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Best of the CRANDIC Spotlight: The Haunted Bookshop still found a way to surprise customers during lockdown


Books bequeathed in a Surprise Me! package from Haunted Bookshop. — Celine Robins/Little Village
Best of the CRANDIC 2021 winner: Most Commendable COVID-19 Mitigation Game, Best Toy Store

The Haunted Bookshop has found clever ways to safely recreate the atmosphere of their beloved store, from the popular “Surprise Me!” option, which allows customers to describe their tastes and let booksellers decide the rest, to online browsing via Instagram (@HauntedBookshopIowaCity), to contact-free sidewalk sales that benefit the Free Medical Clinic.

Little Village asked owner Nialle Sylvan to share the inside scoop on bookselling in the end times.

What happens after a customer orders a Surprise Me! bag?

The first thing that happens when we get a Surprise Me! order involves a lot of incoherent happy noises, because filling these orders has been our favorite activity over these months.

So Josh says, “New order. This person likes…” and it’s usually a combination of things, like strong female characters + contemporary urban setting, or dinosaurs + ponies, and maybe an age range or preferred genre, maybe a not-necessarily-related detail like favorite color or food, and then the budget.

I then run around the store picking books (and if requested, toys) while Josh totals up the purchase and suggests other sections or ways of interpreting the order, and when we hit the limit, I might switch a few items to get the order down to budget or to round out the range of selections, then Josh sends a confirmation email to the requester with a link to our payment processing site.

Have you noticed any trends in readers’ interests during the pandemic?

Unsurprisingly, we have been asked to avoid heavy, depressing, triggering or dark themes — and that’s sometimes as true of patrons who like history as those who like fiction. Also unsurprisingly, we have had a lot of requests specifically for dystopian or epidemic/plague stories, the game Pandemic, etc. A surprising number of patrons have decided to give genre fiction — especially fantasy or mystery — a try.

Nierme, the Haunted Bookshop’s mildew-sniffing cat, gets some well-deserved love from store owner Nialle Sylvan. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

How have you maintained bookseller-customer relationships during the pandemic?

We’ve made a point of being available, by phone, email, social media and (when possible) for in-person browsing, and not just because we miss our regulars. We recognize that everyone has been impacted by the pandemic, that many people have lost or suspended important social and familial connections. We know that play and reading are essential as people spend more time with less companionship, or when loss of interaction or (we hope not) loss of friends or loved ones has made time itself harder to bear. So, we’re doing our best to provide the fun escapes we’ve always offered while also offering our ears and our time, and whatever insight we can bring to bear, to help people along as we all reassess who we are and what matters most to us.

Little Village Best of the CRANDIC is presented by City of Iowa City.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 301.


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