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.