Best Ideas in Children's Bookselling: As Easy as ABC

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The July issue of Building Blocks, the newsletter of the Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC), presented a column entitled "Pannell Best Ideas in Children's Bookselling." The column featured tips for booksellers by the winners of, and nominees for, the 2004 Lucile Micheels Pannell Awards, which are presented annually by the Women's National Book Association (WNBA) to recognize one general bookstore and one children's specialty store that have excelled at creatively bringing books and children together and inspiring children's interest in books and reading. Here, Bookselling This Week takes a closer look at some of these best ideas.

This year's Pannell winners are UConn Co-op in Storrs, Connecticut, in the general category and Hicklebee's Children's Books in San Jose, California, in the children's specialty category. In granting the awards, the WNBA noted that the Pannell jury was especially impressed with Hicklebee's efforts to reach children and their caregivers from before birth through the children's teen years. The jury also took note of UConn Co-op's active efforts to reach out to the community with initiatives such as the Connecticut Children's Book Fair and a Saturday morning summer program.

The ABC column noted how the nominated bookstores offered many creative ways to interest young children, young adults, their parents, and their grandparents, in books and the bookstores, and others focused efforts on helping schools and teachers provide adequate books for their students and communities.

Valerie Lewis, owner of Hicklebee's, noted that her store started a "Baby Registry" to engage the parents, friends, and family before the new reader arrives. "The parents make a list of the books they love and people can buy them as shower gifts and new baby gifts," Lewis told BTW. "Of course, we can always offer suggestions for really good basic books or collections for the family library." Lewis, as co-author, with Walter Mayes, of Valerie & Walter's Best Books for Children: A Lively, Opinionated Guide (HarperResource) is particularly good at recommending titles.

Lewis also mentioned other techniques to include the bookstore in the lives of young children: "We have several local private schools that, as part of the kindergarten tuition, include books from Hicklebee's. In many grade schools, we encourage children to buy a book for their classroom on their birthday. The book has the child's name and birthday on the inside cover and at the end of the year we total the amount spent on these books and give a percentage of it back to the school librarian in a gift certificate. I think of it as a perfect circle."

UConn Co-op created a successful program that helps provide books to all newborn babies at the local hospital. The store also markets and handsells to many of the faculty members who are also grandparents. Faculty members come into the store frequently seeking books for grandchildren, and store staff is prepared with recommendations of old favorites, books on places to visit with kids, and notices about new books in stock.

At Pannell nominee Blue Willow Books in Houston, Texas, owner Valerie Koehler has devised a number of ways to connect grandparents and other family members with the bookstore, even if they live in far-flung parts of the world.

With a digital camera in hand, Koehler captures pictures of toddlers participating in the weekly story hour, which also includes songs and an art project. She either prints the picture, makes it into a postcard, and sends it by mail along with the artwork to a grandparent or another special person, or she e-mails a photo of the child enjoying the activity. Some parents use the photos at work as computer wallpaper and others receive the photo far away from Houston and the beloved child.

"When we send it via e-mail," Koehler told BTW, "we link it to our Web site with some wording about what we do here. We have sent them all over the world with great response. Everyone we send to is collected in our database with that child's name."

Koehler has plans to put that customer list to good use. "In November, we plan to send the holiday catalogue, along with other promotional materials, to those in the database. We have established a relationship with them already."

In the last year, Hicklebee's tackled what Lewis considers the most difficult age group -- teens. "We needed something different to entice young adults into the store," she said. "We came up with an idea that took off. We invited Paul Fleischman, whose book, Dateline: Troy (Candlewick), took contemporary news stories and headlines and paralleled them with stories from ancient Troy. That gave us the idea of a press conference format. We ... invited a popular local columnist, Jim Trotter, and sent notices around to every high school journalism department. We gave each school two press badges for students and said that attendance was strictly limited to those with badges. They were instructed to prepare to interview the two writers ... they had to read the book. The place was totally jammed for the press conference. People were phoning, begging for more press passes. We allowed people to stand in the back, but only the kids with badges could stay up front and ask questions. If you ever want to attract kids, limit the number that can come."

Other nominated stores also created events emulating an adult, professional style. Dragonwings Bookstore in Waupaca, Wisconsin, held an art show with work by elementary and middle school student complete with an opening reception, judging, and sales.

At Kid's Center in Tucson, Arizona, which received honorable mention from the Pannell jury, the store runs the Arizona Adopt-a-Classroom program in which community sponsors contribute money for teachers to purchase books and other resource material for classroom use. Contributors are matched with teachers in need.

In Millerton, New York, Pannell honorable mention recipient Oblong Books and Music participates in the Indian Mountain School's one-day Adopt-A-Book event. The school librarian orders titles she would like parents to "adopt" for the school library; Oblong takes back any books not sold that night. During the Holiday Shopping Spree, a benefit for the school, the store is open exclusively for the school community and 20 percent of the proceeds go to the school. --Nomi Schwartz