Imagine a bookstore founded and owned by a world-renowned poet and author for adults and children. Such a unique store exists. It’s Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, created fourteen years ago by Louise Erdrich as part of her passion to ensure that true stories of the native people are told and known, and their laguages not forgotten. Birchbark Books is a teaching store, infused with a generous and welcoming spirit. We’re talking today with store manager Susan White, about whom the website says. “If you are lucky enough to visit when Susan White is there, you will feel mysteriously better all day.”
MUF: Susan, who comes to Birchbark Books, in person and online? What experiences do you strive to provide for native readers? For non-native readers?
Susan: Ours is a neighborhood store, only 800 square ft., but people visit from all over the world, especially from France, Germany, and Great Britain, and from all over North America. Last week we had visitors from New Zealand. People make pilgrimages! Our online catalog serves customer in th U.S. and Canada. What makes us so unique is that we serve many communities. Our mission is to provide accurate and truthful books about native people of the Midwest and all over the country, but we are also a carefully curated full-range bookstore for children and adults.
MUF: Your catalog and staff recommendations include so many interesting titles that we have seen nowhere else, and especially intriguing books written for, or appropriate for, children. As middle-grade authors, we would love to know some of the titles, you particularly recommend to boys and girls ages eight to twelve?
Susan: All our children’s books, whether native or not, are chosen for truth and beauty. Recommendations? First of all would be Louise Erdrich’s award-winning Birchbark House Series (The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year). Louise grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series and loved it, but she knew Laura’s mother was wrong when she said “there is nothing here.” Louise set the Birchbark House novels in the same place to show how much was there when seen from the eyes of the native Ojibwe. How I Became a Ghost is by Tim Tingle , who sets his series in the 1835 Trail of Tears and writes from the character of a boy who didn’t survive it. Moose Tracks and Wolf Shadows by Mary Cassanova are especially great for reluctant readers. I would also recommend Summer of the Wolves, by Polly Carlson-Voiles and a native-title picture book, Black Elk’s Vision, A Lakota Story, by S.D. Nelson.
MUF: We’re told that one of the most wonderful things one can take away from a visit to Birchbark Books—guaranteed forgiveness— is absolutely free. Please tell our readers about the forgiveness booth and other features of your shop—reading spaces, native arts— that create its special atmosphere.
Susan: The forgiveness booth is meant to replace the confessional booth. Everyone is forgiven and you don’t have to confess anything. You can get a glimpse of it in Bill Moyers’ interview of Louise : http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/04092010/watch2.html.
Despite our small size, we carry not only books but native arts, cards, and jewelry in the store, which we buy directly from the artists. There is a loft where kids can go to read, and the younger ones can hang out in the Hobbit Hole below.
MUF: Everyone who works at Birchbark Books seems to have a dog helping them peruse the books. Do these four-footed aides spend their days in the shop, or do they mostly work from home?
Susan: We usually have a dog in the store. Most often it’s my own dog Dharma. She’s the Queen Bee and has good bookstore manners.
MUF: Do your native language materials include some introductory books for the curious beginner?
Susan: We’re part of the native language revitalization movement, especially of the Dakota, Ojibwe and Lakota languages. We carry language materials for adults and children, including several children’s books with CDs. Some of these materials are hard to find, and we have a large and varied selection. Louise and her sister Heid have formed Wiigwaas (Birchbark) Press that publishes books in Ojibwe only. So far they have three books of animal stories. We also have many bilingual books.
MUF:Do you have any events at the store that would be of special interest to middle-graders? Anything coming up this spring?
Susan: Of course we don’t have a lot of space for events, but we have had author signings with many young adult and children’s authors, including Phyllis Root. This spring we’re planning to do feature her new book, Plant a Pocket of Prairie, illustrated by Betsy Bowen. It’s coming out in May.
MUF: If a family from out of town made a day visit to Birchbark Books, would there be a family-friendly place nearby where they could get a snack or a meal afterward? And if they could stay a little longer, are there some other unique activities or places of interest nearby that they shouldn’t miss?
Susan: Right next door is the Kenwood Restaurant, and at the end of the block is Bockley Gallery (www.bockleygallery.com)with works by contemporary native artists. We’re only two blocks from Lake of the Isles where there are trails for hiking. And of course there are many museums and attractions throughout Minneapolis.
MUF: Thank you so much, Susan, for sharing this wonderful store and its passion with us. Readers, if you have visited Birchbark Books or are intrigued and think you would like to, please leave a comment.
Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog, Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012