Monthly Archives: February 2013

Books You’d Unpack First

Elizabeth Bluemle - February 11, 2013

Moving house is a big undertaking. The new place isn’t quite finished yet, so all of the bookcases aren’t along the walls; in fact, most of the books haven’t even been packed up and moved. Even so, the first thing I did after the major furniture was set in place and the movers had gone, was to unpack a few books to make me feel at home. Those books — the few I packed first — all happened to be children’s books, or books about them. This isn’t because I don’t love and appreciate books for adults, of course. I will have bookcases filled with the Gerald Durrells and Pablo Nerudas, the Louise Erdrichs and Nabokovs, etcetera. But those were not the books unpacked first.
In the office, I put up my books on writing and children’s literature, treasures like Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom ed. by Leonard Marcus, The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Perry Nodelman, The Invisible Child by Katherine Paterson, TalkTalk by E.L. Konigsburg, A Child’s Delight by Noel Perrin, and The Openhearted Audience ed. by Virginia Haviland.
For the bedroom bookcase, I had only packed a very few comfort books, mostly books from childhood. Ones that make me feel cozy, or call up a memorable time and place. Many, many books are missing from this little shelf; my coveted signed Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie (Andrews) Edwards was actually packed first and separately of all the books, but ended up in a box that is still at the other house. And favorites like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and Jo’s Boys and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter and The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit and The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes and Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright and scores of others — including Runaway Alice by Frances Salomon Murphy and a Gary Paulsen-esque adventure book I loved but no one else seems to know, White Water, Still Water by Allan J. Bosworth — will find their way here. But for some reason, these books below were the ones I gravitated toward to make me feel totally at home. I especially adore how shabby some of these are from childhood re-reading.
comfort books
Here’s the list of what’s on this shelf. What would be on yours? (See below the list for a more refined version of that question.)
Our Peaceable Kingdom by John Drysdale (if these photos of unlikely animal and animal-human friendships don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy, nothing will)
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the original translation by Katherine Woods, which I still rebelliously prefer, possibly in part because it’s the one my mother read to me)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (interestingly, the one book that doesn’t maybe belong on this shelf. I loved it, but I only read it a few times.)
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer (So brilliant, so full of wit! I have two versions here, my childhood copy and a newer copy, both autographed. Ahhhh.)
The Complete Adventures of the Borrowers, by Mary Norton (the first “omnibus” I ever encountered, and well-worn from re-reading)
All the small poems and fourteen more, by Valerie Worth, illus. by Natalie Babbitt (these weren’t from my own childhood, but I just love these poems and Natalie Babbitt’s pencil illustrations. I used them when I was a schoolteacher, so I suppose this is a comfort book from another part of my life.)
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, illus. by Garth Williams (the perfect novel; my childhood copy plus a more recent copy)
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (i think this is another perfect novel, and even though there are other Katherine Paterson books that are equally brilliant and fantastic, this one has a special place in my heart)
The Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien (magical!!! another one my mother read to us, and many times over)
The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln Collier (New York City in the 70s – so far from my Phoenix, Arizona childhood and therefore wildly compelling!)
Gray Magic by Andre Norton (this simple fantasy haunted me; I read it a zillion times)
I Was a 98-Lb. Duckling, by Jean van Leeuwen (so charming! This one stands up to the re-reading test and is perfect for tweens)
Mr. Pudgins by Ruth Carlsen (a book I have proselytized for bringing back into print — full of imagination and delight for young readers!)
The Moonball by Ursula Moray Williams (I was mostly fascinated by the idea of the kids discovering a ball made of a color they’d never seen before and used to twist my mind into a pretzel trying to visualize such a thing)
Case of the Marble Monster and Other Stories by I.G. Edmonds (these classic, clever Judge Ooka stories from Japan would still captivate 7-10-year-olds)
She Was Nice to Mice: The Other Side of Elizabeth I’s Character Never Before Revealed by Previous Historians by Alexandra Elizabeth (Ally) Sheedy, illus. by Jessica Ann Levy (a marvelous book written by the future actress Ally Sheedy as a child and beautifully illustrated by her thirteen-year-old friend, this is still my favorite book about Queen Elizabeth I)
The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart (little witch boarding school! What wasn’t to love?!)
Twenty-Five Dragons by Eleanor Coerr (one of my earliest introductions to Chinese culture and art; a lovely story)
Magic in the Park and The Witch’s Buttons by Ruth Chew (great young magic books; I’ll be blogging about these books very soon!)
The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase (soooo good, so creepy)
The Silver Crown by Robert C. O’Brien (a wonderful, complex fantasy for fans of A Wrinkle in Time)
Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh (funny, sarcastic, unflinchingly honest about families and foibles; one of my all-time favorite books)
The Three Toymakers by Ursula Moray Williams (loved the forest village setting, the wolves, the toymaking, the suspense and just enough danger to have me mesmerized again and again. And Marta, the tempestuous, impulsive, spoiled talking doll!)
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (with Gilly, all the small poems, and Our Peaceable Kingdom, the only one(s) not from my childhood. I love this beautiful, gloriously written and felt book.)
I love all of these books below, and I’m sure some wouldn’t pass literary muster today. But they ignited my childhood imagination and fed me in a myriad of ways.
Dear Readers, if you were to move, and pack up just one shelf of favorite children’s books, what would you include? Especially, what would you include that aren’t considered classics?

What’s That Smell?

Josie Leavitt - February 7, 2013

This is not a question many non-food businesses want to answer. A bookstore should smell crisp, like brand new books. There shouldn’t be a smell that makes people ask you to identify it. Sadly, this week we battled this kind of smell. It assaulted you when you first came in and only grew stronger the farther into the store you went.
Monday found me almost gasping by the end of the morning. I spent much of the day on my knees sniffing corners and air ducts to search for the offending odor. After a half hour of sniffing, I was certain that the smell was a dead animal, probably a mouse. Sadly, the mouse seemed to be in the heating duct. So, picture this: every time the heat turned on, the dead mouse smell intensified. We tried turning the heat off, but then got too cold. We turned the heat up and then opened a window.
Finally, we contacted our property manager who couldn’t get anyone here until Tuesday. My brave staff endured the odor while I found a sudden and urgent need to run errands. Tuesday found staffers placing dryer sheets in heating vents. So now, we’ve got eau de dead mousie with a touch of Bounce. Everyone left the day with a massive headache. The exterminator came and within minutes had identified the source of the smell. Sadly, it was in a wall, so there was little to do. He did have a magic bag of minerals that he placed above the bookcase that should absorb some of the odors.
To diffuse the nastiness of the smell we’ve created a game for customers: if you can correctly identify the source and location of the odor, then you get an extra discount. Most who have played along can guess the source (one of the hazards of country life is the occasional dead creature in a wall) but none has correctly guessed the location. I feel like meeting the odor with good humor is the only way to make it better.
I decided to write the rest of this from home. My eyes were burning.

Thoughts on Barnes and Noble

Josie Leavitt - February 6, 2013

I have been following the recent news of B&N’s plan to close 20 stores a year for the next decade and what that could mean to the book business. There will be fall-out for the 20 communities those stores are in, for sure. But in a bigger business sense, there will still be hundreds of bookstores that remain open beyond the next decade.
I’m a small business person. So to me, to hear of a 10-year plan to close stores seems like a company is streamlining itself and closing stores that are not as profitable as they need to be. To even have a 10-year plan seems to be coming from a place of confidence, to say that in 11 years they will still be in business. I’ve read that many writers are already lamenting what these closures, or the eventual closure on B&N might mean to the literary world.
Yes, the loss of a chain with so many stores would be a blow. But: their 10-year plan can be someone else’s boon. It’s silly to say, “Oh, no, if they can’t make it, indies surely can’t.”  Maybe the Nook and trying to go head to head with Amazon is what is making things tough for B&N. Yes, e-books are great fun and, let’s face it, the indies have been left behind on that one. We came to the e-book dance party far too late to have e-books help any of us in a substantive way. So, this can be a golden opportunity for all indies to do what we do best: customer service.
As much as people seem to love their Barnes and Nobles, I have customers every week tell me how much more they like shopping with us. Personal service is what distinguishes us from the chains. While there are many talented booksellers at chain stores, the stores are often understaffed and too large to provide individual help. While some people shop at B&N for the privacy, others would like a little more guidance in finding a good book. This is where indies shine. Our stores are smaller and therefore our selection of books is more curated and thoughtful. This lends itself to discussions about books more easily. I love it when a customer says, “I can’t believe you carry this.” There is real pride in what we carry. Our store is not 100,000 square feet, so I every book needs to have a reason to be on the shelf.
So, indies, once again, as with the closure of Borders, this news is actually good news for us. Let’s just keep doing what we do best and let the bigger chips fall where they may. And here’s hoping some new stores open to fill the voids left by the twe20nty closures a year.

Attracting New Customers

Josie Leavitt - February 4, 2013

People forward me the most interesting book-related articles. On Sunday, my young staffer sent me a link for an article from the Guardian about how a Scottish library is trying to get new patrons. They are offering classes.
While this is not a novel idea — a lot of libraries offer educational opportunities — the Mayfield library in Dalkeith, Scotland offered a pole-dancing class as a way to get people to take out more books. Stripper pole dancing classes. I couldn’t help but scratch my head at this idea. Then I really started to think about it, and it’s genius.
The class was open to anyone over sixteen, and it was scheduled to run on Love Your Library Day. What a smart way to get folks to come to the library, if for no other reason than checking out the class. Pole dancing is supposed to be great exercise and it’s my guess that after class folks might want to take out Fifty Shades of Grey, just to keep the mood going.
This whole idea got me thinking about what libraries and bookstores will do to get new customers. Sure, we could have a sale or bring in a great author, but is that enough? Do we need to offer classes in things that have no real bearing on books? Maybe. And what’s wrong with that? The more time people spend on their devices the less time they spend with other people. Bookstores and libraries help keep those real human connections alive. And if it takes a pole dancing class to get someone in the library, so be it. They might take a break and see a book they just have to have and honestly, does it matter what brought them to the library or bookstore? What’s important is that they came and now it’s our job to make them want to come back.
While pole dancing is not something my store is likely to offer, I’m curious what sorts of classes you would like to see run at your local bookstore or library.

When a Cover Can Ruin a Book

Josie Leavitt - February 1, 2013

I know I’ve ranted about my utter distaste of covers with photographs of real people, especially teenagers on them, but a friend shared a cover with me that made me gasp. There is a new book that has the first three Anne of Green Gables in one collection.
I think having the first three books together is a great idea, as folks often read the first one and come racing back for the next two in the series, so it’s good to make their lives easier and let them stay with Anne uninterrupted. The problem is the cover.  See the cover to the left? Does that look like the skinny red-headed, pre-teen Anne I loved as a child? Um, not exactly. The woman, and I mean woman–there’s nothing pre-teen about her, gracing this cover looks nothing like Anne. She actually looks likes she’s the kind of kid who would sneak out of her boarding school to smoke cigarettes with the math teacher.
First off, why is she a blonde? Secondly, what’s with the come hither look? Thirdly, why was this approved?
Covers of books are very important, I understand that, but there are principles that I think covers should follow.
1. The cover, especially one with a photo or drawing of a main character, should actually look like that character. If the main character is a redhead or a person of color, the cover should reflect that.
2. The cover should accurately reflect the time period of the book. The Anne in this cover looks like she just snuck out of boarding school to smoke with a teacher.
3. The cover should set the mood for the tone of the book.
4. The cover should pull the reader in.
I don’t mean to criticize only this book, but it was such a glaring example of a cover gone awry, I couldn’t help myself. So, my plea to all publishers: please stop thinking that only books with photographs sell, because this is not true. And, please design the cover after you’ve read the book.