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!

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New This Spring: The Bookworm Club

The Spellbound Bookworm Club is a book-of-the-month club that we’ll be launching in the spring. The perfect gift that keeps on giving… each month your child or teen will receive a book personally selected for him or her by Spellbound staff. It will arrive, gift-wrapped, with a card from you.

Subscriptions are available for either hardcover, paperback, or board books and with 6-month and 12-month options.

Details about the Spellbound Bookworm Book-of-the month club:

  • Each enrollment will begin with a questionnaire to find out more about our new member for future selections and an announcement card describing the book club to the new member and acknowledging the gift giver. Of course, a self-addressed, postage paid envelope is included to return the questionnaire to Spellbound.
  • Each selection arrives gift-wrapped and with a gift tag reminding the member who (you!) sent this wonderful gift.
  • Each delivery includes a postage-paid reply card to keep in touch and let us know the member’s opinion of the book. It will help us make better selections for that member and is also a chance for the member’s review to be published in our newsletter.
  • Each enrollment includes subscription to our quarterly Bookworm Club newsletter filled with book trivia, activities, and members’ reviews of the books they are reading.
  • We custom-select a book for each child—one that matches the child’s stated interests and reading level.
  • The child receives presents in the mail throughout the year!
  • We include a postage-paid reply card with each selection. Members can use the card to review the book they just received, make a special request, let us know they’re moving or just say “hi.”
  • If a family wants to return a selection for any reason, they just send the book back to us and we will arrange for a refund for that book, credit to your account or an exchange. (The book must be in brand-new, unread condition and we must be contacted within 2 business days of receiving the unwanted book.)
  • We’re always available to talk to families about their children’s reading.

A perfect gift for:

Children

Grandparents

Teachers

Adults who love books for kids & teens

The bookworm in your life!

Membership Options (Introductory Pricing)

Prices include shipping and handling. Tax will be added.

Hardcover Edition for 12 months $250.00

Hardcover Edition for 6 months $125.00

Paperback Edition for 12 months $140.00

Paperback Edition for 6 months $70.00

Board Book Edition (perfect for babies & toddlers!) for 12 months $140.00

Board Book Edition (perfect for babies & toddlers!) 6 months $70.00

Another option: HOLIDAY BOOK OF THE MONTH

You select 5 holidays + the recipient’s birthday month for a customized selection of 6 books to be delivered throughout the year. $125 Hardcover Edition / $70 Paperback or Board Book Edition

Please Note:
For contributions to our crowdfunding campaign at the $250 level and above, you get a free subscription for the new Spellbound Bookworm Club, in addition to other free goodies. Please visit http://igg.me/at/spellbound/x/2170700 before May 15th, 2013 to learn more and claim this fabulous free gift!

Launch Day!

Today is the official launch of Spellbound’s crowd funding campaign on IndieGogo. Please visit the campaign home page at http://bit.ly/GrowBks to watch a super cute video starring some of our young customers, read more about our plans to expand space, inventory, and programming, and to learn about all the cool, free gifts we can send you in thanks for contributing.

SpellboundVisionSketchSmall (2)Here is a sketch by architect Liz Dion illustrating what we envision for the new store space, including a separate event room that can be closed off for private birthday parties, baby showers, workshops, and more. When not in use for events, this room will house the large inventory of used and bargain books we plan to add, as well as lots of comfy seating.

Our funding goal is $18,500 by May 15th, 2013. Any size contribution is helpful, especially if you share with your friends and community that you have contributed and ask them to consider contributing as well. Spreading the word is one of the easiest ways to help… lots and lots of small contributions are just as good as a handful of large ones. Better, even…it shows how much support there is out there for locally owned independent bookstores that support local communities economically and culturally.

Our goal is to raise enough funding to cover the moving costs so that we can expand into a larger, stand-alone space with more room for events and more great books for kids of all ages. We are also responding to overwhelming customer feedback since our move downtown: you want Spellbound back in location that is easier to get to when shopping with your kids and that has free parking that is easier to find. We are focusing our search on the West Asheville neighborhood, extremely convenient to shoppers from all over the area and yet with less traffic and easier parking than downtown.

Thanks to everyone who has already contributed on Day One, and please help us spread the word for the next 44 days!

Under the Covers

For the past few days I’ve been participating in a discussion (via email) with several colleagues in the children’s bookselling world about how exactly certain marketing decisions are made at publishing houses. In particular, what is the decision process behind designing covers? 

The discussion was sparked by this announcement from Bloomsbury earlier in the week: 

“Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake.  Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.” 

Original US Cover of Magic Under Glass

In what way, you may ask, is this cover offensive? Well, it features an image of the book’s heroine as a white girl with brown hair, when she is described in the book as having brown skin and black hair. According to this article in The Guardian, author Jaclyn Dolamore intended to be somewhat vague about Nimira’s ethnicity, but many readers, reviewers, and booksellers reacted negatively to this marketing choice, especially as it comes closely on the heels of a similar bruhaha surrounding another Bloomsbury title.

Last year Bloomsbury made a last-minute change to the cover of the young adult novel Liar,by Justine Larbalestier, due to an outpouring of protest by the bookselling community. The advance reading copies, the not ready for prime time preview copies sent out to reviewers and bookstore buyers months ahead of publication, featured (guess what) a photograph of a white girl who was supposed to represent the black female lead character. There was such an uproar online and elsewhere that Bloomsbury decided to change the cover, at not unconsiderable cost. 

This trend is not at all unique to Bloomsbury, of course. People have been complaining for years about the industry-wide “whitewashing” of children’s book covers. There seems to be some deeply ingrained belief in many publishing houses that having a person of color on the cover of a book automatically limits its appeal. Now, it’s true that I have shaken my head in dismay many times at parents or grandparents who dismiss my suggestion of a book featuring a non-white character on the grounds that their child “wouldn’t identify” with the book. Of course, these are often the same ones who won’t buy a book with a character named Lilly (with 2 Ls) if their child or grandchild is named Lily (with 1 L), so…. 

I think the underlying assumption (that white kids only want to read about white kids) is an insulting underestimation of  kids, who are growing up with more images of (and experience of) ethnic diversity than any generation before them. My goodness, can you imagine if the assumption was that kids of color will only pick up books about other kids of color? They would certainly, sadly, be very limited in their choices of reading material, wouldn’t they? (A discussion for another day, regarding actual content.)

I would bet my last nickel that the vast majority of kids today couldn’t care less what color the character on the cover is, as long as the cover intrigues them and looks like something interesting that they want to pick up. And, following that train of thought, my discussion with fellow booksellers (and now with you, dear readers) turned to the choice to market books as “girl books” and “boy books,” as evidenced by the book cover choices. [To be continued in Part Two.]

Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Don’t Let the Pigeon Sit in the Window

So around lunch time today a bird decided to wander into the store and look around. He took refuge under the rocking chair in our story time area for a few minutes, then as we tried to gently shoo him out from under it he got excited and flew over to Alisha’s display window, settling down among the various framed prints and canvasses. PigeonWindow10-06-09Alisha and I were both too chicken (no pun intended) to try to grab the bird, both because we didn’t want to hurt it and we didn’t trust it not to peck us. Luckily a very gallant gentleman parking across the street noticed the commotion and volunteered to do a quick capture and release.

Thankfully the bird didn’t leave us with anything but a photo-worthy memory.0-916291-45-6_d

Happy Birthday, Spellbound

Well, here it is… birthday month. Five years in business! Our official birthday is October 25, and on that day we will have free cupcakes all day (or while supplies last, as the saying goes), and I for one will be giddy with excitement. Or is that exhaustion? Hard to tell some days.

In the meantime, check out the store’s website for details on our month-long celebration, including author and book character visits, a sale that increases by 5% every week, weekly book give-aways, and more. And here’s a nice mention we got in Bookselling This Week about our big number five.

I would write more, but I have to go buy some streamers and noise makers. (Although, considering the average age of our little shoppers, maybe I’ll rethink that last item…)

Bounty of the Small Bookshop

No, I’m not referring to the bounty of wonderful reading material (this time). As an independent bookseller, it’s very easy to get a chip on your shoulder about the advantages that the big guys have. But I’m also regularly reminded of the advantages we enjoy.

I’ll wager that authors don’t often bring shortbread cookies to the staff at Borders. I doubt seriously that customers bring homemade applesauce, blueberry squares, or tubs of fresh blueberries from their gardens to the folks at Amazon. These are all goodies that I have received in the last two weeks. It’s enough to make my heart (and my waistline) bulge with contentment.

The rewards are not just in the form of yummy edibles, though. There have been times over the last couple of years when I really wondered if the store was going to make it, or if it was even worth it to keep trying. But then, as if by divine intervention, someone would walk in and spontaneously tell me how much they appreciate Spellbound, or how much it meant to their neighborhood, or how much their kids enjoyed it. How glad they were that we were here.

Well, we’re still here, and moments like that are a great reminder of why. In October, Spellbound will be five years old. Can you believe it? Five years! Statistically, the odds were against us making it past two years as a new small business. Stacked against us even more as a small independent bookshop in an industry dominated by chains and online behemoths. Throw in a nationwide economic swan dive, and… well, as you can imagine, we feel we have a lot to celebrate.

Right now I am scheming (in a good way). I’m planning our birthday celebration. I want to find a good way to say Thank You to all of you who have made the celebration possible. (Don’t worry–one thing I know for sure is that there will be cake!)

Best Books for Children: Behind the Music (er, Catalog)

It’s that time of year again: time to nominate books to be featured in the ABC Best Books for Children catalog. This is a catalog you’ve probably seen in our store; perhaps you’ve taken one home with you. It’s published annually by the Association of Booksellers for Children, which is a non-profit organization representing independent (i.e., not chain) bookstores that specialize in books for young people.

In late summer every year, members stores across the nation (including Spellbound) nominate the books that we love the most from the current calendar year. Some of these books will already be great sellers, and some will be books that we love and believe in and want to see become great sellers. We especially try to spotlight books from newer authors and small, independent presses, although you will see a very healthy mix of books from authors (and publishers) both big and small.

Ever wondered how something like that is put together? Well, it is not one of those deals where a publisher can choose to push Book X and pay lots of money to have it in the catalog. When our final wish list of books is chosen, based on the amount of votes by member stores, ABC staff then contacts the publisher of each book, who may then choose to support the book(s) from their publishing house by helping pay for the catalog.  Having the publishers pay the printing costs makes sure that ABC, which is non-profit and on an extremely small budget, can afford to produce the catalog in a way that is affordable for its members, and that we can then afford to give them away liberally to the book-loving public.

So how does the nomination process work? It’s very open-ended, which means lots of work for the staff compiling the catalog book list, but which also ensures that it is by no means a cookie-cutter process. Basically, it’s all write-in votes. Member stores are asked to send in our favorites books in each of several categories. The only restriction is that the book has to have been published (in the case of this fall’s upcoming catalog) in 2009. Of course, it’s still summer, so we are nominating not only books that are out right now but also those that are going to be published in the fall. (This is where galleys or Advance Reading Copies come in very handy!)

I won’t submit you to my entire list, but here are a couple of my nominations from each category. I’ll be curious to see how many of them end up in the final product.

If you have favorites (published in 2009) in any of these categories that you’d like to share, comment on the post and share them! Nominations for the catalog are already closed, but it’s always good to find out what titles have folks excited.

Babies and Toddlers
Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger? by Betsy Snyder
Good Egg by Barney Saltzberg

Picture Books
Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies by Ammi-Joan Paquette
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown

Early Readers
Elephants Cannot Dance! by Mo Willems
Luke on the Loose by Harry Bliss

Middle grade
Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry
Top of the Order by John Coy

YA
Coffehouse Angel by Suzanne Selfors
Liar by Justine Larbalestier
Lady Macbeth’s Daughter by Lisa Klein

Great and Graphic
Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom by Eric Wight

Non-Fiction Favorites
A Really Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Fun for All (Activities, Novelty & Notable Parenting)
Moody Cow Meditates by Kerry Lee MacLean

Just Around the Corner: A Cautionary Tale

A fellow bookseller just shared this cool retro video from Regulator Bookshop in Durham. Food for thought! Makes me miss my roller skates.

Never Can Say Goodbye

Anyone who has ever been to my home, or for that matter anyone who has ever gone through the back room of the bookstore to get to the restroom or who has peeked behind the sales counter knows that I have a problem with accumulating piles of stuff. Especially book-shaped stuff.

It’s important when running a bookstore to be very disciplined about cutting out the deadwood. In a word: returns. If a title has been on the shelf for several months and not one copy has sold, then no matter how great a book it is, no matter if it won every major award, and no matter how much I personally think every kid in town ought to read it, it needs to go back.

One of the advantages in selling books, as opposed to many items, is that most of the time we can return books to the publisher and get credit that we can use toward stocking something else that hopefully will sell better. Otherwise, we don’t recoup the money we spent on it and, once that happens repeatedly, which it will, we have sunk a lot of money into what amounts to shelf decoration and have less money to spend on expenses. Returns free up resources for investing in more (or at least different) inventory.

So keeping a close eye on what actually sells and letting go of what doesn’t is of paramount importance when you’re trying to make it through lean times in a bookstore. I have known this, intellectually at least, since the beginning, but it’s been a hard-learned lesson in terms of actually putting it into practice. I would agonize over the prospect of returning books that, in my opinion, needed to be here… just in case. Just in case that kid that it would be perfect for walked through the door. I couldn’t stand to let go of a book that I had read and loved, even if it had an unfortunate cover that screamed “boring” or had some other tragic flaw that made it impossible to sell. I would go through the shelves, trying to find what to let go of, and say “Oh, but not that one… not that one… surely not that one….” As a friend of mine (with much more experience in book selling) told me a few years ago,”You’re not running an orphanage for unwanted books. If it doesn’t sell, you need to get rid of it.”

How right he was. I am proud to say that I have come a long way since then. I cull the inventory for potential returns regularly and have become practically ruthless about yanking slow- or non-sellers off the shelves.

To a point.

There are some books that just need to be on the shelf, even if they don’t sell often, because… well, they just need to be there! Though the list is, of necessity, dwindling as the recession lingers on, there are some books that I will always strive to keep on the shelves regardless of their performance. A Wrinkle in Time is at the top of that list, though thankfully that one remains a steady seller, in paperback at least. The once or twice a year that someone comes in asking if I have The Little Prince, not really expecting me to have it, I am always happy and a little bit smug when I hand it to them. I stubbornly insist on stocking The Shrinking of Treehorn, even though I am lucky to sell one copy a year. (My major concession on this title is Treehornthat I now only stock it in paperback.) Treehorn, in fact, is such a favorite of mine that I have been guilty of using it as a litmus test for new acquaintances. Which is not to say that if you don’t love it, you can’t be my friend. I’ve just noticed that the people I share a certain sense of humor with generally find this little book as hilarious as I do. If you don’t like it, or only find it mildly amusing, it doesn’t mean that I think you don’t have a good sense of humor. But if you laugh hysterically at it, we will almost certainly click. I have a copy at home, of course, but I suppose I just need to make sure that there’s always a copy close at hand, wherever I am. I never know when I’m going to need to size someone up. So to speak.

And thank goodness there are kids out there who can stand to let go of books they have at home and bring them in for trade. It keeps our used section going. In fact, when I decided to start the used section a couple of years ago, I realized that although I had bought countless used books over the years, I had never actually let any of mine go. The only way my personal book collection shrinks is if I loan a book out and it never gets returned. (Joey, are you reading this? Still missing that copy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland that you swore you’d replace!) And when I notice my collection shrinking I can’t help wondering, as Treehorn’s parents wondered, if it’s doing it on purpose. Just to be different.

Published in: on July 15, 2009 at 3:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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