Merchandising tips and techniques for children's booksellers

Booksellers' School
While some children's booksellers concentrate on servicing the school market, Michael De Santo, co-owner of Book Rack &Children's Pages (Winooski, Vt.) just outside Burlington, has developed a slightly different strategy: holding classes inside his store. Last October, he started Writers at the Champlain Mill, a school for writers and young people. More than 400 students attended 39 classes, creating a lot of extra foot traffic, during the first year the school was open. As the school's one-year anniversary approaches, De Santo has hired a full-time staffer just to take care of it. "This is a serious effort that we hope will be a profitable stand-alone activity," he explained, estimating that to make money "we need to have a thousand students."

The classes, which have an average of 10 students each who pay about $70 a semester, range from "How to Write Children's Books" and "Reminiscence Writing for People over 50" to "The Fantasy Factory," a group-writing project for after-school and home-schooled children in grades 3 to 6. There is even a preholiday workshop on writing thank-you notes for presents you don't like.De Santo plans to distribute 40,000 brochures for the fall 1999 writers' school in and around the Burlington area, and will hire 20 teachers. With Borders and Barnes &Noble each a mile away, he regards the school as one more way to give his store a competitive edge.

Dramatic Sales
For Carol Davidson, owner of the four-year-old Unique Addition children's store (Winter Haven, Fla.), near Cypress Gardens, the play's the thing for attracting the home school and teacher market to her store. A former teacher turned bookseller, Davidson relies on puppetry -- hand puppets, finger puppets and marionettes -- and storytelling to create programs that make curricula come alive.

"I'm a real advocate for hands-on," Davidson said, as she described the free workshops she conducts for teachers at area schools. "I have a big following from home schoolers," she added, noting that parents often work on lesson plans just like regular school teachers. "A lot of them home school in groups. I provide all the information they need -- books and posters -- and I do the same for them that I do for teachers."

Davidson prefers not to charge for her services, because she believes in "the old handshake philosophy. If people spend a lot of time with me, they'll buy their books from me."

To be even more educator-friendly, Davidson has divided her 4000-square-foot store into 50 sections. "I probably have every theme that would be major in a school system," she noted. Under science, for example, Unique Addition has sections for magnetism, volcan s, animals and rocks, among others. Other themes are characters such as Madeline and Spot, "Little People" for babies, and dance and theater.

Classic Backyard Promotions
Events have been key to drawing customers to Hobbit Hall (Roswell, Ga.), a children's bookstore located 25 miles north of Atlanta. "We do events every Saturday to bring people in," said co-owner Bill Crawford. "We're in a historic district so we have to do a lot of events."

Two large September events were for Steven Kellogg's A-Hunting We Will Go! and Kevin Henkes's Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. At a story hour held before Kellogg's appearance, his new book was read and children made paper hunting caps. A few days later Kellogg appeared to sign -- and decorate -- 500 books. He drew a picture in each one, and ended up returning the next day to finish. Customers are still stopping by to pick up their personalized books. For the other event, children were encouraged to come dressed as Lilly, and Lilly herself was on hand to join in the backyard treasure hunt and purse-making activity.

But one of the store's best all-time events, Crawford said, was inspired not by a book but a frog. "I found this gigantic frog in the skimmer of a swimming pool. He was a foot long," The frog was later released in the store's backyard as part of a Jumping Frog Contest, held in honor of Mark Twain. Crawford dressed up as the writer, and other Twain characters were on hand to join in the festivities.

The Open Door Policy
Like many bookstores, the 27-year-old Open Door (Schenectady, N.Y.) has a frequent buyer card. But the program that is encouraging even more young readers to buy a book is the store's 25%-off discount coupon. Each year, according to owner Janet Hutchison, Open Door distributes approximately 6000 coupons to school-age kids, primarily through New York State's Parents as Reading Partners program, which is intended to encourage children in elementary school to read at home. "The coupon program is very simple," Hutchison noted. "There's a minimum of time and expense involved, since the schools basically do all the work. In the fall we let the schools know we're doing it again, and they come and pick up the coupons." The schools are responsible for distributing the coupons to the children and setting the rules for the program. Open Door's only request is that every child who participates gets a coupon, because they want each child to have a prize.

Hutchison also uses the coupons, which are printed on durable card stock and picture a child reading, as a prize for the children who enter Open Door's own art and writing contests. "With the coupons, you can reach more children than if you give a book or a gift certificate as a prize. We have a little reception for the children to pick up their prizes. From a marketing standpoint the reception is great. Everybody comes-parents and grandparents."