Imagine a children’s book store where you could stay overnight, curl up, and read. There is such a place! With us today is Marie Nelson, owner of The Velveteen Rabbit Book Shop and Guest House in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, to talk about her shop and tell stories of her amazingly loyal and determined customers.
SC for Mixed-Up Files: What a dream, to have a bookshop with a guesthouse! How did this combination come about?
Marie: My husband, Jim, and I opened the bookshop in 1994. He is the accountant for the bookshop and all around repair person. He also has a daytime career as a CFO. I was a teacher and have always had books as a huge part of my life. We opened with the help of family and friends.
For the first 10 years or so we lived above the bookshop. The shop is in a terra-cotta Victorian home just off the Main Street in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. The town is about 12,000 residents with a university town nearby and several other small communities. We decided that we might like a little extra room. Clare was born in 1996 and Ben in 2000. The upstairs is now a quaint flat with charm and comfort. Guests are able to enjoy privacy and the amenities of being close to our downtown.
It is fun to meet people from near and far. We have had visitors from Tennessee, Illinois, New York, California, Australia, Iceland and from many parts of Wisconsin. We feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to meet and visit with people from near and far.
MUF: Many towns, even big towns, don’t have a bookstore, period, much less a children’s bookstore. But yours is thriving. How have you made it a success?
Marie: We are a general bookshop with an emphasis in children’s literature. I have a passion for books and have many favorites from my childhood that are fun to stock and be able to share with current generations…. picture books, middle readers and young adult novels. I also have staff who are readers. They have many recommendations in the store and in our newsletter that keep recent releases also in front of our customers. Finding the right book for the customer is what it is all about.
We like to listen to our customers. We are very fortunate to have customers who have stayed with us through the years. Just yesterday I had a customer who would come in with her children and is now purchasing for her grandchildren. Her daughter was also in and purchasing for a young family member. This same customer was also the first to book our guest house when it opened in 2007 for a wedding couple. We have so many delightful stories of customers who are just fabulous. I will always remember when the road in front of the store was under construction for months. At one point you could not get to us unless you really made an effort. We had one longtime customer who actually crawled over a fence one day to get to us because it was just blocked every other way that day. She was in her eighties at the time. It just brought a huge smile to my face.
MUF: I can imagine! As middle-grade authors, we have to ask: say a ten- or eleven-year old comes in to your shop and asks for a good book to read. What favorites, fiction and nonfiction, might you be likely recommend to him or her?
Marie: We really enjoy getting the right book for the right person. I often use the staff recommendations in the store, our Indie Next flyers, the ABC catalog and the staff to assist with finding the right book. We do quite a bit of ordering, also. As an example of an eleven-year-old, I can use my son’s recent reading. He likes fiction and non-fiction. He just finished Holes, read The Outcasts (Brotherband Chronicles #1) and The Invaders (Brotherband Chronicles #2). A book he recommended for the store is Rock of Ivanore. As a nonfiction selection, he has read titles from the Eyewitnessseries.
MUF: What makes your day as a children’s bookseller?
Marie: I like the daily interactions with kids of all ages and grown-ups. I have a local dentist who gives out gift certificates to kids for good check-ups. She just ordered some more gift certificates. I have the opportunity to chat with people of all interests and learn a great deal. People pick up books or browse and we both enjoy learning something. It is also very rewarding when people say how comfortable they are in the bookshop and how they like to bring in family or friends who are visiting. I remember once my 85-year-old grandmother saying when she was visiting the bookshop that I was a good host. This was quite a compliment and I have taken her words to heart. I want people to enjoy visiting and look forward to each visit.
MUF: If readers and their adults from out of town came to visit your shop, are there some favorite family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could get a bite to eat after browsing?
Marie: We are right next to a wonderful Irish Pub called Paddy Coughlin’s. We often enjoy dinner at the pub. I actually have many visitors to the bookshop who enjoy lunch and browsing. The customer who just left was planning to dine at the pub. We also have a shopping and dining guide for Fort that the chamber publishes. I often give this out with recommendations. The Carpe is another great place as is Beauty and the Bean. You can walk to many good establishments in the area.
MUF: And if they are lucky enough to stay in the guest house overnight or for the weekend, can you recommend some unique sights and activities they shouldn’t miss while they’re in Fort Atkinson?
Marie: In the bookshop and the guest house I have a Discover Guide which highlights many places to visit as well as a calendar of events. I also have the Jefferson County Guide for people to have. Both guides offer great activities in the area. I would certainly recommend visiting The Fireside Dinner Theatre. They have delicious Friday Fish and offer a fabulous dinner and theater experience on other afternoons and evenings. The shows are excellent and fun for the whole family. Café Carpe often has a musical offering. You can enjoy dinner and a performance. Fort also offers an outstanding museum. The Hoard Historical Museum and National Dairy Shrine Museum offers educational and fun entertainment.
MUF: Any special events coming up in October? How does the The Velveteen Rabbit celebrate Halloween?
Marie: The second Saturday of every month at 10:30 we share stories. The theme for October is Goblins, Ghosts and Ghouls Oh My! Usually Mrs. Smith reads stories and simply shares good books and engages kids in an activity. A special we have is “with the purchase of a Halloween children’s book get 18% off a Holiday children’s book this December.” This is in honor of our 18th year.
The big Holiday Anniversary Celebration is set for Saturday, December 1. We celebrate with author signings and many in-store festivities.
MUF: Thanks, Marie, for sharing your delightful shop with us. Readers, if you’ve visited The Velveteen Rabbit, or if reading about it makes you think you’d like to, comment to let us and Marie know. Browse the shop’s website at: www.velveteenrabbitbookshop.com.
Sue Cowing is the author of You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda, 2011, Usborne UK, 2012)