Saturday, November 26, 2011
stacie vs. the algorithm: a hand-selling success
A couple weeks ago my friend Anne Bunn mentioned that her two year old, Hayes, had broken his leg- an event seemingly more concerning for his parents than for Hayes. This made me a little sad, and my response was basically the same one I have to news of any life event: there must be a book for that.
My father died when I was 25, and I remember spending an entire day driving my eight-year old sister to every bookstore in Milwaukee, in search of a kids’ book about how to grieve the loss of a parent. We never found it, and for once I was probably overestimating the healing power of the written word anyway.
Sadly, the Milwaukee bookstore population has dramatically shrunk, and there was no driving around for hours to find a book for Hayes. But what we’ve lost in quantity we’ve made up for in quality- my local shop, Boswell Book Company, came through with flying colors.
“I need a book for a two year old with a broken leg,” I announced to the booksellers at the front desk. Within seconds, Stacie Williams, who was working on something else but overheard the request, looked over her shoulder and said “Oh, Mo Willems has the perfect book!”
I will stipulate that I am an ignoramus when it comes to children’s books. I have my personal favorites, but that section of the store just seems like a colorful but confounding phantasmagoria to me. (In truth, it even did when I was a bookseller when I should have known it better. What can I say? I don’t have kids.)
Despite the fact that Mr. Willems is a multiple Caldecott winner and a beloved favorite, I’d never heard of the man. So perhaps I seem overly awed by Stacie’s suggestion. But to all the knowledgeable booksellers and readers who will shrug and say “of course Mo Willems- duh,” I would only say I bet there are more of us- ignorant grown-up literary do-gooders- than there are of them. And we appreciate not being made to feel bad for our juvenile illiteracy.
Stacie walked me to the section and placed in my hands a copy of I Broke My Trunk. A very cute glasses-wearing elephant with a bandaged-up trunk adorned the cover. This was beyond perfect.
Within five minutes the book was gift-wrapped and on its way to Cambridge Massachusetts. It’s a small thing but it really made my day.
This “positive customer experience,” as biz lingo might have it, prompted two other thoughts.
One: independent booksellers get lots of credit for their quirky, personalized reading recommendations. They read a lot, and part of the added value they provide is sharing all this reading with customers. Turning somebody on to some author they haven’t read is a joy for both bookseller and customer.
But there’s another kind of recommending that doesn’t get as much glory: being able to access an encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s inventory on a dime when a customer requests a book, especially in an unfamiliar subject area. This happens so routinely in bookstores it’s almost a nonevent, but it’s really the daily bread and butter of most stores. Booksellers who have handled and shelved books on all sorts of topics are expert at retrieving them at the exact moment they’re needed. Or that’s the goal anyway. And accomplished more often than not.
Two: the internet retailers have a distinct competitive edge when it comes to sorting and displaying book data, as long as your request can be digested by their programs. I’ll confess that I actually began my quest for Hayes’ book online. But after entering every relevant search phrase I could think of (“kids broken leg,” “injured child funny” etc. etc.) nothing remotely appropriate came up. And certainly not I Broke My Trunk.
So my takeaway is that sometimes an actual human being, especially a bookseller who already knows you and has engaged you in conversation about topics other than just books, is a better book suggester than a smart algorithm. Put another way, being in a good bookstore reminds me that I’m more than the sum of the books I’ve bought in the past.
As if this story could get any happier, Hayes is on the mend, and Mom reported that “the book was a hit!” Coincidentally, she added that his grandfather has been sending him Mo Willems' Elephant & Piggie titles for awhile now. (Thankfully, not this one.) Which he learned about at his favorite neighborhood bookshop, Lake Forest Bookstore in Lake Forest IL.