It’s our delightful task in these Indie Spotlights to feature an Independent children’s bookstore each month and to share the well-kept secret that children’s bookstores aren’t going away. In fact they are thriving all over the country because we love them and support them and because no on-line or chain store can match the things children’s bookstores do best.
This month we’re talking with Debbie Pettid, founder/owner of The Reading Reptile—Books and Tapes for Young Mammals in Kansas City MO (www.readingreptile.com)
Sue Cowing for Mixed-Up Files: There’s nothing like a great bookstore name/logo to make us want to visit, and Reading Reptile doesn’t disappoint. How did the name, and the store, come about?
Debbie Pettid: The name came about brainstorming with friends long ago. The idea for a store began after working at Eeyore’s in NYC. The staff was hardworking and knowledgeable and my time there inspired me to open my own store. I was young, naive and determined so went for it.
MUF: Take us inside your shop and describe the climate you’ve created “for young mammals.”
Debbie: The store itself is very organic and always changing. I never purposely set about trying to create a look or feeling, but had a general idea of wanting it to be the “best bookstore ever.” When I look at and read books they inspire me to create, so I do. When you walk in the store, if you look back you realize you have walked through a large mouth (Zabajaba Jungle) The front left of the store is a George and Martha playroom and to the right is our in store bakery Le Petit Rouge which is designed to look like a fairy tale forest. Then depending which way you look you may see… up… a mural on the ceiling from Babar the king and all the vices, posters covering most of the ceiling, a U.S. map just like Scrambled States of America and lots of pieces hanging – Fortune from Fortune Cookies, the gorilla from Goodnight Gorilla, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, the Bear from Milos Hat Trick, Arnie the Doughnut, the boy from Meanwhile plus an assortment of origami, homemade paper, and miscellany. Each wall alcove has a scene from a book such as Go Dog Go, Dr. Desoto, My Father’s Dragon, Snowy Day and on top of shelves or tacked in different places you could find JLo from True Meaning of Smekday, Frances, Doll People, Fire Cat, Tin Tin, Moomins, Caps for Sale, Camille, Frog and Toad, Bill and Pete, Lily and Chester, David, plus others. There are all sorts of stuff nailed, glued, and hung everywhere, crafts kids have made, some dioramas, (Wump World, etc.) some miniature scenes. Most everything is made large and in papermache. Our goal is to cover every surface!
I guess you could say I am obsessed, but I think it is great for kids and adults to recognize characters from their favorite books or want to read the book of the character they see. Books are exciting, art is exciting and there are a million ways to enjoy both. I’m in the store every day, as is my husband and five kids and I want them to be interested in the world around them and be open to possibilities and interpretations and so I have tried to create an interesting world. Mostly I like to make stuff.
MUF: You hold an annual writing contest for young writers ages 5-12, and the deadline is coming up on Monday, January 21st. What role does this contestplay in your shop’s philosophy?
Debbie: With that event we have local illustrators who are nationally published judge the stories. They pick their favorite and illustrate a scene from the story which the child receives. The only rule is don’t plagiarize. The focus is creativity and uniqueness. We have upwards of 500 kids entered each year, and many amazing stories. It is one of our favorite events.
MUF: Tell us about your D.N.A. fest. Curious title. Looks like you’ve established a major annual literary event in Kansas City that engages the community, both kids and adults.
Debbie: The festival is hard work, expensive and definitely worth it. We do our best to make sure everyone involved, (presenters, kids, adults, volunteers, etc.) has a really great time, and are able to leave with lots to think about. We think it’s important to have an event where everyone involved with books from readers to creators can have a chance to exchange ideas and build off that excitement. We also enjoy bringing some of the best authors and illustrators and introduce them to new readers.
MUF: One fan describes your books as “lovingly curated.” You seem to make it a point of pride to introduce readers to great books and authors that aren’t current best sellers but shouldn’t be forgotten. How do you do that?
Debbie: Our books are chosen after having experienced them. Reading them ourselves, reading them out loud, having others read them. We look at the artfulness of the book, the content, the language, the craft. I don’t feed my kids McDonalds so why would I want to hand them the equivalent in a book? Content does matter when you read. “At least my kid is reading” doesn’t cut it. Anyway, if it is something I like a lot, I get it for the store.
MUF: What makes your day as children’s booksellers?
Debbie: Having an inspiring conversation with a customer, making something cool, reading something interesting, eating a cupcake, not wiping up any bodily fluids.
MUF: If readers and their adults from out of town come to visit your shop, are there some favorite family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could get a snack or meal after browsing?
Debbie: Bella Napoli for lunch or Blue Grotto for dinner. Le Petit Rouge for a treat. A little farther away, Aixois for lunch or Chai Shai for dinner.
MUF: And if they could stay in town for the weekend, can you recommend some unique sights and activities they shouldn’t miss while they’re there?
Debbie: Kemper Museum of Art, Little Freshie, Broadway Cafe Donna’s Dress Shop, Shop Girls, Local Pig, Artist and Craftsman, Loose Park Rose Garden, Kauffman Gardens, Berkeley Park for a bike ride.
Readers please note: A very special event coming right up on Reading Reptile’s calendar is an appearance by Minneapolis-based duo The Okee Dokee Brothers, playing songs from their Parents Choice Award-winning CD, Take it Outside,on Saturday, January 7 at 11 AM. USA Today calls the Okee Dokee brother’s music “authentic bluegrass for your little brother.”
If you have been to Reading Reptile, or if reading about it here makes you think you’d like to go, please leave a comment here for Debbie. And if you’ve never visited a real children’s bookstore, why not make it a 2013 resolution to give yourself and a child that unique experience?
Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda Books 2011 and Usborne UK 2013).