Let’s be honest, no one goes into owning an independent bookstore to get rich or famous. We do it because we love books and want to share our love of them with other people. Independent bookstores are quirkily curated places where book lovers can rejoice and folks new to reading can discover treasures. This is especially true with a children’s bookstore. New readers and their families can sit for long hours reading together and sharing. Older children can get lost in chapter books, middle grade and young adult books. It’s not just about the books, it’s about making connections, deep connections, with people.
Often these connections are not shared with store owners. Not through lack of thought but through the busyness of life. Every once in a while a customer takes a moment to say thank you and give us a window into what our store has meant to their family. This is why we do this. Not for the letters but because we know that this is happening for many, many families. But it is so lovely when someone takes the time to write.
Yesterday, we received an email from a long-time customer that she is allowing me to share here. First a little background. Sandy and her two daughters started shopping at the store when we first opened, almost 19 years ago. Martha is the older sister and Donna the younger one. Donna has just graduated from college! As is the way with children, once they hit high school, they don’t read for pleasure as often; they would still stop by, just not as much. Then college takes them away. So, getting this letter was especially heartwarming:
“I saw Josie recently and invited her to stop by at Donna’s graduation party. I was serious!! We love you both and you have been such important parts of my children’s lives (and mine)! it is at our house, Saturday 4:30 to 9. It is pretty casual. If you do not make it, pardon my sentimentality but please know that I am forever grateful that you opened your remarkable store in Charlotte in time to teach me how to read and share books with my kids!! It does take a village – especially in my case – and you were important parts of our village! You really introduced me to the world of children’s literature. I am an avid reader but neither of my kids were. Martha was forced to read and had to complete a reading log. Reading is such a source of pleasure for me, I hated the idea of forcing this. So I just read to her and Donna. It ended up being this wonderful part of my life with them. Through you two we read all of the classics (and some new classics). I remember meeting Katherine Paterson in the tent behind the store. I remember getting a British version of Harry Potter. And now they both love to read! So thanks. xo”
I had no idea the impact we had on this family. That we had some small part in creating two life-long readers is perhaps one of the loveliest things I’ve ever heard. This is why people open bookstores. This is why we put up with challenges from Amazon and big box stores. It’s all about connections and the very massive ripple effect books can have on someone’s life. Honestly, only an independent bookstore can do this.
So, dear readers, if you have been moved by your local store, let them know and make their day.
He arrived in a trunk, a very large trunk. On Saturday there were about 20 little ones eagerly awaiting his arrival. These Curious George fans did not know that Curious George wasn’t real, they really believed him to be a living thing. Usually, there are one or two small kids who find the reality of a six-foot high monkey to be utterly terrifying, but luckily we were spared that this time. Only one older kid tried to spoil the surprise and shouted, “He’s just a guy in a costume.”
Well actually, he, on this day, was a woman. A very good friend of the store eagerly volunteered to be George for us. She braved the body pod, the furred feet and the round head fabric head that was so big and heavy, at one point she was in peril of toppling over on her chine when she knelt down to high-five shy kids who had their little hands up. Here’s the thing with character events: I always forget how much kids love these. The adrenaline was palpable when I announced that George would be joining us. These kids, especially the youngest in the bunch, truly believe that George is real and their friend, so to be able to meet him was almost more than some could bear. Children were literally wriggling with joy and flapping in excitement as George made his way down the aisle to the picture book section where the kids were waiting.
This event was brought to us by the Children’s Book Council partnering with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on an “Inspire Curiosity Event with Curious George” The beauty of this event was the support we got. The costume was arranged for us and, best of all, the shipping was taken care of by HMH. Because the costumes are so large, the trunk they come in requires special freight which costs upwards of $140. So, to save that much was wonderful. These savings allowed us to get juice boxes (something I always do at events for kids because they cut down on messy spills) and little cupcakes. The event kit for the event was full of wonderful things we could copy and give to the kids, as well as enough sticker sheets (with some glow in the dark stickers!) to give to all the children.
The key to successful character events, other than promotion, is to give the person in the costume as many breaks as possible so they don’t expire from heat and a lack of air. Really, no one can last more than 20 minutes in the costume and that makes it just about the right amount of time for all the kids to hug or high-five George or get their picture taken with him and then do a craft activity independently from George. Having an escort to guide him is also very helpful. Moving in these costumes isn’t easy, but our George was great, dancing around and then standing outside the store waving at passing cars. This might have been the funniest part, as cars packed with teenagers were waving and smiling, and truckers were blowing their horns. There was something so lovely about adults just smiling and being utterly surprised and delighted.
Finally, the real joy of an author-less event is not worrying about having enough books (we had a good cache of Curious George books) or if attendance will be sparse. Of course, you always want to have a packed event, but the pressure of not having to worry about disappointing a real person does make the event more enjoyable. In the end I think really, seeing 25 kids hugging George was worth it, and even our friend, sweltering in pounds of fabric, agreed.
It is something that I take for granted every day – the smell of books. I live with the smell and I love it. All books, especially new books, have a wonderful smell. Customers, children in particular, often exclaim within in minutes of entering, “Oh, I love the smell of books.” There is so much loveliness in that statement.
I was reminded of the tactile joy of books when a 10-year-old girl came in earlier this week. She was with her father and younger brother and quickly went to the middle grade section. After a few minutes I went to see if she needed any help. She smiled up at me and said that she was looking for “… a good story.” I started talking about a few books. Unlike some kids who are listening to a book talk and won’t touch the book, as if it’s on fire, Emma held the book. She sniffed each one as I spoke.
Her bright eyes crinkled in a smile when I gave her Where the Mountains Meet the Moon and told her to feel the paper. She felt it (if you don’t know the book, the paper is heavier weight and there are gorgeous color plates for all the chapters) and just beamed. Here was a book lover in the making. She cared about the quality of the paper and knew the difference. Yes, she loved the stories and truly enjoyed reading. But she’s reading on a tactile and olfactory level as well and that just heightens the pleasure of holding a book in your hands.
I see customers sneak sniffs of books all the time. Just as Emma did. The smell of books varies. Generally, mass market books don’t smell as good as hardcovers or at least paperbacks with a deckled edge that make it look cut by hand. Some books smell like linen, others smell like a chest discovered in the attic, full of secrets. And each is unique to the reader. All book lovers can talk (or write) for shockingly long times about what the smell of books means to them. The reason we do this is we are comforted just holding a book. I was thinking about other daily objects that I use that give me the same feeling. Nothing even came close.
So, go treat yourself to a new book this weekend. One that smells just right.
Now I’m not saying that Spot the Difference puzzles aren’t an empty exercise taken by themselves. For example, neither you nor the world in general will be markedly better off if you were to succeed in finding all 21 differences in the puzzle below.
Nonetheless, like most puzzles that have a sneaky sort of compulsion to them, spotting differences represents an exercise which has real benefit in bookstore event management. Whenever I try a new event at the store I always step back and look at it to see what made it different from other events, because it is in spotting the differences that real value is found.
Take Children’s Book Week for example – this very week, that is. We are participating this year for the first time, putting on a full day of programming on Saturday, and A Diary Writing Contest with a prize party tonight. I’ve become a fan of Children’s Book Week and when I asked myself what made preparing programming for this event different from previous events, the answer was easy to spot, and that was the palpable sense of support by publishers to work together to make the event a success.
I always feel that Dumas’s Musketeers had it right, the all for one and one for all motif really is gestalt. For rural stores like ours, well outside standard author tour routes, self-sufficiency is often the order of the day. Since the Children’s Book Council, which runs Children’s Book Week, is a trade organization of publishers whose purpose is to support children’s book outreach, the commitment to provide resources for Children’s Book Week goes beyond what I usually have to work with, providing me with more of a smorgasbord than a boxed lunch. And it really helps.
For example we are running a Diary Writing Contest and Simon & Schuster provided us with some great Dork Diaries swag to give away as prizes. A complimentary character costume rental from Random House put story hour on steroids. We also had great support from Macmillan, who provided us with Origami Envelope folding sheets to go with Megan Frazer Blakemore’s appearance. This kind of support made our own original elements come to life.
Our theme is interactivity; I wanted every element of the day’s programs, including the author appearances, to have interactive elements to them, so that the whole event stresses activity and connections. For example, to go with S.E. Grove’s appearance I designed An Age of Verity or Not Quiz. I also looked to climb the ladder in terms of age level.
Here is what we have planned for Saturday.
10:00 – 10:30 Story time with The Poky Little Puppy
Yes he’s going to be here himself! On time!
10:30 – 11:30 Elephant and Piggie Hour: Games and Activities with Betsy Turcotte
12:00-1:00 Experience The Water Castle, Help The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, Solve The Friendship Riddle
With special guest Megan Frazer Blakemore
1:00-3:00 The Great Disruption Comes to Farmington!
With special guest S.E. Grove, author of The Glass Sentence
Take The Age of Verity or Not Challenge – try your hand at The Map Challenge
I’d love to hear what plans your store has!
Jewell Parker Rhodes delivers her closing keynote to booksellers at Children’s Institute 3. Photo by Judith Rosen.
I was so sad that I wasn’t able to attend the ABC Children’s Institute this year, especially because it featured several panels and discussions about diversity in the children’s book world. And I’m monumentally sad that I missed hearing live and in person the beautiful, powerful closing keynote that author Jewell Parker Rhodes delivered on the true meaning of diversity in our field, the change we need to be striving for wholeheartedly and with purpose. But I am thrilled that PW
reproduced the speech in its entirety for all of us to read. I was moved to tears by it, as were the audience members, who also showed their appreciation with a standing ovation.
Here is the link to Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Children’s Institute keynote speech
. (I will also include the spelled-out link here: http://pwne.ws/1bHkkQE. Debbie Reese alerted me to the fact that vision-impaired folks listening to articles cannot access links that aren’t spelled out. This is obvious but hadn’t ever occurred to me, so thanks, Debbie!)
Ms. Rhodes is an exceptional storyteller, which enables her to tackle a topic that can almost lose its urgency under a burden of ‘isms’ and ‘shoulds’ and make it personal, universal, funny, heartwrenching, and heartwarming. I’m SO tempted to quote from it here, but that would cheat the experience of letting it unfold for you the way she told it.
Thank you, Jewell Parker Rhodes! Even though I wasn’t there to hear your warm, passionate words, I give you a standing ovation from my chair, too.
ShelfTalker readers, if you read the speech, please consider sharing your thoughts and/or appreciation (just a line or two is fine) in the comments here. I’d love for Ms. Rhodes to see how far the impact of her words travels!
One of the joys of owning a bookstore is the ability to bring a dog to work. Dogs and bookstore generally are a great fit because dogs like to hang out and most people’s faces light up when they see a dog, especially a puppy, at the store. It’s been almost two years since my old dog, Ink, came to the store. Last week I got a six-month old rescue puppy, Allie, who has been coming to the store. No one is really sure what kind of dog she is, but she appears to be part lab, part whippet and part something else. I do know that she is adored by staff, and customers are starting to get to know her.
Here’s the thing about dogs and small town stores: everyone is just so happy for me. News has spread very quickly that there’s a new dog at the bookstore. People come by just to hi to Allie. Folks see me walking her in town and honk (which terrifies both of us) and wave. People bring treats in their pockets to meet her. They come in and ask how she’s settling in and scratch her head.
Allie has an expressive face and there’s very little that you don’t know about what she’s thinking. So far, she’s been great about not chewing books, but she has discovered our bookstore notebooks (for consignment, invoices and wish lists) and for some reasons finds their recycled covers absolutely yummy. And when caught in the act of chewing something or doing something “bad” she just gets this look on her face like, “I’m not really doing anything bad. It just looks that way.” And it’s hard to not chuckle at her when she’s got an innocent look on her face and cardboard stuck to her muzzle.
The bookstore staff has welcomed her with open arms. While she’s not a barker, she is very bonded with me and if I leave the back area she gets anxious, which isn’t fun for anyone. She also has the legs of a high jumper which makes her anxiety worrisome if she ever decided to bound over the puppy gate by the registers. We have a Dutch door for the office, so she can still hear what’s going on but can’t leap into the register area. I have to remind myself that it’s only been a week and actually she’s doing remarkably well. And honestly, the best part of having a dog at the store again is being able to take puppy breaks and walks.
In a very strange coincidence, at least three other people who either used to work for us, or work next door to us, have all gotten puppies, so it’s a regular canine play group some days! And, we’re selling heaps of The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete.
Sometimes, when I see new juvenile nonfiction titles, I feel as though they’re covered in dust already. I almost feel as though I’M covered in dust. And if I—an adult who loves nonfiction—react that way, I can only imagine how a 10- or 12-year-old would feel.
Some publishers make the argument that these books aren’t for bookstores. They’re for the school and library market. And my reply is, “Exactly.” I’m not sure why we would want to create books that have the most amazing true stories inside look dull and lifeless on the outside. Are we trying to make kids dread report writing as much as humanly possible? Are we trying to discourage their interest in the past, in other human beings, times, and places?
Good book covers of any kind engage readers by inviting them into the wonders within. They might portray an exciting moment of action, or pose a visual question the reader wants to answer, or simply present exciting graphic design that gives a reader confidence that whatever lies within will be interesting and worth their time.
I can sell great nonfiction to kids. Anywhere between 1/5 to 1/3 of the kids who come into the store prefer facts and true stories for their pleasure reading. Let’s give them books they will reach toward rather than shrink away from. I’m not talking about fake-y “Heeeeeyyy!” kinds of covers. I’m talking about smart, contemporary design that respects and admires the material in the book and the ultimate audience it’s aimed at. A book that lures kids into story is golden.
I’ve always felt that great fiction feels true, and great nonfiction reads like the most riveting story. And even kids who don’t think of themselves as enjoying nonfiction actually love it when it sparks their interest. How many times have you told a story to kids and had them on the edges of their seats, and afterward, they say, “Is that true?! Did that really happen??!” They want to know because it makes the story even better for those avid listeners if it’s true. If it really happened, that incredible tale of survival and endurance, that unlikely triumph, that small idea leading to a great innovation — well, that’s a tale that satisfies any reader.
And I think the sales department will reinforce that books that get read, get re-ordered, sell more copies, and live longer in your backlist.
Here are some examples of covers that I think are really successful at drawing kids in:
I’ve noticed that books adapted from adult nonfiction seem to already know the secret of offering covers that grab readers. Books designed with schools and libraries in mind should be just as lively and exciting for kids as books destined for bookstore shelves. Trust librarians to be savvy handsellers. They don’t want dry covers any more than booksellers do. Librarians want the books to appeal to kids! A great cover will give the worthy content inside the best possible shot at being eagerly picked up and perused.
And while we’re at it, make sure your page margins inside those books have enough air that readers don’t feel smothered by the content, especially kids who struggle with reading.
Thanks for listening. Librarians, what say you?