Children’s book fans are in for a treat this month as we chat with Elizabeth Bluemle, co-founder of the fabled Flying Pig Bookstore (www.flyingpigbooks.com) in Shelburne VT.
Sue Cowing for Mixed-up Files: Your book shop is rated tops by children’s book lovers and authors all over the country. What, do you think, makes the Flying Pig fly so high?
Elizabeth: Thanks so much for the compliment! We love books, of course, and the people who make them, and I think that shows. We also respect and get a kick out of kid readers of all ages, and I hope that shows, too. We are also incredibly lucky to have a great staff of friendly, knowledgeable, helpful booksellers.
MUF: How did the Flying Pig come to be?
Elizabeth: Josie Leavitt and I met in New York, where we worked for Literacy Volunteers of NYC. Josie had a high school English teaching degree from Columbia Teachers College, and I had my master’s in elementary education from Bank Street. We moved to Vermont planning to teach and write, but then a little storefront became available in our tiny town. The nearest bookstore was 45 minutes away, and we got a bug to open one. The next two and half months were spent in a fever of preparation; we divided and conquered, and in November of 1996, we opened our doors with 6,500 books and big, exhausted smiles. Ten years later, we moved to a larger space in the next town, and now have about 28,000 books on hand in this location (Shelburne, VT), where we’ve been for seven years. (Readers can learn more about our beginnings in this Horn Book article.)
MUF: Describe the atmosphere of your shop.
Elizabeth:What we strive for is a charming, chock-full but restfully organized, cheerful space with friendly booksellers who are helpful when help is desired but don’t hover about the patrons. There’s a lot of laughter in the store, as well as enthusiastic book recommending, and we often hear from people that they like to come in when they’ve had a hard day. That’s such a lovely thing to hear. What I hope is that we create an environment where all people feel welcome, and where all kids — even and especially those who think of themselves as reluctant readers — know they can find a relaxed place to discover books they really will love.
MUF: ”Restfully organized”—what a great phrase. How do you choose what books to carry in your shop?
Elizabeth:We read and we talk. We read reviews, we read advance copies of books that publishers generously send out ahead of publication, we talk to publishers’ sales reps (a well-read sales rep who also understands the store’s ‘slant’ is a treasure!) and we share recommendations with fellow booksellers. One resource I have loved for years is the NECBA Review Project, a biannual collection of book reviews written by New England Children’s Booksellers Association members. It is enormously helpful for flagging titles that might have flown under our radar. And, we also learn about great books from customers. As for choosing what actually ends up on our shelves, well, that’s art and science combined. We choose what we personally love, and we pay attention to what our customers request and order. We use bestseller lists, especially the New England Bestseller list, which is more in line with our readership, as well as NPR and New York Times Book Review recommendations. We also look at what our bookstore compatriots are selling in order to pick up promising titles we may have missed.Every indie bookstore has its personality and flavor. It’s one of the joys of owning a store. I can stock some quirky title I love that no one’s ever heard of and keep it on the shelf forever if I want to. Now, if I don’t sell it, that’s not good business, so of course I have to remember to recommend those little gems to customers. The bookstore selection is also heavily influenced by its staff; our adult poetry sales skyrocketed 600% when one staffer started working here. And the demographics and regional tastes of the customers who live near the bookstore have a huge effect, too. One town might have a lot more readers asking for classic literature than another. But I do believe that most readers are flexible and will try just about anything recommended thoughtfully and enthusiastically by a trusted source.
MUF: If an 11-year old comes into the Flying Pig and asks for “a good book,” what happens?
Elizabeth: Oooh, while I love YA books, middle grade is my sweet spot. The books that formed me as a human being were mostly the ones I read between 6 and 12. Is that true? Let’s just say that those books were indeed formative, and beloved. So when an eleven-year-old comes in asking for a good book, I ask them for a few titles they’ve loved recently, I ask what kind of reading mood they think they’re in, trying to gauge whether they want adventure, a mystery, something spooky, sad, a cozy book, a book to make them laugh, a book that shows them a whole new world, a book that sweeps them away to another time or place in history, etc. Once I have a sense of the reader’s range of tastes and current mood, I’ll booktalk five or six titles (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the situation) so that they have a nice little stack to choose from. I shoot for plenty of options without being overwhelming — so sometimes that means I only show two or three books to kids who have a hard time with too many choices.
The whole experience is a conversation, so my ideas about what to recommend often change as I go, based on the reactions my booktalks receive in the moment. While kids are generally open to many kinds of books, they often also have some intolerances, usually temporary but very definite. For instance, a few kids just will NOT read books that don’t seem contemporary. Others are allergic to any hint of romance. Some hate talking animals. Part of the great joy of matching books to readers is trying to find the right book at the right time, while perhaps also broadening a child’s notion of what he or she likes.
MUF: What nonfiction and fiction titles, new and old, do you find yourselves recommending to middle-grade readers these days?
Elizabeth: We recommend everything from old, old favorites like Understood Betsy, The Saturdays, and Swallows and Amazons, to more recent favorites like Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Gordon Korman’s Swindle, and Rebecca Stead’s Where You Reach Me, to books that were published yesterday. So many books, to so many readers! For recent books, we’ve been on fire with Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk, Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck, and Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses. Nonfiction hits have included The Dolphins of Shark Bay by Pamela S. Turner and Locomotive by Brian Floca. For a great sense of what we have been featuring in the store, here’s a link to our most recent newsletter, Pig-Tales, which rounds up many of our favorite books from 2013. There are scads of recent favorites in it, and we are feeling very pleased for having included so many books that ended up winning awards!
MUF:Who are some middle grade authors you have hosted at Flying Pig?
Elizabeth: We’ve been so lucky with our guests! We’ve hosted so many fantastic writers, including Norton Juster, Kate DiCamillo, Christopher Paul Curtis, Katherine Paterson, Laurie Halse Anderson, Shannon Hale, Annie Barrows, Lois Lowry, Cynthia Lord, Grace Lin, Linda Sue Park, Kate Messner, Linda Urban, Rebecca Rupp, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Phoebe Stone, Brandon Mull, Catherine Jinx, Matt Myklusch, “Erin Hunter,” Tom Angleberger, and so many, many more. It’s a wonderful field we’re in, isn’t it?
MUF: Any special events coming up at your shop that will be of interest to kids in this age group?
Elizabeth: We are nailing down dates as we speak. One of the most exciting events we have coming up is the launch party for a debut novel by our very first employee, Emily Raabe, whose Lost Children of the Far Islands is coming out from Knopf in April. We also can’t wait for warmer weather to host some “Survivor”-esque games with Chris Tebbetts, co-author (with Jeff Probst) of the Stranded series. Cecil Castellucci may be paying us a visit, as well as Sarah Albee, Erica Perl, and lots of others. Stay tuned to our website and Facebook page for events as they unfold. I have to say, writing these answers has made me want to plan a whole bunch of middle grade events!
MUF: If a family visited your shop from out of town, would there be family-friendly places nearby to get a bite to eat after browsing? And if they could spend all day or more in Shelburne, are there other unique attractions they should be sure not miss?
Elizabeth: Shelburne is one of Vermont’s most-visited towns, because of the extraordinary indoor-outdoor Shelburne Museum (now open year-round), Shelburne Farms, and the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, all within a couple of miles of the store. Families can get a tasty bite to eat right next door to the bookstore at the Next Door Bakery and Cafe or at Rustic Roots or Harrington’s up the road, as well as delicious hot drinks, wine, and baked goods across the street at Village Wine and Coffee. We’re also just a few doors down from the wonderful Shelburne Country Store. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, really. There’s a LOT to see, do, and eat in Shelburne!
Thanks, Elizabeth, for sharing some of the thoughts behind the children’s book gem you and Josie have created at Flying Pig. Readers, if you have visited this shop or think you would like to, please leave a comment. And if you live close by, why not drop in —especially if you’ve had a hard day!
Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012).