Children’s booksellers spend a lot of time watching families. Not in a creepy way — really, we’re just a captive audience who are a bit trapped on the shop floor. We might be busily carrying boxes or shelving titles when customers come in, but then we need to make ourselves available for questions, to provide suggestions, to ring up and wrap. We wait for parents to instruct the children about proper behavior in the store (or wish they would), we wait for careful perusal of the first display table, we scan for that raised eyebrow and expectant question of the “mom on a mission” — “I need a gift for an eight year old, and I don’t know her at all!” or something that we can latch our bookselling expertise to.
While we wait, we also keep an eye on the children. Bless their hearts, as they tear through the store with the energy of wildebeests or the reluctance of a sibling who is just along for the errand ride, with hopes of an ice cream stop later. We engage them in conversations, slide new titles across displays as they exclaim over a familiar cover (“Look! That’s the book our teacher read to our class!”) and we mentally plot their likely trajectory through the shop, checking for errant step stools left in aisles, rolling shelf ladders not secured, or tempting open displays of pens, tiny rubber balls, or anything that will scatter and roll under fixtures when it is inevitably upset. We don’t want to impede their discovery in any way, but we do want to prevent the unhappy accident that will cause a parent to exclaim that “it’s time to go home, RIGHT NOW.”
While adults frequently ask for recommendations about what to buy for the kids, they rarely ask for bookseller wisdom on how to visit a bookshop with several children in tow. After a long afternoon of watching tantrums, picking up several overturned bins of impulse items, and carrying a half dozen titles back to the stock room to be removed from inventory as damaged, I’m going to channel my parenting advice into one brief list, titled WHAT THE BOOKSELLER WISHES YOU KNEW:
- Please don’t say “We’re not buying anything. We’re just looking” in a loud voice as you enter the store. Not only does it turn your arrival into a closed-lips-bookseller-smile greeting, but you have basically just challenged your children to convince you otherwise. If you are really just looking, the time to discuss that is when they ask to purchase, when you can consider the validity of the request. You might change your mind. They might not ask for anything. Either way, you have not started an outing with a sense of doom.
- Cellphones are so convenient, aren’t they? And the ability to have a (loud) conversation with your best friend about her philandering spouse, or the intricacies of her upcoming plastic surgery, or your mother-in-law’s latest dinner party is just terribly tempting…. but please, do it in the car. While your family may be accustomed to lengthy discussions about wound drainage, other people’s children (and employees) may not. In addition, you might use that energy and effort to…
- Pay attention to your kids! They want to show you things. They want to discuss books they like, give you clues about their interests, laugh at silly covers and fun impulse items, and make suggestions about things that their siblings would like. This is a language-rich environment — share the wealth with them!
- Books are fairly durable, but they go from sale-able to the dog’s dinner status very quickly, if we’re not careful with them. Your toddler probably will leave the store with a board book, so he really doesn’t need to pull all the graphic novels off the shelf, and it’s not quite as cute as you think when he methodically takes all the greeting cards off the spinner and drops them into the toy shopping cart. Shopping is a skill, and it needs to be modeled. It’s easy to say “Isn’t that neat? Shall we look at one of those? Can you hold it this way?” and move from a situation where a child is destructive to one where he can be praised for handling items with care.
- Asking a young reader to pick out a book is a great exercise in personal choice, and requires a bit of time, just like it does for an adult. Can you imagine someone standing behind you at the airport kiosk, saying “How about this?” every 15 seconds, over and over, or worse “That’s too easy for you. You should read something harder” as you try to find something to entertain you on the flight to Chicago? Our stores are significantly bigger than that, and have lots more options. Instead, how about inviting a child to make three choices, keep them in a stack, and then make a choice at the end? A parent, too, can grab three selections for the child’s consideration, and then compare the two sets of options. The worst outcome of that situation is a “future reading list” — hardly a problem at all. This is one time that a quick photo on your phone will not raise my ire, but rather my respect — and you’ll teach your kid about making choices.
- We have a bathroom! It’s open to the public, and has a lovely sign. There’s a changing table, extra diapers, and even room for your stroller inside. Oh, how we’d be happy for you to use it, and take your toddler from the train table along — he needs to go. Trust me on this.
- Let your kid ask questions, and don’t hover. Reading is a personal thing. Conversations with trusted adults are rare occurrences in many children’s lives, and the neighborhood bookseller is just one of those options. Learning to ask for what they need, get explanations for things that everyone assumes that they already know, or simply to voice an opinion are just a few of the stepping stones to growing up. Let those steps happen in a place that’s kind, familiar, and open to new ideas. We’re happy to wait a minute or two for them to compose their thoughts, come up with the right words, and finish the sentence. Sometimes, those are the most thoughtful conversations we have all day, and usually, they’re our favorite thing.
- Clean up. We will re-shelve as many books as you’d like to look at without a second thought. In fact, I frequently tell my staff that a full book cart is a sign of a good afternoon — and the alphabet is our friend. But if your child enjoyed taking apart a display, setting up all the dinosaurs in a row across the floor, or pulling out each and every Beanie Boo to pick out the one with the best facial expression… show them how to put those items back. It won’t be perfect. We will still straighten and arrange and re-align — but we’ll do it with a smile because our young friend cared about putting things away. Don’t be the parent that encourages walking away from messes. We have enough of that kind of thinking in our world already.
- If you don’t plan to buy anything, that’s OK. We understand that just visiting us is important, and we love to see you. But if today is NOT a buying day, let’s not engage in bargaining behavior. Some children will whine. Some children will beg. Some children will cry. All of that is OK, and honestly, we don’t really hear it. What does break our spirits, though, is the anxiety of listening to a frustrated parent who is slowly losing their cool, who begins to berate the child for their behavior, and who caves, usually ungraciously, to the child’s demands. Kids want limits. We all do. As a parent, you are the safe person to push against — they can act out and know that you will love them just as much. Be that limit on the days that you need to. It’s OK to say “no,” thank the shopkeeper for the visit, and leave — as long as you do it fairly quickly. Don’t ruin everyone’s afternoon, and let your child know that sometimes, we just come to the bookshop to look.
- There is no judgment here, and grades and reading levels and lexiles are just ingredients in the cookies. So whether your child is a bookworm or hasn’t found his favorite flavor of reading quite yet, we’re not keeping score. Tell us what she really likes, and if you don’t know, bring her here. Every child is gifted, and every book is a gift. We’re good at this. Let us help.
I feel so many emotions after reading this post. I’m 72 years old and do not have children of my own. However, I have “borrowed” other peoples’ children for several hours each day for over 40 years as a teacher. Spending time with youngsters can be so enjoyable. There is a saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”. I wonder if we could also say “it takes a village to raise a PARENT”?
As a “treasurer of books” (much stronger than a book-lover) I cannot express how angry and sad I feel when walking into the children’s section of a bookstore and seeing so much of what you have described. I don’t know how you are able to replace, straighten, clean up, put back, etc. day after day and week after week without burnout. Youngsters who wish to drive cars have to prove knowledge and skill before obtaining a license. If only people who desire to raise a child had to do the same!
Kids can be so responsive to instruction and so willing to learn when they are treated with respect and attention. Your post contains very important suggestions and insights. I hope it is copied and placed in every bookstore, newspaper, library, school, and any other place where parents find themselves. How about sharing the message on billboards “WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS PARENTS WHO PARENT”?
Thank you for taking time to write this.
How very kind. And wow, a 40 year career as an educator? I am in awe, and so very thankful that there are people like you in the world. And I love your term “treasurer of books.” Thank you.
Cynthia, all of this resonated, of course, and the following lines made me laugh out loud: “Can you imagine someone standing behind you at the airport kiosk, saying ‘How about this?’ every 15 seconds, over and over, or worse ‘That’s too easy for you. You should read something harder’ as you try to find something to entertain you on the flight to Chicago?” SO TRUE, and hilariously expressed.
Airport gift shops are the “free zone” of self indulgent commerce in my opinion. Trashy novels? Go for it. Extra-large chocolate bars? Help yourself – you’re hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles an hour on the plane, so surely those calories can’t move that fast, right? Do you NEED a neck pillow that’s printed with giraffes? Of course not, but it will make that flight more fun. Also, I think we all need to read stuff sometimes that has no nutritional value – like french fries, they don’t build character, but they are delicious.
One thought from a fellow shopkeeper that might need to be added. If your child is old enough to have money, and chooses to spend it on an item, please allow them to get out the money, unfold it, separate it, count it, and give it to the cashier. Allowing them to make a transaction, no matter how long it takes, is important for their self esteem! It also teaches about the value of money. Our stores are safe places to put on the training wheels of life skills!
Gwen, this is a lovely addition. I often think about those times I’m traveling in a foreign country, trying to make sense of the currency while at the front of the line to get my coffee (it’s always the coffee with me.) That flustered feeling must be a lot like being a small person in my store, suddenly having to count out dollars and change in front of an audience who clearly knows what to do and is getting impatient. We can all breathe more, can’t we?
I couldn’t agree with you more. I find it so frustrating when parents hustle a child out of the way when a youngster stops to check out something that catches his/her eye, etc. Hurry, hurry, hurry and apologizing as they go only teaches that the ” imagined” needs of adults are more important than the needs of their own child. Many of us realize the importance of treating the child with the same respect we give to an adult. Let the kid discover he/she is holding up the line and then teach him/her to say “I’m sorry”. I’ll bet most folks would say, “that’s OK, take your time.” Self- esteem and skill-building rolled into one.
Why PW? It seems like articles like this are shared among booksellers and published in an industry publication. I’d much rather it be published in a parenting magazine and shared among parents.
Hi, Jim! It’s true, many of us who are reading/writing/discussing things here are booksellers and publishing folk. So feel free to share away! I have copied many of my colleagues wonderful columns in my store newsletter and shared them on social media for customers and friends. PW was even kind enough to grant rights to a previous blog post to the toy store industry newsletter, where it was passed along through those member stores’ communication vehicles with the public. If you are commenting because you thought it was valuable (and should be shared) then I thank you. If your point was more along the lines of “this doesn’t belong here, or interest me” then I’m sorry, and give me a try next week! – Cynthia