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Keeping Bookstores Alive with Ken and Barbie Mummies

A bit of spectacle, a bit of soft sell, plus drinks and perhaps a cheese plate. At bookstores, those elements come together these days to form what are known as "events." They have become de rigueur for booksellers hoping to avoid Chapter 11.

This year, Vroman's Hastings Ranch in Pasadena invited people to an event on Valentine's Day. The purpose: to share their worst Valentine's stories. Then, for good measure, the store mummified Barbie and Ken dolls.

Assistant manager Demetria Togeas removed the dolls' clothes, cut their hair and stuffed it into tiny canopic jars. She bathed their bodies as the ancient Egyptians did, and wrapped them in white sports tape. "Do you know how many YouTube videos there are on how to mummify a Barbie doll?" she asks after the event. "Google it."

Competition for consumer attention in these dark days of economic blues is intense. Thus, in addition to standard author reading-signings, the store has done Twilight parties (booksellers in Bella Swan and vampire Edward costumes), a Curiosity Day party (bookseller in a giant Curious George monkey suit), a used-blanket drive (for pets), and a mini science fair involving potatoes. Not long ago, they brought in a petting zoo featuring a rabbit, a donkey and three roosters.

The donkey stood in the front of the store near the cash registers, beside the magazines.

 "We definitely see a significant boost in total sales when we have events," says store manager Max Probst. For instance, on board-game night, typically four out of seven people who come to play end up leaving with a copy of the game. And when the petting zoo visited, people snapped up animal books and books about farming and those kids' cardboard books that make goofy animal noises.

  Events even beget other events. Before the owners of the petting zoo left, they bequeathed the bookstore a wooden toy horse. That toy horse subsequently inspired a "Cowgirl Party," in which kids learned how to twirl lassos (and buy books on lasso twirling).

  The petting zoo rabbit was so popular that it was booked for a return engagement at the store's Alice in Wonderland party.

But Valentine's Day at a bookstore is a tough sell. "It made more sense to do this one as an 'anti' event rather than a come-celebrate-Valentine's-at-your-local-bookstore event," says Ashley Ravelo, the store's poised 19-year-old event planner, clearing away the last of the plastic cups. "Though bookstores can be quite romantic."

Last year for Valentine's, it was voodoo dolls. The year before, speed-dating. That was the worst. "It was mostly women. And one man," recalls supervisor Teresa Aviles. "It was kind of awkward."

This year, only six people came to share their bad Valentine's memories. But no horror romance stories were told. The sparkling wine went unfinished. The slow store traffic probably has less to do with the quality of the event, though, than with the sucky literal traffic in L.A. The 405 to the 10 to the 110 to the 5 during rush hour is a love connection nobody wants to make.

"People called in asking about it all week," Aviles confirms. "But we close at 8, and it's hard for them to get here in time."

The store holds a post-Valentine's event, however, and it apparently is a moneymaker. "You should come to our Fancy Nancy tea party tomorrow," Ravelo says.

Fancy who?

"Fancy Nancy. She's a character in a book. She wears pretty dresses. She speaks French. She's very popular with little girls."

 Twenty girls, ages 3 to 9, converge on the store the next afternoon. A $9 ticket buys a copy of Fancy Nancy: Heart to Heart, the pleasure of each other's company and treats. Ravelo, who baked pretzel wands and chocolate frogs for the store's Harry Potter party last year, promised crudités and biscuits with jam and tea for the Fancy Nancy soiree.

"It went great," she says a few days later. "The little girls came dressed in pink tutus."

Ravelo started at Vroman's three years ago, when she was not much more than a little girl herself. She was 16. It was her first job. A born organizer, she eventually segued into event planning.

"It's pretty tricky," she says of the components of a successful event. You know that snacks put people at ease, that kids need hands-on activities, that adults can hang with more casual stuff but require a bit of structure, too.

Ultimately, Ravelo says, "There's no checklist." A great event, in fact, is best defined tautologically. "You know it's a good event if people would return for future events."

Which reminds her of how much she's looking forward to the Vroman's April Showers event. It's not tied to any book in particular, but "everyone gets their own little white umbrella to decorate."


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