It’s no secret that authors love independent bookstores. They are a gathering place for like minds, a welcome respite from our fast-paced, plugged-in world, and a hub for knowledge and fun. Hardworking, creative independent bookstore owners and their highly trained employees design programs that serve the community and they actually read the titles they sell. Today I’m honored to welcome Mike Russo, of the fabulous, family-owned, Russo’s Books, in Bakersfield California.
Mike: Thanks for inviting me. My parents, siblings, and I have a long history in retail. Ultimately, this led us to purchase a small used bookstore 22 years ago. At our height we had one used and three new bookstores in Bakersfield. With recent economic woes, we continue to operate out of our single flagship store as well as online at www.russosbooks.com. Every day is a challenge. Every day is filled with books and family. Every day is a blessing
Me: In your opinion, what makes an independent bookstore special?
Mike: As the book industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace, libraries cut back hours, and national chains close, we see an increasing need for independent neighborhood bookstores to fill the void. For all the press received about eBooks, online communities, and national chains, few other venues have their pulse on the local community better than your locally owned and operated business. Saving 59 cents on Amazon is nice. Having a friendly, welcoming book-loving staff just down the street, complete with engaging events and valuable book recommendations, is a tad nicer.
Me: Russo’s is known for creative events and programs for kids. Tell us about a few of them.
Mike: We have 35-50 events a month, including Children’s Song & Storytime, Trading Card Tournaments (Pokemon, YuGiOh, etc.), several book clubs, and author signings. One very successful, ongoing program is our Youth Book Advisory Council. Over the summer the Advisory Council came up with 12 book-themed parties held on successive Friday nights (from Harry Potter to Dr. Seuss). It’s lots of fun.
Me: How did you come up with the idea for the Youth Advisory Council, how long has it been in existence and what do the kids do?
Mike: The American Bookseller Association (ABA), of which we are a member, does education seminars for independent booksellers. At one of their events a fellow bookseller mentioned the idea of having a core group of customers act as a focus group for various sections of the store. We thought this idea lent itself well to middle-grade and YA titles, so we took the idea and made it our own.
We asked teachers/librarians from 20 area schools to nominate one student to represent their school, 5th-12th grade. Our first meeting was in April 2010. Since then we have met monthly. Kids are briefed on industry news, probed for trends they see amongst their peers, asked to help with in-store displays, encouraged to recommend in-store events, and to talk about books/movies they’ve enjoyed. Members may also select Advance Reader Copies of forthcoming titles sent to Russo’s by the publishers (thus they are the first to read them) and they receive a gift certificate after every three meetings attended. Each member is encouraged to talk up reading and/or Russo’s to their friends, on the internet, and at school.
To aid in this endeavor, they each have a personalized webpage. (click here www.russosbooks.com/youth to see current members’ picks) The kids have free reign to select any age-appropriate book they have enjoyed. I sometimes edit their reviews for grammatical errors, but I’ve never had anyone ask to post an inappropriate title or review.
Me: That is such a great idea! Can you name a couple of students participating in the Youth Advisory Council?
Mike: Kelsey is our ring-leader. An avid reader now in 11th grade, she has been attending our events since 3rd grade. She engages other members in conversation, comes up with great ideas, and always has a poignant opinion. (see Kelsey’s page here: www.russosbooks.com/Kelsey)
Nicole is now in 6th grade. When we started, she was only in 4th grade and her teacher begged us to accept her (we had asked for 5th graders or older). (see Nicole’s page here: www.russosbooks.com/Nicole)
I snagged Nicole and asked her join us. She is a delight and an accomplished reader.
Me: Nicole, how did you get involved with Russo’s Youth Advisory Council?
Nicole: My school librarian asked if I’d be interested in joining. I volunteered in our school library during my recesses and the librarian got to know me and noticed how much I love to read. There is only one representative from each school from 5th through 12th grade. I was still in 4th grade when asked, so I’m the youngest member.
Me: Describe what you do with the program and tell us which activities you like best.
Nicole: We meet on the first Saturday of each month and learn about the book industry, discuss books that are being made into movies, hear about new releases, talk about the books we’ve read, and plan events for the store. I like hearing about the book industry and what’s going on around the country in the book world.
Me: Nicole, name a few favorite books that you’ve reviewed on your Russo’s webpage.
Nicole: A few favorite books I reviewed are: Paint the Wind by Pam Munoz Ryan, A Dog’s Way Home by Bobbi Pyron, Saving Zasha by Randi Barrow, and The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan.
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Me: What’s your favorite thing about Russo’s Books?
Nicole: My favorite thing about Russo’s is that everyone gets such personalized service and the employees get to know the customers. Also, there are a lot of activities and events for kids. It’s a fun place to visit.
Me: Mike, I think you have a life-long fan in Nicole. To wrap up our interview, tell us what do you love about the book business? What is difficult?
Mike: Books are knowledge. Books are information. Books are entertainment. Being able to provide books for our hometown is everything. Every small business has its daily challenges, made all the more difficult by the poor economy. Still, it has been a great ride and we continue to look forward to serving our hometown as long as they wish to have us.
Many thanks to Mike Russo and Nicole for joining us today. Three cheers for Russo’s Books! Visit them at 9000 Ming Ave # I4, Bakersfield, CA 93311-1321 or call (661) 665-4686 and check out Russo’s Facebook page.
Do you have a favorite independent bookstore in your hometown? Leave a shout-out in the comments below.
Diana Greenwood is the author of Insight, available now from Zondervan. She lives in the Napa Valley with her fat lump of a cat and shops at her local indie, Copperfield’s Books.