An Exit Interview with the Redoubtable Carol Chittenden

Kenny Brechner -- June 26th, 2014

As you may have heard, venerable children’s bookseller Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., will be retiring in January. Carol is a close pal, and we have shared many confidential communiques over the years, but I suspected that some of her best stuff was still being held in close reserve. An exit interview seemed to be the perfect cover to lure Carol into making an astonishing disclosure or two.

Kenny:  Dog years have a seven-year ratio with ordinary years. How does it work with bookstore years, would you say?

Carol: Drills, rather than dogs, are the correct metaphor here. Bookselling operates on variable speed calendars: fast when the customers are buying, endless when they’re not. To counteract this, I always feel we need to be twice as busy during the slow times, doing all the things that we won’t be able to take care of when we’re gift-wrapping and receiving and shelving double time.

Kenny:  I’ve always been jealous of the shoemaker who had those nifty elves come in at night, though I haven’t found any spell or incantation to summon any. Have you had any luck with that?

Carol: Hah, my secret is secure!

Kenny:   One always seeks to avoid the horror of being ahistorical. For example, people of every generation believe that the last generation was more moral and religious than the present one, that teenagers are running wild, that the world is going to pot, and so forth. Pliny the elder believed that and so do we. It is not likely that there has been a 4,000-year-long greased slide, though. That being said, do you feel that there are in fact deep-seated changes at work in our bookselling world?

Carol: Sure thing. We just don’t know what they are yet. E-books might give way to digital injections, or the internet could mutate into a Bhutanese dance form. Our job is to find what endures. I’m still betting on books.

Kenny:  What are the worst and best publishing trends in your view?

Carol: The same ones as ever: despair and discovery.

Kenny:  What bookselling truism is all wrong?

Carol: That Amazon (toward which none have greater scorn than I) is the enemy. The enemy is resignation. If you’re energized about something – not always easy, and impossible to fake for long – you’ll find a way to fan the spark, and other people will catch fire from there. Use what you have! Do what you can!

Kenny: What Chittenden wisdom would we ignore at our own peril?

Carol: Booksellers are the salt of the earth.

Kenny:  There is talk about the importance of elegy in culture generally and regarding physical books and bookstores in particular. I hate that. Do you see this as a choice between fighting for what you believe in or wallowing in misguided pathos, or am I being simple-minded?

Carol: Thoughtful change isn’t the end. I’m a lousy fighter, and only a fair to middling wallower, but when something is beautiful, promising, poignant, funny, interesting, stirring, full of memories or anticipation, why would one shrug and give up? Just because life isn’t easy doesn’t mean all is lost.

Kenny:  Thanks, Carol.

Carol: Carry on, Kenny.

5 thoughts on “An Exit Interview with the Redoubtable Carol Chittenden

  1. Bina Williams

    Ever since our eyes locked at an ABC meeting in Washington DC in 1987 as New England Booksellers rose to find each other, Carol and I have been pals. When we each thought that having a regional children’s booksellers group like the two in California, then NEBA direct Rusty Browder put us together and, thus, NECBA was hatched. Although I am now a recovering bookseller and a hyperactive librarian, I still feel like a bookseller of sorts and follow Carol’s flawless and well reasoned (and seasoned) take on books… A favorite memory is of Carol staying with me the night she was invited to NYC to meet the great J.K.Rowling in a very rare appearance on this side of the pond. (Alas, I had a work commitment that evening and could not be her “dream date” for the night…grrr.) So, at 1 a.m., I picked up Carol at the train station…..she was gloriously clad in a lovely dark velvet dress and a black velvet cape! New Haven had never seen the likes…and she had a magnificent face painting on her cheek that she managed to keep intact overnight so the folks on the Cape could see it in person! What fun…. There have been other wonderful times to remember and wisdom to follow from Carol. To quote Chits herself (and to stop my tearful gushing), Bookety Bookety, dear Carol!!!!

  2. Sue Carita

    Godspeed, Carol, to whatever new venture you are choosing! I will always think of you as the “Queen Mum” of children’s booksellers. Your wit, forthrightness and sharp observations have been an inspiration, your writing a pleasure to read. You will be missed.

  3. Francine

    I also feel fortunate to have been able to have Carol as my mentor as a fledgeling bookseller. She has the confidence in us newbies to make us think we’re smarter and more capable than we are, until whoosh … we’re flying! “What would Carol do?” is a question I’ve asked myself often. Without a doubt the answer always involves more kindness, wisdom and generosity than I could have ever mustered without her example. I look forward to seeing what her next exciting adventure might be!

  4. ellen scott

    Totally agree with you, Elizabeth, about the legendary Carol Chittenden!! I, too, have been the beneficiary of her wit and wisdom, albeit from halfway across the country. Enjoy retirement from day to day bookselling, Carol, but I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of you in children’s literature circles!!

  5. Elizabeth Bluemle

    Carol Chittenden is and will always remain my gold standard of children’s booksellers. She took Josie and me under her wing when we were just starting out, introducing us to publishing folks and paving the way for us to be included in trade show dinners and events to which we would never otherwise have been invited. And we are only two beneficiaries of her generous spirit. Chitts, as we call her, has tirelessly shared her wisdom, brilliant business sense, refined literary taste, and prodigious sharp wit with colleagues for decades. Plus, she’s a helluva writer. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to be facing out a nice stack of the new Chittenden bestseller in a few years. Thanks, Carol, for the countless ways you’ve enriched the world of children’s books! It won’t be the same without you.

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