Today we’re talking with Valerie Lewis, founder/owner of the award-winning Hicklebee’s Books in San Jose, California (www.hicklebees.com). Think of your ten favorite contemporary children’s authors. Chances are at least nine of them have appeared at Hicklebee’s Books and sing its praises! It’s not only a wonderful bookstore and gathering place for performances and author appearances, it’s also a unique and growing museum of art and artifacts from children’s books and their authors.
Mixed-up Files: Hicklebee’s has become widely known and loved among authors and booklovers. How and when did your shop get started?
Valerie: We–four friends– opened our store in 1979 in a small space across the street from our current location. We were not experienced in retail but had young children and buckets of enthusiasm.
MUF: Describe the atmosphere children and their adults walk into when they open the door at Hicklebee’s.
Valerie: One might call it chaos. The physical structure is made up of shelving from bookstores that have either gone out of business or upgraded their stores. While it began because we could not afford new book cases, we find it’s a valuable asset that adds character.
MUF:What do you want their experience to be?
Valerie: I want them to feel warmth with a large dose of magic.
MUF:What about the expansion of your Wall of Fame, which has turned your walls into a museum?
Valerie: We’re running out of walls and doors but it’s a priority so we’ll figure out how to keep it going.
MUF: What are some of your favorite items?
Valerie: I can’t even begin to list my favorites. Probably the most sought after is J.K. Rowling’s drawing on the door. Jules Feiffer’s is the one I touch and continue to admire each time I pass it. David Small’s depiction of G. Bush makes me laugh the most. And Rosemary Wells continues to send us a variety of items from paintings to artifacts.
MUF: It’s apparent from your website that you truly select the books you recommend, because they’re not always the ones on everybody’s else’s lists. Are there a couple of titles , either fiction or nonfiction, that you’re especially recommending to middle-graders at the moment?
Valerie: The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen; Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker and Wonder by R. J. Palacio.
MUF: You must be true book and story lovers, because you also recommend older books you think deserve to be reprinted and become classics, even if readers have to read them at the library! Tell our readers about your unique “Worth the Candle” program, both in the store and online.
Valerie: Our Carol Doup Muller created our “Worth the Candle” program years ago. She reminds us that before electricity people depended on candles for light. But candles were expensive. If you used one it had better be worth it. Ours is invaluable as a resource for the best books published in the past.
MUF: Tell us about your ongoing programs at the store. Looks like you do a lot of literacy outreach.
Valerie: All of us here at Hicklebee’s are deeply involved in promoting literacy and are key leaders in regional and national booksellers associations, including the Northern California Booksellers’ Association which we helped to found. We’ve set up a Resource Room at our store as a meeting place for teachers. We partner with schools and libraries, setting up book fairs and author visits for school assemblies, and inviting schools to create window displays. We’ve adopted Graystone School in Santa Clara county and a school in Kiev, setting up a pen pal program and holding a book drive for them. We’ve worked with doctors to establish a Read to Your Bunny program. We also sponsor family reading nights, hold summer reading programs and have a number of books clubs—including one for adults who read children’s novels— and we’ve organized press conferences for Young Adults to meet YA authors.
MUF: You and your staff actively promote specific titles of books you consider outstanding.
Valerie: Yes, we have our book of the month club and our annual Book of the Year award. This year it’s Black Dog, by Levi Pinfold. We’ve reviewed books for newspapers such as The San Francisco Chronicle and the CBS early show, and we’ve created Lewis Previews, a video series of the season’s best titles for K-6 that plays in libraries and bookstores around the country.
MUF: If a family made a day trip from out of town to Hicklebee’s, would there be family friendly places in the neighborhood to get a bite to eat after browsing?
Valerie: The neighborhood is filled with family friendly restaurants. A stroll on the Avenue usually involves strollers and often pups.
MUF: And if they stayed in San Jose for more than a day, are there some other unique things to see and do they shouldn’t miss?
Valerie: The Children’s Museum is a fabulous hands-on experience as well as The Tech Museum. The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has been in San Jose since the 1920s. Happy Hallow Park and Baby Zoo is another attraction as well as numerous parks.
MUF: Any special events coming up at Hicklebee’s ?
Valerie: Most of our Spring events begin in March. We are in the planning stages now.
MUF: Thank you Valerie for taking time from your action-packed schedule to share some details about your store! And thank you for demonstrating what makes a children’s book store great: love of good books and their readers, a sense of curiosity and fun, passionate dedication to reading and reading communities, and imagination about ever-new ways to foster all that.
Children’s book fans, do you know the way to San Jose? If so— and even if not—I’m sure, like me, you’re eager to treat yourself to a book store adventure at Hicklebee’s as soon as you can. You’ll find Hicklebee’s at 1378 Lincoln Avenue, San Jose CA 95125. If you have been there, please share your experience in a comment, or if reading about the place makes you want to visit, please let Valerie and us know here.
Interviewer Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda Books 2011, Usborne UK, 2012).