By Oren J. Teicher, ABA Chief Operating Officer
People look forward to all sorts of different things during the holidays. In December, I can't wait for my annual pre-holiday stint working in an indie bookstore. Beyond it being fun, I have consistently found that my holiday bookselling experiences have been indispensable to my work at ABA. For months after I've returned to my day job, my colleagues often hear me start a discussion with a reference to what I saw and what I learned while working in a bookstore over the holidays.
Given the current economic downturn, ABA felt it wasn't the time to use resources to send staff to work in stores this holiday season, but by combining some of my own airline miles and hotel points I was able to make my plans and get away on the cheap. So, on Thursday, December 18, off I went to Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, a community approximately 35 miles west of Chicago. Anderson's is a family-run business, now owned by Tres, Bill, Pete, and Becky Anderson, four siblings who grew up in a retail business started by their great-great-grandfather, William Wallace Wickel.
The business was founded as a pharmacy, but it was a drugstore that sold books almost from the beginning. Anderson's Bookshop today operates two retail locations, the one in Naperville, where I worked, and one in nearby Downers Grove.
The Andersons also own both a wholesale book company, which supplies books to fundraising groups for school bookfairs and to educator conferences, and the original pharmacy, which continues a family tradition that goes all the way back to 1879, when Naperville was a small farming town neighboring a big city. As the years have passed, Naperville has evolved from a distant Chicago exurb to a more traditional suburb, with a population of almost 150,000 people. Commuters travel daily to downtown Chicago (about 30 minutes away by train), though many residents work in the expanding corporate world located in suburban Chicago. Naperville's public schools have been repeatedly recognized as among the nation's best.
The Naperville bookstore has approximately 7,500 square feet of selling space, and the inventory includes books, toys, and gifts. Children's books have always been a mainstay at Anderson's, and their knowledgeable and talented staff is made up of numerous retired teachers and librarians from the local schools. Working the floor at Anderson's leading up to Christmas feels like an ongoing school reunion, with teachers, students, and classmates meeting, greeting, and catching-up. Anderson's underwent a substantial remodeling of the store this past summer (it looks great), and many long-time customers were still a bit puzzled as where to find things. It was telling -- and reflective of the relatively weak fall season -- that some were in the store for the first time since the remodeling.
Now, the one thing that everyone knows about Chicago in December is that it can be mighty cold. When my plane arrived at O'Hare that Thursday, the city was having a veritable heat wave -- with temperatures hovering near 20 degrees Fahrenheit. But that didn't last. Six inches of snow fell Thursday night, and by Sunday the temperatures were in the low single digits. When you added in the wind-chill factor, we were in deep negative territory.
Obviously, the weather discouraged some shoppers, but, overall, business in the days leading up to December 25 was pretty good. Though, like all bookstores (and the overwhelming majority of retailers), this year's holiday traffic was off, and it was clear that customers in Naperville were spending less than they had in previous years. I had multiple customers asking for a single recommendation -- implying that the recipient was only getting one book this year. Of course, this served to reinforce how terribly important staff picks are to so many customers. And I also had several questions regarding when a title would be out in paperback, clearly reflecting decisions to put off a purchase. Anderson's strength in kids' books clearly was helpful. It was very apparent that, while shoppers were buying fewer adult books as gifts, many were still spending for their kids, grandkids, etc.
Under Becky Anderson's leadership and tutelage, Anderson's has been an enthusiastic early adapter of the IndieBound program, which dovetails completely with her longstanding efforts on behalf of her community. Becky has served as marketing chair and Board member of the Downtown Naperville Alliance, as well as the co-founder of Naperville Reads. This holiday season Anderson's helped organize a promotion in which Naperville consumers who collected receipts from participating indie businesses were entered into drawings for a series of free gifts. It was heartening to see both the many IndieBound signs in other local businesses on Naperville's shopping streets and to hear the number of customers who asked about the promotion. Throughout my stay, it was clear that consumers are beginning to understand why shopping in locally-owned businesses matters.
Anderson's had placed the large Eat Sleep Read poster in the store's front window and has incorporated a whole series of IndieBound materials throughout the store. They even have the artwork on their van. And customers do notice. I was amused when one of the booksellers related to me how a woman had asked for the sequel to Eat Pray Love. When told no such book existed, the customer had said that she didn't understand -- and had then pointed to the large red sign in the window promoting the new book!
As had been the case during my previous stints as a bookseller, at Anderson's I was most comfortable selling what I knew, and, fortunately, Anderson's staff expertise in children's books allowed me to hand off most of the customers looking for titles for younger readers. However, that didn't stop me from selling a few copies of The Monsters of Templeton to some older kids, and, before I was done, I knew all about John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series! For adults, I handsold several copies of a few of my recent favorites -- City of Thieves, The Given Day, and The Little Book. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society were strong sellers, and I was surprised to have so many customers still asking for The Last Lecture. Watching the stellar staff at Anderson's was a first-hand seminar in handselling. Throughout the day, they were greeting customers by name, answering questions with insight and good humor, and, importantly, putting the right books in the hands of customers.
The staff at Anderson's could not have been more warm and friendly, and I told the store's manager, Mary Yockey, that whenever they couldn't find anything for the next six months they could just blame me. And the Anderson family tradition of working in the store (at least over the holidays) is continuing through the next generation. One of Becky's children, Charlie, who, like his mom, had grown up in the store, was back at work. And I was delighted to share a very nice evening at Becky's home with her husband, Chuck, and, their two other children, Sarah and Hallie.
In the end, the four days passed very quickly, and, before I knew it, it was closing time on Sunday evening. Becky and Tres generously took me out for a farewell dinner at a restaurant a few doors down from the bookshop at a most auspicious spot -- the location of the original family pharmacy.
Monday was the trip's best weather day -- bright sunny skies and temperatures soaring into the mid-20s. Before heading home, I wanted to visit a few other bookstores in the Chicago area, and I got in quick visits with Sue Boucher at Lake Forest Book Shop, Roberta Rubin at Book Stall at Chestnut Court, and Ann Christophersen at Women & Children First.
Lake Forest was full of customers, and I told Sue as I arrived how nice it was to see a line at the cash/wrap. Things were busy at Bookstall as well, with shelves of special orders to be picked-up. Roberta did say that, while sales of more expensive coffee-table books were off (they have a great art section), overall, they were doing okay. And at Women & Children First, I was delighted to hear from Ann that the cross-merchandising test they were doing with an indie toy store down the street had, in fact, brought in a number of new customers.
By 5:00 p.m., I was back at O'Hare for my return trip to New York. As I sat on the runway (there were high winds in New York City that day, and flights in and out of LaGuardia were badly delayed), I thought about all the really fun conversations I had had at Anderson's -- both with the bookstore staff and with their customers -- about books, about politics (people in Illinois were clearly still smiling about the election results), and, of course, about the weather.