Author Archives: Sue Cowing

Indie Spotlight: Square Books Jr., Oxford MS

Independent Book Store Day is coming up this Saturday, May 2, so it’s delightful to be talking with Paul Fyke of Square Books Jr. in Oxford , Mississippi (www.squarebooks.com/junior) and to be reminded of what we love about independent bookstores!
Mixed-Up Files: Paul, how did Square Books Jr. come to be? How does it relate to Square Books “senior”?  

Square books jr.  exteriorPaul: Square Books Jr. was born out of a mixture of desire and necessity. For a long time Square Books had wanted to expand its children’s area. When it became apparent that it would be impossible to do that in the existing space, a plan was set into motion. Once the right location became available it was quietly leased. Then, the windows were covered in paper leaving the locals to wonder what new business to expect. Once the stock was ordered and the space renovated, it was time for the final step. At the release of “Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix,” it was announced Square Books would host a release party at 6am in celebration. What followed was a scavenger hunt around the town square that eventually led people to the mysterious new space with the paper over the windows. It was then that Square Books, Jr. was unveiled. Now, twelve years later, it seems like the secret is out.

MUF: Please describe the atmosphere you have created in your shop.
Paul: At a staff function, our owner once described Square Books, Jr. as “an independent among independents.” This statement has always stuck with me because I think it very much encapsulates what makes Square Books, Jr. different. We try to cultivate an atmosphere that is welcoming, not just in a tidy, commercial way, but in a human way. When children come into our store we want them to feel like this is their store. There are toys scattered between a play table and a play kitchen in the back, with a couch in between for parents to enjoy a well-earned moment of rest. Rarely is there a time where there’s not at least one child imagining some grand fantasy in the play castle in the back or at the very least dancing to the eclectic musical lineup we play over the stores sound system. Square Books Jr.  Interior #3

MUF: How do you choose the books and other items you carry in Square Books Jr.? What is your collection especially strong in?
Paul: Our greatest strengths are probably our Middle Grade collection and our picture book selection. We are fortunate in that we have a very dedicated staff, each with their own specialties. Leita, who has worked here for going on twelve years now, is the curator of our picture books collection. Jill, our buyer and other twelve year veteran, makes sure that Middle Grade is always filled with exciting new series for children to explore. I’ve been here seven years now, and I spend most of my time in the YA section looking for hidden gems and trying to make sure we don’t end up with a shelf of exclusively NY Times bestsellers. Lyn, our general manager and non-book item buyer, makes sure we never lack for exciting educational toys (many of which are provided by Melissa and Doug). All of this comes together to make a store filled with merchandise that we can all be confident in.

MUF: How do you go about helping readers find “their” books and vice-versa?
Paul: The most important part of helping a child find his or her perfect book is taking the time to talk to the child and discover their interests. It’s more than just “Did you like the Hunger Games/Maze Runner/Percy Jackson?” You have to engage the child. If they like sports do they like to play sports or do they just like to watch sports with their family? Do they like to play Minecraft? Do they like Survival or Creative mode if they do play? What kind of TV shows are they watching?

Children's Book Week bookmark by Raúl Cólón

Children’s Book Week bookmark by Raúl Cólón

Finding out what the child does when they are not reading is one of the best ways to help them find a book that is not only engaging, but also something that can help them fall in love with reading.

MUF: How is Square Books Jr. planning to celebrate National Children’s Book Week, May 4-10?
Paul:
Children’s Book Week has always been an exciting time for us. This year we are kicking things off a little bit early with a signing by local authors Kat and Margaret King for their new book The Backyard Campout on Independent Bookstore Day, May 2. Square Books Backyard Campout As the week continues we will have story times aplenty and a special meeting of the SBJ Book Society, our 8-12 year old readers book club. We are going to close the week out with a “Dress as your favorite book character” special story time on Saturday, May 9th.

MUF: Since we’re middle-grade authors, we’re eager to know some titles new and old, fiction and nonfiction, that you find yourself recommending to eight- to twelve-year-olds these days?
Paul:
I love to recommend The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a child that doesn’t love it in some way; whether it’s for the characters, the humor, or the mystery there’s something in there for everyone. Some of my other favorite recommendations include TheSquare Books, Name of this Book is Secret Lost Years of Merlin by TA Barron, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, and  lately The League of Seven by Alan Gratz. My favsquare books league of sevenSquare Books-Lost Years of Merlinorite nonfiction recommendations are Bomb by Steve Sheinken and How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg.Square Books  How they croakedSquare Books Matilda

Square Books Where's Waldo?

He’s everywhere!

MUF: Do you have some special events planned that are geared to middle-graders?
Paul:
Our biggest upcoming event will be the Where’s Waldo event in July. Waldo (or at least a small cardboard cut-out of Waldo) will be hidden in 26 stores around the town square. Kids who find Waldo in at least 20 stores are entered into a drawing for free books and other gifts from around the square. Children of all ages participate in this event, but it is especially fun for middle-graders who are spending their aimless afternoons on the town square. While we don’t have any signings firmly planned at the moment, we will most certainly have a few in the coming months. Information on these can always be found on our Facebook page or on our website, http://www.squarebooks.com/junior.

MUF: If a family makes a day trip to Square Books Jr. from out of town, would there be family-friendly places nearby where they could get a snack or meal after browsing?
Paul: With restaurants lining every side of the courthouse square where our store is located, it’s almost difficult to get off the square without having a meal. There’s Ajax, which is where everyone will tell you to go if you ask for recommendations (yes it’s that good). There’s also Proud Larry’s, which is a personal favorite of mine. Ajax serves amazing seemingly-homemade southern food, while Proud Larry’s serves a greater variety with everything from pizza and pasta to burgers and sandwiches. If you’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth Holli’s Sweet Tooth is the perfect destination. They have a wide assortment of ice cream flavors, incredible milkshakes, and every type of candy you can possibly imagine.square books logo

MUF: And if they can stay a little longer, can you recommend some unique places or activities in Oxford they shouldn’t miss?
Paul:
One activity I encourage everyone to squeeze into their travel schedules is a trip to Rowan Oak, the historic home of William Faulkner. Tours are available Tuesday through Saturday, but the grounds can be visited during any day time hours as long as nothing is disturbed. In addition to that, we have a University Museum with constantly changing exhibits that I personally spent a good deal of time in as a child. Past that, my biggest advice is to ask people on the square if there are any events happening soon. There’s almost always something interesting going on if you’re not afraid ask around.

MUF: Readers, don’t you love to hear a bookseller say that his collection is strongest in middle-grade? This Saturday, Independent Book Store Day,  be sure to visit Square Books Jr. to meet the authors of The Backyard Campout. Or visit your nearest independent book shop and buy a book or two.  Thanks to real-book people like us, indies are not only not going away, they’re thriving!

Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel  You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012, HarperCollins UK 2014)

Indie Spotlight: Octavia Books, New Orleans

Octavia logoWe’re talking today with Judith Lafitte, co-owner (with Thomas Lowenburg) of fifteen-year-old Octavia Books in downtown New Orleans(www.octaviabooks.com).

Octavia front

Sue Cowing for Mixed-Up Files: Please tell us what inspired you to open your store and what keeps you going?
Judith:
Tom and I opened Octavia Books because we wanted to do something together. We both are avid book readers and that brought us to the idea of opening a bookstore. The support of the community keeps us going.

bookstore waterfall

The atrium waterfall

MUF: Every independent bookshop is unique in its own way. Please tell us some of the special things about Octavia Books.
Judith: Our location is very special. We are located in a 100-year-old corner commercial building that was once a grocery store in an Uptown neighborhood of the city. We are an L-shaped space that is bright and welcoming. We also have a small glass enclosed atrium space that has a cascading waterfall.

MUF: I gather Octavia Books played an important role after Hurricane Katrina?
Judith
: We were the first bookstore to reopen after the storm. There wasn’t much open or available to the people who returned. In essence, we became a “port in the storm” for anyone who needed a book to help distract them from dealing with this disaster. We instantly became a community meeting place where anyone could come and talk about every concern they had.

Book bag #1

Custom-designed recycled Octavia Books bag: “To Read or Not to Read. What a Silly Question.”

MUF: How do you choose books to carry in your shop, and how do you help your customers choose books that are just right for them out of all the possibilities?
Judith:
Both Tom and I meet with sales reps from publishers to discuss books. Tom does the purchasing for the “grown-up” side of the bookstore and I am the children’s book buyer. In a way, we also know what our customers are reading which also determines the kinds of books we have in the bookstore. And, we also rely on our staff’s insight. For non-book items, we use the same process.Octavia book bag #2
We always ask questions. Sometimes our customers are looking for the same kind of book and other times they are looking for something different. We want to ensure that the customer is satisfied with their purchase.

MUF: As authors of middle grade books, we have to ask: what are some of your favorite titles new and old, fiction and nonfiction, Octavia  Ms. Rapscottthat you often find yourself recommending to boys and girls ages eight to twelve these days?Octavia KnightlyOctavia  MagicOctavia Imaginary
Judith:
I have several authors that I like to suggest to this age group, so anything by Roald Dahl, Rick Riordan, Deborah Wiles, Mike Lupica and Dan Gutman. I also like such titles as Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke, Octavia  ZitaThe Imaginary by A.F. Harold, Magic in the Mix, by Annie Barrows., Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera, and Knightley & Son by Rohan Gavin, to name a few. But in general, I like to recommend any kind of sports books or adventure books for boys; girls are a bit easier to choose a book for.

MUF: Do you have reading or events coming up that would be of special interest to this age group?
Judith: We recently had Dan Gutman and Peter Lerangis visit some schools and the bookstore and we are getting ready to have Jon & Pamela Voelkel and Kimberly Willis Holt.

Dan Gutman at Octavia Books

Dan Gutman, author of  The Genius Files series, at Octavia Books

Octavia K.W. HoltOctavia Voelkel

MUF: If a family from out of town visits Octavia Books, are there family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they can get a snack or a meal after browsing? And if they can stay awhile, what other special activities in the area would you recommend for families?
Judith:
We have a breakfast/lunch café located behind the bookstore where families can grab a bite as well as other small cafés in the area. There are also coffee shops along Magazine Street that offer any number of noshes. As for activities, there is Audubon Zoo, Audubon Park, taking a streetcar ride along St. Charles Avenue and loads of shopping along Magazine Street. If it’s a summer visit, there is Hansen’s Snow Ball Stand that is a Beard Award Winner. And if they are interested in movies, the Prytania Theatre is a 100-year-old theatre still in operation.Octavia front #4
Octavia Books award

Thank you for telling us more about your shop, Judith.  Readers, have any of you had the pleasure of visiting Octavia Books? Please share your experiences.

Sue Cowing is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012).

Indie Spotlight: The Writer’s Block Book Shop Launches in Las Vegas NV

WB sign ologo #3

Sue Cowing for Mixed-up Files: It’s always a pleasure to hear of a new bookstore opening, more proof that the Indies are holding their own and are on the rise. Just this month Drew Cohen and Scott Seeley opened The Writer’s Block Book Shop in downtown Las Vegas.
 It’s an ambitious enterprise— book seller, book manufacturer, publisher, writer’s workshop, literacy educator, and artificial bird sanctuary! Today we’re talking about this dynamic store with co-founder Drew Cohen.

MUF: Congratulations on your grand opening. Please tell us what inspired you to open a store in Las Vegas, and describe the atmosphere you are creating in this store.WB exterior
Drew: When my husband Scott and I moved to Las Vegas, there were noindependent general-interest bookstores. So it felt like something that was direly needed, particularly in a city as large and as dense as Vegas. From the start, we were also concerned with education. We heard a number of alarming stories about how writing was taught (or, more to the point, not taught) in Vegas-area public schools.

WB interiorScott’s background, as the co-founder and former Executive Director of 826NYC—a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that provides free writing classes to students—was such that we knew that whatever we opened would include an educational component. To that end, we’ll be providing free creative writing classes to students aged 6–18 in the back of the store.WB shopPartly because ofthe classes, we wanted the entire store to feel like a workshop; not just a place where books are sold, but also a place where they are made. The name of our store—The Writer’s Block Book Shop—reflects this. It’s not merely a store, but a shop, with tools, and a letterpress, and exposed wood. One of our staff is usually seated at work bench at the entrance. Our goal has been to create an atmosphere similar to Geppetto’s workshop, where everything is constantly evolving and there are projects scattered around the store.

MUF: Please tell us about a unique feature of your store, the Artificial Bird Sanctuary and Adoption Program. WB artificial birds #2Any connection to Kate Samworth’s book Aviary Wonders, Inc?
Drew: Scott and I really enjoy blending artificial outdoor objects into The Writer’s Block. We installed a streetlamp in the middle of the space, and have a corridor of fake trees separating our classroom area from the rest of the store. So the artificial birds felt like a natural next step. As booksellers, we’re constantly seeking to be inventive about our non-book merchandising; we want to carry things you can’t get anywhere else. The birds, which are individually named and tagged, and then given unique bio sheets, were an opportunity to provide customers with a WB Artificial birdproduct they’d never seen. And because adopting an artificial bird involves reading a vow and a bit of ceremony, it adds some theater to the process—which people enjoy.WB Arificial bird adoption #6
Aviary Wonders, Inc. is a favorite of mine! We didn’t get the idea from that book, but we certainly get excited whenever we encounter a bird-related piece of literature.

MUF: How do you select the books to carry in Writer’s Block? How do you help them find their readers and vice versa?
Drew: I do all of the book-buying myself, with plenty of input from our staff and customers. Everything we carry has passed through my hands, and I take a lot of pride in that fact that nothing that we carry is arbitrarily selected. Honestly, it’s a fairly uncoordinated process: I read a lot of book blogs, scan book reviews, bestseller lists, plenty of publisher catalogs. For children’s titles, I find Elizabeth Bird’s blog via the School Library Journal to be unmissable. WB kids w booksWe carry a lot of art books, so publishers that put an emphasis on presentation—Candlewick, Abrams, 
Enchanted Lion, etc.—always take precedent.
We put a lot of work into our in-store displays. I try my best to make sure that any new books we’re excited about get highly visible shelf-space, and will sometimes resurrect some backlist titles to create display around a theme. This month, for example, we’ll be pairing Candlewick Press’s exquisite adaption of Les Misérables for elementary school readers with Penguin’s reissue of the original novel, both of which fortuitously released during the same month.

Les Miserables 2015

MUF: As Middle-Grade authors, we have to ask, what titles old or new, fiction or nonfiction, do you find yourself recommending to readers eight to twelve? WB Golden CompassWB penderwicks in Spring
Drew: 
It’s a little mature, but the Golden Compass series is a standard. We find that younger readers enjoy the novels for their elements of fantasy and adventure, but that the books still offer plenty of higher concepts to engage the older or precocious middle-graders.
We love the Penderwicks series. It’s sweet and broadly appealing, but it also deals candidly with some of the frustrations of being part of a large family—and also the unique joys of having siblings.
Anything by Gail Carson Levine. WB Writing MagicWe love her strong-willed protagonists, and her books that are about writing fly off of our shelves. There are so many adult titles about the process WB Battle Bunnyof writing fiction, so it’s refreshing to be able to recommend similar titles to younger readers.
Lastly, we’re big fans of some of the more self-aware and cheeky titles for middle-graders. Perhaps it’s partly because we have a store rabbit, but Jon Scieszka’s and Mac Barnett’s Battle Bunny is a big favorite.

MUF: Do you have events planned that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
Drew: We’ll be putting a tremendous amount of work into our free creative classes, and many of these will be focused on middle-graders. (And, let’s face it, middle-graders are often the most fun age group to work with!) Our calendar will be going live in a few weeks via our website (thewritersblock.org). WB open house #2Right now, we’re discussing a workshop that relates to bird classification, and another for composing poetry. We’ll be doing an improv class in the next few months, and are also hoping to partner with some local audio-engineers to create some radio pieces with our students. Our plans are still being finalized, so I’d recommend that folks who are interested sign up for the mailing list at our website.

MUF: Many independent bookstores have mascots or pets, but it’s most often a store cat. How does your rabbit do with all those chewing temptations?
The Baron Hana HouDrew: We love cats, and have three of them at home. But they can be temperamental, and we were also worried that it might upset people’s allergies. A bunny felt like a good compromise—it’s more dramatic than a mouse or guinea pig, but it’s still low-key enough to prevent issues with biting or scratching. Our

Baron's book shop quarters

Baron’s book shop quarters

rabbit—his name is The Baron—is extremely good natured, and loves having his ears petted. He came from a shelter that was filled with noise and dogs, so he was already used to people passing through and lots of activity. We keep him in a large cage for most of the day, but let him out for 5-or-so hours in the morning to stretch his legs. All and all, I think he has a pretty good life. And since he isn’t let loose in the store, he doesn’t get the chance to eat all of our books.

MUF: If a family from out of town visits Writer’s Block are there family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they can get a snack or a meal after browsing? And if they can stay awhile, what other unique activities in the area would you recommend for families?
Drew: There is a lot for families to do and see in downtown Las Vegas. Container Park is an essential destination: it combines outdoor dining options with dozens of boutiques, all of which are housed inside of repurposed shipping containers. There’s even an awesome toy store, Kappa Toys, that specializes in fun products for people of all ages—the selection really cuts across generational lines. It’s just a few blocks from The Writer’s Block.WB Mt.  CharlestonWB Red Rock
For families who are staying longer, I’d recommend they check out some of the beautiful wildlife destinations. Vegas is known mainly for the Strip, but there is an incredibly diverse ecology in and around the Valley. Red Rock Canyon has a number of trails that can be hiked; it also has a scenic drive, perfect for when the temperature is too high. If you’ve ever wanted to explore Mars, Red Rock’s landscape gives you a close approximation. And on the other end of the spectrum, Mount Charleston is leafy and cool, and makes for a refreshing day-trip during the summer months.

writers block logo sign #5Thank you so much Drew!
Readers, doesn’t this shop make you want to visit Las Vegas and go directly there for a day of  browsing and magic?
It seems most of the people opening new book shops today do it because they just think there ought to be an independent bookstore in their town.   Luckily for us, they make that dream come true.

Sue Cowing is author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012, Harper-Collins UK 2014)