Spellbound: Behind the Stories

In last October’s anniversary post Eight Is Great, I gave you a brief  rundown of the history of Spellbound and its locations. In response to some questions I’ve fielded from customers, I’ve decided to write about what was left out of that post: why Spellbound stayed so downsized inside Zapow gallery for so long–from February 2012 to now.

At the time of that anniversary post, it was all too fresh for me to write about. I’m also a very private person, and I like to keep my personal life and business life separate. Unfortunately, sometimes that becomes impossible.

As discussed in this recent podcast interview, by the fall of 2011 I had decided not to renew Spellbound’s  lease at our Wall Street location downtown for a few reasons. For one thing, while we had gained a lot of business from tourists by moving downtown, many local customers expressed how challenging it was to get to Spellbound now that we were downtown, especially when shopping with small children. Most said they preferred Spellbound being in West Asheville–even those customers who don’t live or work in that neighborhood. For another thing, our rent at the Wall Street location was going to increase if we stayed and, though Wall Street is a lovely street, our store is so specialized that we weren’t getting enough foot traffic there to make me confident that Spellbound could afford rent any higher–especially since locals weren’t shopping with us as frequently there.

So I informed our landlords that we would not be renewing and began searching for a new home for Spellbound. I felt pretty strongly that we would probably end up back in West Asheville, where it all began. As the end of the year (and the end of our lease) drew near, however, no space had been located. I spoke with many friends and customers about wanting to make sure I didn’t rush into signing a lease on just any space—I wanted it to be the right space, and I wanted it to be the last time I had to move this bookstore. (I hate moving!)

One of the people I chatted with about this was Lauren Patton, who had just opened an art gallery called Zapow with her husband Matt Johnson. We had been talking for months about how we wanted our businesses to work together somehow, as the gallery was going to have a unique focus on illustration, and what goes together better than children’s books and illustration?

Lauren and Matt invited Spellbound to move into their gallery space. They had just opened and needed to fill space, and I needed a way to keep my store open without rushing into signing a long-term lease. I was offered the chance to take as little or as much space as I wanted for the bookstore, and I didn’t have to sign a long-term lease. Since it was about to be the dead of winter, when sales always drop off a cliff, I decided to just take a wee bit of space for a couple of months and we talked about a couple of different scenarios: Spellbound could expand to take up a lot of the Zapow space, perhaps with dividing walls between the two business or perhaps leaving it open; or perhaps it would be a temporary stop on the way to a new permanent home for the bookstore.

Sadly, only a month after downsizing and moving our inventory into Zapow’s space, my family was thrown into a crisis of the kind that many of you have probably experienced and can relate to. My mother got very ill very quickly, and was diagnosed with cancer. By the time it was caught, it had already spread from her lungs to her brain. Suddenly, she was in and out of the hospital every few days, was started on radiation therapy immediately…and my siblings and my father and I tried to make sure that at least one of us was with her all the time, wherever she was. Our hometown is Marion, about 30 miles east of Asheville. Sometimes she was in the hospital there, sometimes here.

Thanks to my arrangement with Matt and Lauren of Zapow, the three of us were now sharing customer service duties of both businesses, meaning that we could now have both businesses open seven days a week while we each got a little more time away from the cash register to work on all the other things that need to be done, as well as actually having some time off. Needless to say, this became very important as my mother’s disease progressed. Before the Zapow move, as the only full-time staff member of Spellbound I had to be at the store six days a week in order to keep it open (and therefore be able to pay both the business’s bills and my own). If I had still been in that situation when this crisis hit, I don’t know how I would have handled it. I certainly would not have been able to care for my mother as much or simply spend much time with her in what turned out to be her final months.

Understandably, I think, while all of this was going on, all thoughts of either expanding within the Zapow space or searching for a new location were just put on hold for several months. When things were settled down, I decided that the best thing for Spellbound would be to have its own stand-alone location outside of downtown again. And so the search for property began anew, and an Indiegogo campaign was launched to make sure that Spellbound could afford a really nice space and outfit it with good lighting, signage, etc., and bump our inventory up to pre-recession size and then some. (Campaign is live until May 15th, 2013–please visit today to see the great free gifts you can earn for contributions.) We also have changes planned that should allow Spellbound to add an assistant manager position before long, which will be an investment in the bookstore’s ability to provide more programming in the short term and in its ability to better weather another crisis even in a stand-alone space. Of course, none of the funds raised through the campaign will pay anyone’s salary directly, least of all mine. The expected jump-start in sales as well as the addition of room rentals and higher margin used books are what will fuel any job creation.

I know that for every person who actually asked me about our downsizing, there are probably several others who wondered “Hey, what’s the deal?” without actually asking. In light of the crowd funding campaign, in which I am asking people to contribute to Spellbound’s growth, I felt that I needed to be more transparent, as the saying goes, regarding our current location.

I’m sorry for the delay in returning to normal size (as opposed to our current Fun Size version), and I am so very grateful to the many people who have continued to be loyal Spellbound customers in each location. I hope that very soon you will be rewarded with the biggest, best version of Spellbound yet….and that this really will be the last time I ever have to move this bookstore!

Rosmerta, Minerva, and Me

Last weekend (opening weekend) I met some friends at The Carolina to see Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2. It would be a gargantuan understatement to say that we were excited about the movie; we’d been counting down the days for months now, and arrangements for Saturday night included the phrase “When do you want to see it the first time?” (It went without saying that this final installment of the movie series would require multiple viewings.)

When I showed up in my Harry and The Potters glow-in-the-dark tee shirt my friends Jessica and Brad, who had gotten there earlier and saved me a seat, both had wands at the ready. (Seriously.) As I scooted into my seat next to Jessica, I realized that on my other side was none other than my very first Spellbound employee, Alexa!

If you shopped at our store in our early days in West Asheville, you probably remember Alexa; after she graduated from college she went to work as a children’s librarian at the East Asheville branch of the  public library, where she continues to delight kids and parents with story time–just like the old days!

It was totally unplanned, but what a wonderful moment of serendipity. Alexa was my right-hand woman in many ways back then, particularly in pulling off the huge midnight book release parties for Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. You may recall that Alexa was dressed as Madam Rosmerta at the Hallows party. And of course Alexa’s husband Jeremy accompanied her to the movie–Jeremy, although he didn’t work at Spellbound, was also a big presence at the Potter parties. For any of you who remember being sorted at the Half-Blood party, Jeremy helped us rig up the Sorting Hat and acted as its voice. One of the best parts of the party, and I am eternally grateful!

What made the evening at the movies extra special is that on my other side was Jessica, whom I first met when she was engaged to play the role of Professor Minerva McGonagall at the Half-Blood party. She repeated the performance at the Hallows party, and has since become one of my best friends and my faithful companion for all subsequent Potter-related activities.

So there I was, taking in the momentous last installment of the Harry Potter world on film, nestled between Professor McGonagall and Madam Rosmerta. A perfect ending. Of course, we’ve already made plans to see it again. Accio weekend!

Published in: on July 19, 2011 at 4:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Tell the Lady What You Like

I just came across this great article from The Horn Book, one of my favorite resources for parents, teachers, librarians, or anyone who appreciates children’s books. I had to share it.

Written in 1997 by Terri Schmitz of The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts, this article has timeless and sage advice for parents navigating the bookstore with (or for) their kids.

The Delicate Dance of the Damaged Book

Shortly before closing time this evening I had to dust off my diplomatic skills and try to get a parent to pay for a book damaged by her child. Needless to say, this is one of my least favorite parts of the job. It’s so unsavory that it has become something I bring up during job interviews to make sure that a potential hire has the stomach to do it when necessary.

I’m sure there are some people to whom this kind of situation is no big deal. But I am very shy about approaching people in any context, plus I hate confrontation, plus as the business owner I have a vested interested in achieving the optimal outcome: customer pays for damaged item but without feeling the least bit embarrassed or offended, so that he or she will not hesitate to return to shop another day. That can be a hard goal to achieve in a sticky situation like this, made even stickier by the fact that “these days” everyone is feeling a financial pinch already.

A woman came into the store with her two small sons, a toddler and a preschooler. She grabbed some books to read to the older child and settled everyone into the reading nook at the front of the store while Dad went to find an ATM and feed the meter. As I’m going about my business behind the counter I hear the mom reading a book about trains, then a book about being green, then I hear a certain tell-tale crumpling sound and look over the side counter to see the mom putting a dust jacket back on a picture book and glancing furtively (it seems) at me.

First off, I need to find out if the book was indeed damaged, preferably without coming out and asking, because that might put the customer on the defensive. I walk over that way and straighten up the fixture next to the spinner where Mom is putting away the books she was just looking at. I pick up the train book she just put away (there was only one copy of this title in stock) and, sure enough, the dust jacket is a mess. I pick it up and ask the customer gently if the book looked like this when she picked it up, knowing darn well it didn’t. Luckily, she admitted right away that it didn’t–that her baby had stepped all over it before she could stop him. I sighed and told her, “Well, the thing is, I won’t be able to sell this book now that it’s in this condition.”

 “Well, I suppose I can buy it.”

I thanked her and followed up with a statement about how this is my business and I personally had to pay for the book and can’t afford to lose money like that. (Her offer was very reluctant, as if she was hoping that I would say “Oh no, don’t worry about it.”) For some families that might have been what is known as a teachable moment, but the child who walked on the book was too young to really grasp any of it, and I’m not sure that the mom did, anyway.

I am very grateful that this customer did own up to the accident and pay me for the damaged book, but I have to say I’m disappointed that she was apparently not about to say or do anything about it until I approached her. I also find it odd that, after the book had been paid for, she continued to look around and then, holding up a different book, asked “Do we have to take that book or can it be a different one?”

I explained (again) that the problem was that no one would want to buy a crumpled up book from me, so yes she needs to pay for the damaged one. She nodded and said. “Oh, I understand,” but something about her expression made me think that she still might not. Oh, well… at least I didn’t lose money and the customer didn’t lose face… and if nothing else was learned, I’m sure that the baby will be watched more closely in the next store they visit!

Published in: on June 10, 2010 at 10:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

I’m a Night Owl, But…

Even I would not be up for story time at 3:30am. (I just realized that the sign that’s been in the store window since January advertises story time every Tuesday at 3:30am. Yikes!!)

Story Time is, in fact, at 3:30 PM on Tuesdays. See you there. (And if anyone showed up at 3:30am and was disappointed, I offer my apologies and a cup of Sleepy Time tea.)

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 3:14 pm  Leave a Comment