My Bookstore Crush

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 16, 2009

Some bookstores are so legendary, everyone assumes you’ve been there. Or know the owners. "Well, of course you’ve met [famous bookstore owner] Alexandra Pastafagioli," people will purr at BEA, when you’ve never even so much as glimpsed a lock of Alexandra’s golden hair. Or they’ll exclaim, shocked, spraying crumbs from their convention-kiosk cookies, "You mean you’ve never been to Old Possum’s BookPlace?" And you shake your head sheepishly no, because what they’re really saying is, "You call yourself a book lover and you’ve never visited heaven on earth?"

Over the past thirteen years, I must have heard a hundred people talk in this manner about Hicklebee’s, a children’s bookstore in San José, California, and about its owners, sisters Monica Holmes and Valerie Lewis. Valerie I knew at least a little from the pages of her excellent resource, Valerie and Walter’s Best Books for Children: A Lively, Opinionated Guide (now out of stock indefinitely, but surely an updated version is on its way? hint hint, Harper!). And in the past couple of years, I’ve been delighted to meet both owners in person at Association of Booksellers for Children events.

But last week — oh, last week I died and went to bookstore-lover Nirvana. I had a meeting in San José, and not only got to spend time with Valerie (left) and Monica (right), but got the in-person, super-special, fantastic tour of their completely enchanting, unbelievably inspiring store. (I know I just got docked for over-adjectival activity, but that’s what a bookstore crush can do to a person.) I only had my less-than-perfect phone camera with me, so I hope these pictures capture at least a little of the magic.

Hicklebee’s sits nestled on a block of several other inviting businesses in an appealing community in San Jose called Willow Glen. Outside the store is a book cart with a rotating selection of sale titles. Giant red animal tracks on the sidewalk outside (Clifford’s, if you must know) lead customers to the front door. The tracks are part of Hicklebee’s summer reading program, which changes annually; this year’s has a safari theme. (Watch for a separate post on this program next week.) The windows are also eye-catchingly decorated—with enviable skill—in "safari." (Photo at right shows a cardboard zebra-striped painted Jeep, a bevy of animals, and safari-related books.)

You can sense, just walking through the door, the boomerang effect of book love Hicklebee’s has engendered in the community over the past thirty years. Inside, every inch of the place—from the floors to the 22′ ceiling (!) to the insides and outsides of the bathroom doors—is lovingly decorated with art created by staff members, children’s-book authors and illustrators, and customers. It’s a living treasure trove celebrating children’s literature, a grand cave of wonders, an ever-changing embodiment of Valerie and Monica’s passion for the world’s best books for young people. (Above left, the Hicklebee’s elf in stained glass.)

Below are just a few photos of the store’s bright, happy interior.

And some familiar friends along the walls and ceilings Sendak’s Wild Things; David Small’s Imogene and her antlers; the Traveling Pants of Ann Brashares; Rosemary Wells’s Read to Your Bunny in stained glass.

Also, Max in his boat; the bathtub plug from Don and Audrey Wood’s King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub; the backpack from Brian Selznick’s Runaway Dolls:

How about Hicklebee’s Hall of Fame, a truly drool-worthy collection of items, such as Sylvester’s actual (ahem) magic pebble and Dr. De Soto’s razors? If my inner five-year-old had not already been brought out by everything else, this display alone would put me right over the edge. Then, there’s Gordon Korman’s first acceptance letter from a publishing house at the ripe old age of, I think, fifteen (above an original piece of Ghost Tree art). And Martha’s Alphabet Soup can next to an original Don Wood painting. The enchantment goes on and on.

I think it’s safe to say that Hicklebee’s is about the only bookstore that makes a person want to linger in the bathroom. Over the years, every children’s book illustrator you have ever heard of has made a pilgrimage there and left drawings, notes, and scribbles on the doors, walls, even the inner door edges to express their love for the store, not to mention bathroom advice and commentary:


There i
so much more to share — but I don’t want to spoil ALL of the surprises. You’ll just have to make the trip to Willow Glen for yourself, and lose yourself in Hicklebee’s. In the words of the finest writer in the English language, Charlotte, I think Hicklebee’s is simply

Feel free to share your own Hicklebee’s love! I know I’m not the only one with a crush.

16 thoughts on “My Bookstore Crush

  1. monica holmes

    Wow!! What a wonderful description of our store! It makes me want to go out the front door and come back in again…just to remind myself what a fun place I get to be in every day. Thank You, Elizabeth, for refreshing my enthusiasm. We had so much fun showing you the store!

  2. Dianne de Las Casas

    Elizabeth, thank you for sharing. I want to fly to San Jose just to see this treasure of book store. Ok, I now have a crush too – if only from afar! Wow! An author & illustrator’s dream store! Oh yes, and a perfect place for READERS!

  3. Kate Messner

    It does look like heaven on earth! Do you think they would be open to me just moving in here? Maybe a small cot in that Diagon Alley area that could be folded up during business hours?

  4. Shelley Gonzales

    I have been in love with Hicklebee’s for as long as I can remember. My daughters spent much of their childhood roaming the isles and spending all of their allowances there. They still, at 25 and 22, ask for books from Hicklebee’s. I also changed careers so that I could feed my Hicklebee’s habit. I had so many children’s books that I either had to give up being an accountant to become a preschool teacher, or stop buying picture books when my children outgrew them. Being a preschool teacher is wonderful, and thanks to Hicklebee’s and Valerie, I have a great library. Two of my favorite events of the year are the Fall and Spring Preschool Preview nights hosted by Valerie each year. I go, sit in the front row, and become a 5 year old again when she reads many of the new releases. Hicklebee’s is truly a magical store.

  5. Elaine

    I love Hicklebee’s so much. Now I feel spoiled for having such easy access to it, and feeling like I don’t show it quite as much love as I should.

  6. Valerie Lewis

    Elizabeth thank you. Your article has us twinkling/appreciating Hicklebee’s from within. I want to mention that the art in the first pict. was created by our then staffer, Lindsay Ward who, alas, left us for college and is currently working with Terri Schmitz at the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, MA. It was great fun sharing bookstore stories with you–and amazing to read SHELFTALKER, our new favorite blog!

  7. Sarah M Schweppe

    From my countless afternoons reading books in the cozy embrace of Hicklebee’s pillow-stuffed clawfoot tub to the creation of the Wild Things in our backyard (my amazing father actually let me slather on some background paint!) I have loved this store for all the life my memory knows. What an absolute delight to share a great love with so many other fantastic people! From the infinite joy of reading it fosters to the bookstore crushes it inspires, Hicklebee’s will always be a second home for my heart. Thank you Elizabeth for shouting it from the rooftops!!

  8. Lucia

    Wow! This bookstore looks incredible – when my kids and I embark on our children’s bookstore “tour” around the country, this will definitely be on the list of stops.


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