This month, with the holidays and the New Year coming on, Mixed-Up Files is saluting all children’s bookstores everywhere, and remembering a few individual gems we’ve featured in 2012.
Kids can get overwhelmed with gifts of things, especially at this time of year. Yet we know that the most lasting childhood memories are not of things but of experiences, especially shared experiences. A good book is both a thing and an experience, shared in a sense with the author and with everyone else who reads it. So isn’t a book the ideal gift?
And it’s so easy! Go online any time of day or night and in less than five minutes you can order your child a book tax-free at a big discount, and it will magically appear a few days later, even gift-wrapped, if you so choose. Or, if you need the book sooner, you can wait until open hours at the nearest chain store where you’re bound to find something appropriate from their large selection.
Whoa. What if, instead, you invite the child to come with you to real children’s bookstore to choose his or her own books, even make a day trip to another town if there’s no such store where you live? What will reward your extra effort?
A unique atmosphere
All online and chain bookstores are alike in predictable ways, on purpose. Chains are concerned with “brand” and want all their stores everywhere in the country to have a familiar look and feel. And there are not many places to sit down (unless you buy something at the café), because they don’t want you to browse and read. They want you to get to the checkout counter.
Each child’s bookstore is different in its own way, a unique world, created by owners who delight in children and children’s books. It’s their dream come true of what a children’s bookstore should be. Can you stay all night and read at Barnes and Noble? You can at Velveteen Rabbit Book Shop and Guest House in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Can you get a moustache out of a vending machine there? You can at Green Bean Books in Portland, Oregon. Are the walls bursting with colorful art and the signatures of visiting authors?Are there live animals roaming the store—cats and chickens and chinchillas? Encounter them at Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis.
There’s a welcoming magic in children’s bookstores that children young and old (and the child in us) respond to immediately.
All physical bookstores have people in them. But in a children’s bookstore, you can be sure these will be people who know children and books. Their main job is to help find just the right ones for a child, and they aren’t required to spend part of their time at a table up front, demonstrating and promoting their company’s latest e-reading device. (Note to children’s authors: these independent booksellers are also the ones who actually read, know, and hand-sell your books).
At first it might seem that a big chain store could offer you a better choice of books than a small independent. But it matters who chooses the books and why. Independent booksellers can and do choose to carry—or not carry— any books they like, and they can display and promote them however they want to. Of course, you say. But most of the titles in a chain store have been selected, not by the people who work there, but by remote company experts who have made a guess about what you will be likely to buy and who need you to fulfill their predictions. Independent booksellers are on-the-spot curators who can sort out quality from hype, and can lead you to their favorites and yours, often less-publicized great finds you might not otherwise have discovered.
Though independent bookstores may offer some modest sales and membership discounts, most have to charge the cover price for a book. You may feel foolish, even guilty, paying full price plus tax for something you know is available at a deep discount and tax-free elsewhere, but in this case you get what you pay for.
A great time with the child
When you make a trip with a child to a children’s bookstore, inviting him or her to enter the atmosphere and browse and choose to his or her heart’s content, you create an experience neither of you will soon forget. Priceless.
The chance to support a community
That cover price and tax you pay at an independent bookstore– where does it go? Some to the publisher, of course, but, unlike the money we spend online or at a chain, the rest goes to the local community. Children’s bookstores stay alive by responding to the needs of their neighbors—listening to their preferences, developing personal relationships with customers young and old, creating unique events and programs for them, and championing local authors as well as nationally known ones. Aren’t such stores, and the communities that have the wisdom to sustain them, worthy of our support?
A chance to vote
Every time we spend money one way rather than another, we are casting a vote for what we value and want to see thrive. So what’ll it be? Amazon and Barnes & Noble* or places like Blue Manatee, Eight Cousins, and The Little Shop of Stories?
Ask a child who’s been there!
*If online is really the only way you can buy children’s books this season, you can still order them through independent stores. Many children’s bookstores fill online orders, including a number of the following that we have featured so far this year:
The Eight Cousins, Falmouth MA: www.eightcousins.com
The Wild Rumpus, Minneapolis MN: www.wildrumpusbooks.com
The Little Shop of Stories, Decatur GA: www.littleshopofstories.com
Bbgb (Bring Back Great Books), Richmond VA: www.bbgbbooks.com
The Velveteen Rabbit, Book Shop and Guest House, Fort Atkinson WI: www.velveteenrabbitcookshop
Monkey See, Monkey Do, Clarence NY: www.monkeysread.com
Or you can go to the largest independent bookstore in the country at www.powells.com or to www.indybound.org and order from them.
If you and the children you love have fine memories of visiting a children’s bookstore, please tell us the story in a comment below. Do you have a favorite shop you think we should feature in 2013? Next month we’ll be talking to the folks at Reading Reptile in Kansas City.
Sue Cowing lives in Honolulu HI, 2,000 miles from the nearest children’s bookstore. She is the author of a middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda Books 2011, Usborne UK 2013)