“Have you been here long?”
“Eleven years in this location, sixteen overall.”
“I’ve never been in.”
“Welcome, we’re glad to see you.”
“So, do you think you’re going to make it? It seems like local stores don’t last long.”
This exchange at our register happened on Friday, the day before Independent Bookstore Day, which seemed particularly poignant, if not ironic. Our store was covered with IBD displays, the #HoosierBooktour totes were stuffed with tissue paper and lined up behind the counter, and the calendars of May events were stacked by the new release table. The store was loud and chaotic — the weekly Gymboree Art class had just let out from our event room, and preschoolers were zooming toward the train table, and emptying the contents of the impulse item bins into the toy shopping cart (that I forgot to put away in the stock room, again.)
But to this well-meaning (if a bit tone-deaf) customer, we were a new discovery — a retail orphan to be adopted and rescued, tenuous in our very existence, because they were not regular customers. There was no pause to consider the obviously bustling business, but rather, a tacit acceptance of an outdated You’ve Got Mail trope, limiting children’s bookstores to the role of quaint, parochial and somewhat outdated model, a charming “find” to be Instagrammed or mentioned at a lunch date, right after the shoe sale at Nordstrom and the new ramen place near the cycle bar.
I posted the conversation on my own Facebook page, only to discover that shopkeeper friends of all stripes were not only unsurprised, but felt that exchanges like this one were part and parcel of indie business ownership. Comments ranging from wry grins to tacit acceptance filled my social media feed… this, indeed, is the public perception of local businesses much older and more well established than mine. It is not strictly an Amazon problem, or the ubiquitous national monotony of chain stores, or even just a bookstore thing — each and every local business owner I know acknowledged that just awareness of their existence is a daily marketing goal, which in turn is a daily, monthly, yearly, perpetual task to ensure their very survival, no matter how well established they are, or how high their score on Google or Yelp.
My daughter’s high school theater department staged Seussical the Musical this spring, and just a week ago I sat in the auditorium listening to the chorus of earnest teenage Who’s chant “we are here! we are here! we are HERE!” in response to Horton the Elephant’s entreaty to make their land known to the larger world, and save themselves from doom in the pot of boiling oil. In the play, dear Horton, champion of the Who’s, is placed on trial for “talking to a speck and sitting on an egg” — which is EXACTLY how I feel about bookselling to children. We talk about stories… specks on a page that we bring to life by putting voice and emotion to authors’ words, and putting those book “specks” in the hands of children to become real. We sit on eggs — oh, how we sit! — we nurture imaginations and beliefs that are yet to be fully formed in the hearts of the readers we serve, and the authors we support and present. As I filled balloons and set out trays of cookies for Independent Bookstore Day this year, I found myself humming the opening song:
“Oh, the thinks you can think
Think and wonder and dream-
Far and wide as you dare! ”
“When your thinks have run dry,
In the blink of an eye
There’s another think there!
If you open your mind,
Oh, the thinks you will find
Lining up to get loose!
Oh, the thinks you can think ….”
And I realized, in belated response to the new customer who wonders “if we will make it,” that the little people of Whoville, on their speck of bookselling dust, are just fine. We are doing the work we do every single day in our communities. We have a national network of colleagues, supportive authors and relationships with publishers that are not always front-and-center, but are relevant and valuable. We are here. We are here. We are HERE.