The “Best Practices for Conducting Staff Meetings” education session at Winter Institute 13 in Memphis featured experienced bookseller panelists sharing tips on everything from scheduling and creating agendas to successfully conducting staff meetings.
The panelists at the January 25 session moderated by Jamie Fiocco, owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, discussed how staff meetings can reinforce a bookstore’s mission and provide an opportunity to share updates and brainstorm solutions to problems. They included Kelsy April, the children’s book buyer at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, as well as general manager of Savoy; Andrea Avantaggio, co-owner of Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colorado; and Andy Brennan, manager of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee.
According to April, Bank Square and Savoy have 28 staff members spread over the two stores, which are located 15 minutes apart. Some booksellers work just at Bank Square, which has been open for 30 years; some work just at Savoy, which opened in April 2016; and a few travel between the two.
“With a staff so large and working really closely with one another, communication is key, so we have roughly four different types of staff meetings that we do,” said April.
The first is the regular store meeting, which is conducted separately for Bank Square and Savoy. Held four or five times a year, these 30- to 45-minute meetings take place before the stores open and function as a way to get everyone together in one central place to talk about big-ticket items, said April.
“The second type of meeting we do is a digital meeting using the platform Slack, which is a free communication platform you can use within your business so that your staff can talk amongst each other,” said April. “We use channels in the same way that Twitter uses hashtags, so we have #savoy, #banksquare, #events, and #receiving channels where staff can talk to each other and communicate with other shifts.”
The next type of meeting is the one-on-one, which April adopted from owner Annie Philbrick, who, a couple of times a year, sits down with each individual staff member over coffee or lunch just to lend an ear.
“It’s a really efficient way to talk to booksellers because, especially when you get a big group of them together, some might not want to voice their questions or concerns in front of everyone,” said April. The final meeting format is the Mini Winnie, which is essentially a giant staff meeting structured like Winter Institute, including breakout sessions, panelists, visiting experts, and more.
“Staff meetings are a place where democracy occurs among your staff,” said April. “You’d be surprised by some of the ideas your staff has. To give them a forum in which to discuss those ideas is a really good thing. But sometimes calling it a staff meeting can make it sound really, really boring, so you don’t even have to call it a staff meeting.”
Parnassus Books, co-owned by Karen Hayes and author Ann Patchett, opened in 2011. The 5,000-square-foot store has 25 to 30 employees, depending on the time of the year, and puts on over 300 events annually, both on and off-site.
“That bit of information, more than anything, probably necessitates staff meetings on a regular basis,” said Brennan, in order to communicate policies, procedures, and event details to staff.
“First,” he said, “the meeting must be delivering information that the booksellers need to do their job properly. Second, it needs to provide an opportunity for them to give you feedback so that they feel like they have a voice in the store. The third thing is not to waste people’s time. Give the meeting a structure and make sure it is concise.”
Parnassus holds three types of meetings. An annual mandatory meeting the Sunday before Thanksgiving gets everyone up to speed on what to expect during the holiday shopping season. It is informational and motivational, said Brennan; food is provided, and employees are paid to be there.
“In addition to going over practices and procedures for that time of year, since we typically have some people who have never been through the holiday season before, we’ll have booksellers giving testimonials of what it’s like to work at the store during the holiday season,” said Brennan.
The second type of meetings are mandatory rep breakfasts held two weekdays a year, in the spring and fall, where five or six publisher reps come in and present books for the coming season before the store opens at 10 a.m. The store also brings in people from the Nashville literary scene for these events.
The third type is Parnassus’ twice-daily meetings lasting about 15 to 20 minutes each. Content, which is repeated for each shift, typically includes an overview of promotions and upcoming events, including details about ticketing, bundling, and directions to off-site events. On Tuesdays, which is laydown day, Brennan may ask booksellers for their feedback on those books; he ends each meeting with, “Let’s sell some books!”
“When we’re competing with discounters and online sources and all the other places that people can buy books, we’ve got to provide something that those people can’t,” Brennan told the audience. “That is smart, well-informed booksellers who know their stuff, and the only way they can do that is if we are sharing that information at effective staff meetings so we can provide booksellers with the tools they need to provide customers with the service they need.”
Andrea Avantaggio and her husband, Peter, have been running Maria’s since 1988 and currently have a staff of about 15 people. In part because it is a small store, Maria’s only does monthly staff meetings. While they began by meeting at 7:30 a.m., they soon abandoned that plan after realizing there was no information retention among the staff.
“We’d be spending that much payroll for one-and-a-half hours for 15 people and we got nothing from it. They loved the coffee and the donuts, but they weren’t remembering anything,” said Avantaggio.
Now, she said, they bring in substitutes, or people who worked in the store previously but still live in town, as temporary staff, and hold the meetings from 5:15 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. Agendas may include a state of the shop report, a report from the buyer on sales, a customer service report, or a report on upcoming events, she said. They may also coordinate with the buyers to bring in local authors or publisher reps a couple of times a quarter.
“We also use our January meetings to pick our booksellers’ brains about how the holiday season went,” she said. “We have a whole rundown: what could we do better here, what could we do better there. The holiday process goes better every year because we take the time to review it when it’s still fresh.”
In conclusion, Avantaggio said it is important for managers and owners to give booksellers a chance to talk and to air their opinions during meetings.
“Staff meetings are a great place for things to come up; they can help eliminate that kind of snarky sarcasm that can build when somebody does something one way and somebody else does it another way and nobody is sure what the right way is,” she said. “It’s the perfect forum for that to come out and if [everyone feels similarly], then you can have a discussion about it.”