customer base, whether they are in Houston or around the world? Or is it to provide a service to an author or a publisher, to make them feel like this was worthwhile? That’s what we look at, and because everything is virtual now, that’s really changed our definition of what’s worth it.”
The roundtable’s other moderator, Spencer Ruchti of Third Place Books in Seattle, added that virtual events are less costly than in-person events. “There might be things that require a lot of work by one or two coordinators, but it’s nice to be able to pursue whatever author you want, in any capacity,” he said, “They don’t have to travel, publishers don’t have to pay for hotel rooms. Being able to establish a cool, robust event series with authors you want is easier than ever now.”
Ruchti noted that Third Place Books judges the success of events in intangible ways, such as “if you can walk away with a solid conversation between two authors that you love,” adding that virtual event sales are difficult to track—it’s hard to tell if people are buying a book because it’s frontlist or due to an event. “I pay less attention to sales and more attention to being able to get this recording of this conversation up on our YouTube channel and share it with the world,” he said.
Disclosing that Blue Willow has taught 125 librarians how to conduct virtual school visits via Zoom webinar, Berner pointed out that the store has brought authors virtually to 190 schools in the past year. “Our biggest return on investment for kids’ events is when you are doing a school event,” she explained, adding that she reminds librarians that they must support the bookstore if such events are to be sustainable.
Berner emphasized, however, that “the number one way to get people to buy the book [during virtual events] is for the author to issue a call to action.” Ruchti added that he is “blunt” while preparing authors, and requests that they suggest to viewers multiple times during the event to buy the book from Third Place. It’s especially effective when it’s “a celebrity author whose fan base might not think to support indie bookstores,” Christine Bellow of Loyalty Bookstores in the Washington, D.C. metro area said. Ruth Weiner, a publicist at Seven Stories, added that publishers should also be mindful of telling authors to issue a call to action during virtual events.