When I first stepped into the role of PR & Guest Services Coordinator for the Vermont Historical Society, I didn't quite realize that I'd essentially be running my own bookstore. I inherited the role from an employee who had recently left for a different vocation, and when I arrived, I found a museum gift shop that was pretty sparse: a handful of books that VHS had acquired from local historical societies around Vermont, some titles for the tourists who came through our doors, and a decent selection of books that we publish ourselves.
I've worked in bookstores before: in college, I worked for Walden Books (RIP), and then when I was first stepping into freelancing, I worked part time at Bear Pond Books, a local indie store. If you've read this newsletter or followed me for any length of time, you've probably got a good idea that I love books and reading, and when I first heard of the job, that was one of the selling points: I'd get to do some of that again.
You can find the VHS store here, and I'll plug the Indie Bookstore Day sale I'm running while I'm at it: use the code INDIE2023 at checkout. It should be active now and run through Sunday. (I'll also point out that Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock, Bear Pond Books in Montpelier [looks like they're out, but I can sign copies if you order one], and Phoenix Books in Burlington/Essex/Rutland have copies of Cosplay: A History if you want a copy of my book and want to support one of the local stores here.)
Okay, here are some things that I've learned about running this store in the last year.
Building a bookstore is challenging
Over the last year, I've spent a good amount of time hunting. From the onset, my boss had given me a free hand to shape the store as I saw fit, and what I saw was something of a missed opportunity: a change for visitors to the museum to continue their education beyond the confines of the building and our exhibits. Buying a book – either one of ours, or another book about the general history of Vermont – would allow them to take that experience home with them, where they could continue to remain engaged with not only the topic of Vermont history, but with us as an organization.
I had one clue when I arrived in the office in 2022: a review copy of a book by Jack Kelly, Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty. I wasn't sure why we didn't have it on our bookshelves, but I began reading it and realized that it was something that we probably should carry. That led to another discovery: Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom: Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys and the American Revolution by Christopher S. Wren, a recent book about Ethan Allen and the state's early days. I read through that and really loved it, and set about setting up accounts to begin acquiring them. I reorganized the store into categories that made sense: military history, local towns, state-wide histories, etc.
That began an ongoing hunt. I pulled out a notebook and spent a good day or two searching through Amazon for the keywords "Vermont History", and tracked down a whole list. From there, I paged through our scholarly journal, Vermont History, which includes a whole bunch of book reviews in each issue. More books went up on my list.
Because we've got a fairly narrow focus, I began looking at specialty publishers. You've probably seen the books from Arcadia Publishing / History Press: thin, sepia tone-covered paperbacks that deal with the specific history of a town or city or region. I combed through lists of local historical societies to see what they'd published. More keyword searches, such as the history of skiing, the Battle of Bennington, Fort Ticonderoga, Hurricane Irene, and others yielded more entries. In one case, a family friend who relocated here years ago got in touch with a book that he'd published for his hometown. Searching for Vermont at various university presses yielded unexpected results: titles about the state's railroads, race relations, ancestors, and more. They've all ended up on the list.
After 6-8 months, I closed out what I'd mentally thought of as a "building phase": those once-sparse shelves were now loaded down with books. I reorganized the shelves in my office to store the growing piles of books that we found sold well and acquired in larger numbers. From there, I began moving into what I've been thinking of as the maintenance phase: keeping track of what was selling, and back-filling when we ran out. I've made it a habit of buying in fairly small quantities: my predecessors learned the hard way that 20-30, and stockpiles of 300-500 copies take up a lot of space, especially if they aren't moving. But 4-5 copies at a time, especially if I was buying a title for the first time, made more sense.
People like bargains
We have a policy of writing stock off if it's been on the shelf for three years, and my predecessor hadn't spent any time sorting them out. We had a section marked "Bargain", so I took my laptop out to the store when it wasn't busy, and began looking through the stock to see what had been lingering on the shelves for that period. There were quite a few titles: some that had been acquired prior to our inventory software in 2016. If they weren't going to sell at the full MSRP, maybe they'd move at half-off.
I dropped the prices in our system for the other titles that we'd written off, and found that they started to move. We have one book that I was warned about when I arrived: Seven Years of Grace, a fictional version of a real Vermont woman, which had been published to high hopes: VHS had printed hundreds of copies, only to see them linger on a pallet when only a handful moved. We've long since written them off, and part of the problem was that they were pretty expensive. I dropped the price by half, then down to a dollar. They've slowly moved: a copy here or there, because even if it doesn't look like something someone will enjoy, it's a good impulse purchase.
In other cases, I discovered that overstock and discount outlets like Book Depot are a very good place to discover books. These outlets are the places where publishers offload hardcovers or returned books after a while. They're typically in great shape; they're generally just hardcovers that have been replaced by a paperback. At $3-4 a copy, we have to buy a dozens of them, but we can mark them up a bit (but not excessively), which further adds to our stock of newish titles. Valcour was one such book: we've sold all but one in the last year.
Another thing that I've been experimenting with is hunting through sales at some of the local libraries around town, or at the big Barnes & Noble up in Burlington. These are generally priced extremely cheaply, and I've found that it's easy to drop $5-10 on a handful of books about Vermont's history and bring them back to an environment where customers are already in a history mindset. Sometimes, it just takes a little time for the right person to come in in the right mood for the title in the right place and price. I think the fastest that I've sold one such book was 5 minutes: a copy of Governor Jim Douglas's memoir went up on the shelf after I discovered it, and then right back down when a class that he was leading came through the door. Others might linger for a while, but I've been pleased to find empty slots or display wires when I come back from lunch: someone found something that they connected with.
The hunt is always ongoing
And of course, publishing hasn't stopped: there are always new books hitting stores at various times. Just this spring, we've seen the release of Lost Burlington Vermont by Bob Blanchard, a picture-heavy book about the Queen City's (sometimes lost) architecture. There's A New Force at Sea: George Dewey and the Rise of the American Navy by David A. Smith, a new biography of Admiral George Dewey (who I've written about!), and Christine Kenneally's Ghosts of the Orphanage: A Story of Mysterious Deaths, a Conspiracy of Silence, and a Search for Justice, which we recently hosted a sobering exhibit about when I joined the museum. Publishers have begun sending me copies of books that are set to come out: I just opened a copy of a June 2023 title American Journey: On the Road with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs by Wes Davis, which apparently touches on Vermont at various points.
Sometimes, these titles came up completely randomly: A New Force At Sea was a discovery I made on Twitter when searching for "Admiral George Dewey". In other cases, the publisher reached out with advance copies. In other cases, I've gotten in touch with local authors who I knew had books for sale that might not have a publisher behind them, but were well-known in the community for writing super-local histories.
In a couple of instances, I've found books that have fallen out of print, but the authors or publishers have had copies: In The Land of the Wild Onion by Charles Fish was something that a guest recommended. As it turns out, the press that published it is long gone, but Charles had some copies. Edward Hopper in Vermont by Bonnie T. Clause was another: the publisher is gone, and it likely won't get reprinted because of rights and whatnot, but I was able to snag a couple of copies from her (which have since sold out.) Most recently, I found copies of Stephen C. Terry's Say We Won and Get Out: George D. Aiken and the Vietnam War, which is apparently out of print, but the publisher had a bunch of copies kicking around that they got to us.
Set terms and expectations up front and it's okay to be flexible
We buy books either up front, or on consignment. With established publishers, they usually have a discount for wholesale purchases (usually around 40%). For local authors or historical societies, I generally have to walk them through what we offer and what our terms are: we need to have a margin to earn something of a profit for what we sell.
In some cases, I'll outline to an author that in order to hit the MSRP, we'll need to buy the book at a cheaper price than what's on the sticker, or, that I'd like to sell the book at a lower price than what's listed: someone might buy a book at $25, but won't at $40 or $50. In some cases, I've had something of an adjustable discount, depending on what said author wants to charge: there's usually a little wiggle room or negotiation, but we can usually land on something that we can both live with.
We have everything, and that's okay
There are a ton of books that I've been discovering, but I don't feel that I need to have everything that's ever been published about Vermont. There are some books that I've looked at and felt that it didn't quite make sense to carry it. I'm generally permissive of items that I don't necessarily agree with (either in politics, topic, approach, etc.), but there are some titles that I just didn't feel would be a good fit. In other cases, there are titles that are a little too niche: a town history that's really far away, of a super specific topic that's not likely to move copies, or if it's just too expensive.
One recent title that I looked over was a couple of those things: a little too niche in topic, and far too expensive. Another couple just weren't well put together (Essentially just scans of vintage postcards). One publisher just sent me a biography of Ethan Allen that was originally 1969: it's not one that we'll carry because it's long out of date and there are plenty of new alternatives that are better.
In other cases, authors might not have books to sell me directly, or they might not be willing to give up their author copies in cases where a book is out of print. Or, they don't want to sell at a rate that I can offer. Also fine!
Some books will surprise you
There have been a couple of books that I've thought would sell like hot cakes: a video that we have about abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens has been one of our most popular on our channel, and when I found remaindered copies of a biography, I snagged a bunch. We've sold some, but we still have a big pile.
In other instances, a recent book called The History of Town Bands in Vermont by Gary Aubin was one that I thought was too niche, but I decided to give it a try. We sold out of two runs of them almost immediately, and I'm hoping that we'll get some more soon.
Towards the end of Walden Books, we were getting some top-down instructions from Borders Corporate about what books we had to sell. They were usually nonsensical: I vaguely remember a Borders exclusive (a thriller of some sort) that they had high hopes for, and we were supposed to put a title in every customer's hand when we spoke with them. I don't think we sold a single copy, and I've not been able to find an inkling of what the book was.
But hand selling does work, and I've found it to be a pretty rewarding thing. It's just a conversation, and often, when I'm at the front desk or chatting with a patron, we'll talk about history and what they're interested in. I'm not angling for a sale: I'm usually genuinely curious what part of history they like and their story is. Often, I'll point out a book that I've enjoyed when the conversation steers toward some historical fact, like Vermont's role in the Revolutionary War or Ethan Allen's story or something. I don't see this as "making a sale": I see it as connecting someone with a story they're looking for.
Knowing the stock
There's a second part to that though: I'm generally familiar with all of our books. I haven't read them all cover to cover, but I've paged through them when I go about acquiring them.
In some cases, it's looking through the index for mentions of Vermont, reading the introduction or a couple of chapters, other reviews, and so forth. I can likely tell you what we have if questioned, or at least, enough to point someone in the right direction. There's an element of this that comes from a small store: we don't have thousands, or even hundreds of titles. But knowing something about those various topics is valuable.
I'm always reading: I'll generally set a little time out of each day to read a bit from some of the pile that I've got, because I'm genuinely interested in learning something new. I'm currently reading Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen, for example: it's a topic I don't know much about, it might be of interest to our members / guests / readers, but I won't know until I read a bit more.
People like signed copies, and authors like to come sign them
I'm always looking for authors who're in the area. Vermont has plenty of writers scribbling away in the hills, and there are also plenty of journalists and folks who've written about the state's history over the years. In some cases, they're selling them online or through word of mouth, or they've got a publisher that's sent me copies. From the first couple of days in the job, I started talking to authors and asked them to drop off their books, or drop by and sign copies when I got new ones in.
I've always liked talking to authors, so it's a good opportunity to chat with someone about their work and to get to know them a little: they've let me know when they've written something new, or when they have copies in. I've also used the opportunity to snap a picture of them with their book, or of them signing it.
I think it helps with sales, or at least, it's an added bonus for readers.
Telling the public
One big thing that I learned early on was that if folks didn't know about the books, they didn't know to look for them. VHS already had some existing publicity channels: a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feed, as well as a YouTube channel and newsletters.
Whenever I'd get new copies of a book(s) in, I'd take a picture of it on the shelf, or of the author with it, or a stack of them, and tweet it out. Once it was added to the front page of the website, I'd follow up with a link for where to buy it. If we had videos for which books tied in with the content, I'd drop a link in the notes for our bookstore. Sometimes, the book was about an event or notable milestone, which was a good opportunity to mention that we had a title about that in stock.
Late last year, I started adding a section to my bi-weekly VHS newsletter for the bookstore, highlighting any new additions since the last issue, stuff that we'd restocked, or a short interview with the author, usually timed to the book's release if it was a new title, or to highlight some aspect of the book's production, such as if they'd used our library or other services, which helped to showcase the work my colleagues do. Here's an example (I've got another one destined for next week's newsletter):
It works too: we just posted about some new books that arrived the other day, and someone came in specifically to buy a bunch of them.
VHS is a little unique on a bookselling front in that we're also a publisher: we have a publishing program that focuses on books about the state's history. We've got a good lineup: histories of the law, the founding of Vermont, Vermont's Black settlers, a comprehensive history, development, and more. Those are some unique offerings that you can't find in too many other places, and it's a good way to continue our mission outside of exhibits, collections, and programming. We haven't had a new book in the last year, but when we do later this year, we'll also have some programming and PR outreach for them, which helps further our mission.
Publishing salesperson & PR
Because we're part of a larger organization, we publish our own line of books, something that I had to tackle as well in my seat as PR goblin for the society. I realized that there wasn't much outreach to Vermont's numerous local stores, aside from some of the larger ones. I combed through our titles, scanned new cover images, and put together a rudimentary catalog, which I saved in a PDF and mailed to my list of Vermont bookstores. Pretty quickly, I was filling boxes of our own titles, and shipping them off (or dropping them off if I was in the area) at various places around the state.
What I've found is that letting stores know what we have to offer – much like regular retail customers – will yield a bunch of sales. Bookstores are busy places, and buyers might get a catalog in their inbox and realize that they've had someone ask about a book, or realize that they're out or could use more. I try not to pester them too much, but whenever I update a catalog or if we get new books (we should have two new books later this year), I'll let them know.
College courses sell a bunch of copies
One way to ensure that you're moving copies of books? Get it into the hands of teachers for a college course. (It helps that we're largely an academic publisher.)
Online is essential
While this was all happening, I found another task: we had an online store, but the storefront was woefully out of date. I ended up combing through our titles one by one when I realized that our existing stock hadn't been toggled appear on the site: we were just selling our own books. I mapped out our physical storefront online, adding a whole bunch of categories, and began adding up dedicated pages. The front page got a revamp: I placed our selection of brand new titles right at the top, followed by our own books, and then some selections of state and local histories. I broke each category down further: African American and Native Peoples each got their own categories, as did local authors, Ethan Allen, military history, and so forth.
Indie bookstores by and large haven't adopted online sales until the pandemic. Most wanted to avoid Amazon, but it also wasn't entirely in their wheelhouse, they weren't web developers or internet-savvy, or they might not have had enough time or staff to really focus on it. We're focused on Vermont as an organization, but we do have members and followers who are from all over the place: We've shipped to California and New York and Ohio and a whole bunch of other places, because the people in our circles had an avenue for which they could find our titles. Sometimes, they're retirees who left for warmer climates who just want to be connected to their former home, or they're someone who's about to visit (or who just visited) who wants to learn more about the place.
Because we're also a publisher, but one that isn't linked up with a big distributor like Ingram, we sell our books through an account on Amazon. I'd generally prefer folks buy directly from us, but it's a big platform where people are already trained to buy books.
The phone works too
I know folks of my generation aren't a huge fan of a ringing phone, but I've made it a point to take orders when someone calls to ask about a book. A sale is a sale, and if they're interested in a book now, they're likely going to buy it if the opportunity presents itself. We use Square, so it's relatively easy for me to grab a copy of a book, take their credit card, and pack it up with them on the line.
I've taken to doing a couple of things when I fill online orders. For folks who place an order for a shipment to their home in Montpelier or Barre, I'll shoot them a note and refund their shipping costs. I'll walk the book over to their house (or drop it off on my way home), so that 1) they get the book sooner and don't have to worry about USPS losing / damaging / vanishing it, and b) it's another touch point where they see our organization in action. And I get my steps in.
If they're in Vermont, I've taken to including a couple of things in the shipment: a membership form in case they didn't know that they can do that, a free pass to the museum in the hopes that they'll come by and visit, and a VHS sticker.
When you drop off an order at the post office, you'll have another waiting for you
It never fails: I'll pack up an order, walk it down to the post office, and when I come back, there'll be another one waiting for me.
Other things & product design
We don't just stock books: this little store also serves as a significant tourist attraction, so I've got other things that I've stocked, like state flags, patches, glasses, magnets, and postcards: the typical (small) things that you want to take with you when you're on the road.
There's some creative thinking that goes into this: I recently found a Middle-earth-style map of Vermont, which has been popular, and as well as a CNC-cut wooden key chain which hasn't been (it's a little too pricy, but we also haven't had the bulk of the tourist season start yet). We have a bunch of stuffies, like lambs and moose, which sell pretty well, but I made it my mission to begin stocking stuffed catamounts when I arrived. They're adorable and sell pretty well, even if I get yelled at by internet commenters by referring to them as "adorable murder kitties."
I've also found some other unique things in my quest to find more items that are wholly Vermont. One example is a guy who makes pewter soldiers: I met him selling them at a living history expo last fall, and after some back and forth, we ended up setting up a new product: we bagged up a bunch of his soldiers, created some labels, and sell them as their own thing. I'll definitely have ideas in the next year for other products that we can make ourselves, books and gifts.
Experimentation is fun
There have been a bunch of books that I've picked up because I wanted to see if they'd sell, and been pleasantly surprised / not surprised when they have / haven't. It's an ongoing thing. One of the things that I've found thinking back on this last year is how obvious some things feel in retrospect, but which took a little while to figure out while sitting down at my desk, like adding in a specific blurb in the newsletter for the bookstore, author interviews, or setting up signs at one of our events that directed people to our store via QR code.
There are a bunch of other things that I've had percolating in the back of my head for ages that I'll have to figure out if it's worth trying. A VHS book club, or a dedicated Vermont History Book Box that gets shipped to subscribers on a monthly basis? Books that we specifically commission from the store (Rather than authors approaching us with manuscripts?) A book vending machine that we can set up ... somewhere? It'll be interesting to see what the next year brings. (None of those are concrete plans, I'm just spit balling)
A price tag gun is a useful, infuriating piece of equipment. Mine broke, and I've been writing labels by hand, which is... a pain.
Packing materials are great, but they can get overwhelming
I get a lot of books in the mail already from publishers for the non-Vermont stuff I do, and I've found that once place where I've been able to save money is to hoard packing materials. I've saved a bunch of large boxes, which line one side of my office: they're storing packing peanuts, bubble wrap, those inflated air bags, crumbled brown and white paper, and some neat shredded paper (Folio Society uses these for their shipments), all of which I've put to use without having to ever buy anything from a supplier.
Book-sized boxes are particularly valuable. I go through a lot of padded envelopes for single copies, but for multiple books, smaller boxes are gold: I've got a whole stack of various sizes that can be used to box up just about any number of books, from one or two copies to 10-15 at a time. (I also make sure not to use any random Amazon boxes to fulfill bookstore orders.)
It can get crowded: when I start to realize that I'm running out of personal space (especially after orders that come in big boxes), I'll throw a note out on Front Porch Forum or on Facebook for folks to come by and grab some free boxes. They usually go in a couple of days.
This isn't just about saving money in our budget: I look at reusing boxes and packing materials as just a good thing to do. They're items that are still extremely useful, and don't have to just be used once or twice.
Last and most importantly, this bookstore is part of a much larger organization, one with an educational mission:
The Vermont Historical Society engages both Vermonters and "Vermonters at heart" in the exploration of our state's rich heritage. Our purpose is to reach a broad audience through our outstanding collections, statewide outreach, and dynamic programming. We believe that an understanding of the past changes lives and builds better communities.
The bookstore is part of that. Everything that goes on my shelves links back to that phrase: "engages both Vermonters and 'Vermonters at heart'", in that any books that we carry continue the exhibits in some way, or explore some aspect of the state's history that doesn't quite make it in the museum. I want anyone who picks up a book, either for themselves or as a gift, to have it expand what they know about this state, and our bigger story.
Thanks for reading: this was a fun exercise to undertake, because I got to take some time to think about what I like about my job, and what I've learned. I've thought recently that these are skills that are in some places specific to VHS (us being our own publisher, having a membership to sell to, and a museum), but in other places, like setting up a store, finding interesting titles, and having a mission are really applicable to any other place.
Facebook reminded me the other day that I'd once had thoughts to open a dedicated SF/F bookstore somehow. I don't know what that would look like, because while Vermont certainly has SF/F fans, a retail store would be challenging. But an online store with a small popup shop? Or a random empty slot in the local mall? Curated book of the month subscription? They're fun to think about, and I'd certainly be in better shape to undertake something now than I was even a year ago. This isn't me teasing plans of something: it's just more spitballing.
This ended up being a whole lot longer than I anticipated, so I'll skip the currently reading / further reading for this week (currently reading R.F. Kuang's Yellowface and Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas).
Ironically, I won't be in the store tomorrow for Independent Bookstore Day: I'll be up at the Vermont Sci-Fi & Fantasy Expo in Essex Junction, where I'll be trooping with the 501st Legion and on some programming to talk about Cosplay: A History and the 501st in general. If you're in the area, I'd love to see you: please come stop by!
On Monday, I'll have a virtual event with the Columbus Metropolitan Library, again, to talk about Cosplay: A History. Please come! Ask questions! (I've got a couple of other events, and just set up a page for appearances, which you can find here.)
Okay, that's enough for today. Have a good weekend!