Saturday, February 28, 2009

Organizing Children's Books at a Thrift Store

For a few years, I've helped stock books at the Mercer Island Thrift Store, as the Assistant Book Lady (...the Official Book Lady is Charlotte...). We've worked out some principles for stocking children's books to maximize sales, mostly by making it easier for shoppers to find what they're looking for.

You Can Tell A Book By Its Cover

Most children's books are roughly grouped by age; books that appeal to 5-year-olds don't appeal to 13-year-olds. The size and binding of the book is often related to its target age range. Therefore, if we group books by size and binding, we group them by age range and that is very convenient for shoppers.
  • Oversized Hardcovers: Hardcover books that are more than 12 inches tall tend to be heavily illustrated and aimed at preschoolers. I try to keep some of those on the very bottom shelf, so the pre-schoolers can grab & look at them. However, those with nice dust jackets I try to put on a high shelf so parents can look at them.
  • Stapleback: Another popular format is bound with staples. There are several sizes. The most popular size is about 7-by-8 inches (e.g. Berenstain Bears); we usually group them together. Another popular size is about 12 inches tall and they're often worth grouping too, but it's harder because they flop over and spill onto the floor. Then there are the miscellaneous sizes. Anything smaller than the 8-inch size doesn't sell well. The other point about staplebacks is that they damage easily. While they DO sell, they should be culled often to get rid of those that have degraded due to shelfware.
  • I Can Read: The I Can Read series is about the same reading level as staplebacks, but more durable. Instead of a staple, the binding is glued and you can read the title on it. They're about 9 x 6 inches and group together well with series of comparable size, e.g. American Girl.
  • 7 x 5-in Paperbacks: Our most popular size paperbacks are 7x5 inches, with a glued binding. These include many series: Little House on the Prairie, Goosebumps, Magic Treehouse
    , most of Roald Dahl's work and many, many more. Unlike staple books, these can sell even if somewhat worn, although of course the better the condition, the better the sale. Books in this format sell very well and should be stocked as soon as we get them!
  • Pocket Paperbacks: Sadly, pocket-sized paperbacks move very slowly in children's books. The exception seems to be fantasy, e.g. the Redwall series (author: Brian Jacques), and to a lesser extent, Narnia and Lord of the Rings. It may scarcely be worth having a children's area in this format at all.
  • Thin Hardcover: Hardcover books less than a quarter-inch thick tend to be heavily illustrated and aimed at young readers. The best known may be Dr. Suess. These sell well. However, the shorter the hardbound book, the less likely it seems to be to sell. Hardcovers under 5 inches tall should be culled frequently.
  • Regular sized hardcover: Hardcover books more than a half-inch thick, with almost entirely of text with few illustration, are for middle-schoolers and up. They merit their own section mostly to simplify shopping but also because it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish children's, young adult, and adult works. Note: If the dust jacket is missing, the sellability is much reduced. Older hardcovers (e.g. Best In Children's Books) sell slowly or not at all; it is probably better to put them in a "nostalgia" area for adults to pick over.

Special Authors

Some authors to know:
  • Dr Seuss, as noted above, sells very well; always stock, never pass on except for serious condition issues. Exception: "The Grinch That Stole Christmas" should be saved for the holiday season; we never have enough copies (in December 2008, we set out five copies and all were sold in a day!)
  • Roald Dahl: sells very well and should always be stocked; however "Switch Bitch" is very adult fiction. "Boy" and "Flying Solo" are autobiographical and, while not inappropriate for children, might be more interesting for adults ... if they could get past the cover!
  • Carl Hiassen: Most of his works are adult, but "Hoot" is for kids.

Difficult Formats

Some book formats have special issues
  • Pop-ups: Pop-up books can be totally delightful! However, they are easily damaged; before stocking them, check carefully (...which can be fun! ...) and pass on ruthlessly. They can be easily damaged while on the shelf as well; we have a special labeled holder for them.
  • Noisy Books: Books that make sounds when you push buttons are very popular. However they don't seem to sell if we price them at a premium. Often the batteries are worn. If the book makes any sound at all, it's worth stocking if only for its value in keeping children entertained while parents shop. For this reason, I keep noisy books on the lowest shelf, so the youngest child can grab and play. They aren't big sellers but they encourage lingering!
  • Board Books: Board books use light cardboard for pages. They sell very slowly, and not at all if worn at all. I speculate that they are mostly intended for an age range that might still gum their books, and therefore parents are reluctant to buy anything but new. They don't seem to be worth much shelf space.
  • Sticker books & Coloring Books: Usually sticker books come to us partly used and just plain unsellable. I try to keep a few coloring books, carefully checked for being unused, in a labelled box, but they are not big sellers.
  • Unusual formats: Most unusual formats don't sell well. Books printed on cloth or foam, or with a spiral binding, seem to sit forever taking up space. An exception is the Wiggle Eyes series, e.g. Max the Minnow, which feature googly eyes; these sell very quickly

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Food Stamps Are Not Pork

Technically, you can buy pork with food stamps, so in some sense food stamps can be a proxy for pork

But in the sense of "corruptly ineffectual public spending" it's clear that food stamps are not pork.

I know what I'm talking about. I've been there.

In the mid-1960s, I was a preteen in a working-poor family. My father worked; my mother raised the kids. They were Catholics, which meant that the had to have sex and not to have birth control. The eleven kids were God's will.

Feeding them, however, was difficult to a poorly educated millhand. At one point, his back was injured at work. We never learned the details but it involved surgery and wearing a barrel-shaped plaster-of-paris from his hip to his chest, in the heat of the summer. This I remember quite well, and it could not have been comfortable. More to the point, he couldn't work. There was no-one else to feed the family.

For a while, there was government surplus food. It came packaged like something from the Army or the Soviet Union. There were large brown paper bags labelled "BULGAR WHEAT" in black sans-serif font. What you did with bulgar wheat was never clear, but the bags were big.

There were bags of CORNMEAL (which made terrible mush but GREAT corn bread; I wish I had some of that right now!) and COLD ROLLED OATS (it made oatmeal so lumpy I still go EUW!), clear plastic bags of "RED KIDNEY BEANS" (good with the cornbread!), cans of "MEAT PRODUCT" (very strange stuff) and, worst of all, boxes of "MILK, DRIED". It seems to have been designed to be reconstituted by machine, perhaps a shipboard mixer. With the tools we had on hand (a pitcher and a big spoon) it turned out terrible stuff!

Food stamps were a great improvement over surplus food. With them, you could go to an actual store and get actual food. Mom was very good with figuring out sales. She'd often negotiate for slightly spoiled fruit, and then either cook with it, or dry it so you couldn't tell.

Also, the dried milk you got at the store could be mixed into actual milk without a machine. It and the other food at the store was aimed at the general public, not people with access to institutional kitchens.

At first, there was a problem with making change. The foodstamps were denominated in whole dollar units (like money: one, twos, fives, etc.)
It was rare that a grocery purchase would come out to an exact dollar amount. At first, the storekeeper would write a chit for the change, e.g. 13cents.
You'd use the chits as an oddly-denominated food stamp. This was a pain, and wasteful at time. Eventually the government figured out that giving out under a dollar's worth of change would be o.k.

(Of course, giving change also gave Ronald Reagan a story to tell, about a woman and an orange and a bottle of vodka. But he was a notorious liar; I doubt anyone actually believed him who thought about it, they just agreed with his sentiment.)

I mention my actual experience as background to my thoughts on the use of foodstamps today.

Food stamps are one of the most effective ways of stimulating our economy; the money is spent locally and immediately, generating local jobs. People working at those jobs spend their wages, generating more jobs. Due to this multiplier effect, our government gets back something like $1.50 in tax revenue out of every dollar spent on food stamps.

It also serves the important public purpose of nourishing children during the years of brain formation so that they are more productive as adults.

Food stamps also stabilize the farm economy, by ensuring a market for farm products when the economy was slow. Before food stamps, our government bought up and distributed surplus food; is it not better to let the private sector do that (through private brands, warehouses and supermarkets) than the government-run Commodity Food program?

Finally, food stamps are an efficient means of carrying out the command "Feed the hungry" as ordered by George W Bush's favorite philosopher.

I go into this at length because there are still people who object to food stamps as pork.

Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't, but food stamps are a great idea. If you don't like them, come up with something better!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Syr Randall and The Parsleye

Years, nay decades ago, I was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). It was fun dressing forsoothly and delighting in combat with my peers on the windy plains of Michigan and thereabouts.

One problem is that I had only the vaguest notion about athletics. I was healthy and reasonably large, but mostly I got by with cheerful daring rather than skill and practice. Ah youth!

Not that my friends & I didn't try to improve our performance by thinking ( opposed to, say, aerobic conditioning...). We understood that dehydration was a problem in the long-drawn out woods battles. Rumor had it potassium replenishment would be helpful ... but how to carry potassium-bearing foodstuff into battle?

"Bananas are a good source of potassium!" we cried! But there are two problems with carrying those golden fingers into battle: imprimis, they didn't look like anything I'd recognize in any period illustration, and secundus, they splatter when hit. I didn't want a pouch full of banana jelly in the hot hot sun.

"Parsley!" said a friend (was it Jon the Hobbit? I don't recall). "Just the thing! Laden with potassium, conveniently bite-sized, and splatter-resistant!"

It sounded ideal. I gave it a try. You may infer the results from my expression:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Your Brain: The Missing Manual

I just finished Your Brain: The Missing Manual, a delightful book that presents a lot of technical but helpful information in a very accessible way.

As the title suggests, this is a user manual for the brain. It starts with a chapter on the physical structure, proceeds to routine maintenance (food, sleep) and moves to more advanced topics (e.g. memory, perception, sex). While it is true that you could get roughly the same raw content by reading neuroscience articles in Scientific American and the like, this work provides unique value by organizing and formatting the material into a user manual. Brains like manuals!

Typical of this book's efficient design is that it not only includes citations and weblinks to more information,but maintains a webpage of these links so that (A) you don't have to copy them out of the book and (B) they can can be kept current:

The work is honest about some of its concepts being frankly speculative; there's a lot about the brain that we haven't figured out yet, but we can still use unproven hypotheses to tinker with the behavior of our own brains. My favorite example of this is the concept of emotional "set point": the unproven idea that a brain may have a basic degree of happiness from which it temporarily varies according to circumstance, but generally returns to over time. Some people, the manual explains, may see being immobilized by kidney stones as an opportunity to catch up on crossword puzzles, while others see winning a multimillion dollar lottery as a sad burden. Rather than suffer distress and frustration when we keep returning to a set point, or continually seeking external explanations for our emotional states, we can more profitably try to acknowledge our emotional bias as something in our head and work from there on objectively useful behaviors.

Because it is so well organized, this work would be suitable for use not only by adults but by teens. If you can code or follow a shop manual, this is for you!