Summer vacation began in earnest this week for our school-age kids, and the last of the high school commencements were held on Sunday. The graduation open houses, catered taco bars and video highlights of the JV tennis team season will sputter on for a month or more, but basically we’re in full sunscreen season here in Central Indiana. While our weekly activity and storytime schedule stays the same all year, lots of other things change in our store in the summertime, and we make some adjustments to accommodate the differences in tempo and volume.
Our posted store hours stay the same, but our staff scheduling is actually longer, as we need more frontline booksellers on the floor. While we keep our official store closing time (mostly) at 7 pm, the staff is expected to stay until at least eight, as the combination of later sunsets and relaxed bedtimes keep families out on their bikes and wandering into our store. We increase the number of our evening events, too, during this season, as the sports practices and homework demands of the school year are gone, leaving long summer evenings to visit the bookstore, meet an author, or paint a rock or two for the windowsill. We’ve found that some of our best year-round customers started shopping with us in just this way — out for an ice cream or a walk after supper, parents and children together, with no real destination or schedule. These are the times that we can make friends, create a space where families can just hang out together, and quietly offer stacks of books in response to comments like “he’s really into history right now” or “my 10-year-old reads her older sister’s books, but I’m not sure they are really appropriate” or “Do you have anything for this kid? He hates to read.” (YES!! We have respect, understanding, the ability to listen rather than prescribe, and no need to label by level or content.)
Attendance at our morning preschool events surges in the summer (with the exception of the week of the 4th of July and whatever week in early August is designated as Moratorium Week for school sports practices, as those are universal “week at the lake” out-of-town holidays here.) Each June, we remark on both the growing number of grandparents caring for kids in the summer, and the lowering age of summer nannies — and how much both groups appreciate increased programming for their charges. We have found that a couple of things make summer story times successful for us: we keep a regular weekly schedule, we offer events that are too messy and require more effort than may be possible by one caregiver at home, and we take A LOT of pictures. A few of these pics we post on store social media, but more often, we send them via text or email to working parents directly. There is little that endears a business more to a parent than a quick text of “look at Daniel finger painting this morning — he LOVED this book!”, and I can show you the responding phone call log and online order record to prove it. Grandparents, too, appreciate stories that they remember reading to their children, so right now we are including at least one book each day from a list of titles from the late 80’s and early 90’s, keeping all these backlist titles in heavy reorder rotation.
Our store summer reading program is popular, but we take care to manage it to drive profitability as well as goodwill. Once our customers enroll (by purchasing just one book, and sharing their name, age, and a parent’s email address) they may participate as much or as little as they choose to all summer. Young readers are invited to bring us pictures, handwritten reviews, Lego models, and dioramas about the books they read — and our middle grade and YA readers may offer reviews via text, email, or by tagging us on Instagram. Rewards for participation, however, are only awarded on Wednesdays, which is traditionally our slowest day of the week. We solicit prizes from other area businesses (a free cone from the ice cream shop, a free game from the bowling alley, etc) and schedule these giveaways for a day when staff has the time and the enthusiasm to engage all these young readers, hear about their projects, post the pictures on the wall, and generally make a fuss. By combining donated prizes (ahem… that’s marketing partnership opportunities to our area businesses) and driving customer traffic into the store on a “slow” day, a double scoop of sweetness, with sprinkles on top.
One of our most successful experiments in expanding our offerings began several summers ago when we decided to add a single bookcase of adult literary fiction to the front of the store, and we have seen continued growth in this category ever since. At first, we labeled it “4 Kids Grown-Up READS” and it was stocked with the eclectic current favorites of our staff picks — from NYT bestsellers to book club choices to lesser known genre favorites… all titles that our staff could enthusiastically recommend and offer to parents for summer poolside enjoyment. As more and more moms and dads browsed and bought (note: we put this bookshelf RIGHT NEXT TO THE TRAIN TABLE, the waiting room equivalent in a children’s store) we began to buy more broadly, and used customer recommendations and reviews as shelf talkers, and increased the shelf space. I still don’t really know what I’m doing in this area (as booksellers, a certain amount of experimentation is part of our DNA, n’est-ce pas?), but it’s turning a handy profit, and parents seem to really enjoy having the option to shop for books alongside their kids.
We have also found summertime to be a great season to try new venues for book sales, and take the “have books, will travel” mantra quite literally during the season-sans-slush and ice. Farmers’ markets, dance recitals, summer band concerts on the green, neighborhood festivals, and 4th of July celebrations all bring families, future customers, and an open and friendly place to talk about books outside the store. Folding tables are cheap, the staff “uniform” of cutoffs and t-shirts is easy, and books are, as you know, a “uniquely portable magic.” To my great chagrin, many people do not visit bookstores. That doesn’t make them nonreaders, just underserved — and THAT is something we can do in the season of three-day weekends, warm evenings, and less frantic schedules.
Besides turning up the AC, what does YOUR store do to make summertime buzz?