Author Archives: Sue Cowing

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)

Indie Spotlight: BookEnds, Kailua, Hawaii

Today we’re talking with Pat Banning, owner and manager  of BookEnds , the only independent general interest bookstore on Honolulu’s island of Oahu.  Kailua, a short trip through a mountain tunnel from Honolulu, is noted for its great BookEnds front #2beaches, but also for its charming local shops, of which BookEnds (www.facebook.com/pages/BookEnds) is one.Bookends is  crammed full of new and used books—a playful place for all ages, with a special interest in children’s books.

MUF: Pat, please describe the unique atmosphere you have created at BookEnds.
Pat: We really like the shop to be a welcoming, casual, non-frightening place; to keep kids ever-alert for new things and creatures who might have joined the store- even before you can read, a space with interesting things inside.BookEnds Desk critterBookEnds drawing

MUF: Years ago when Borders opened a branch in nearby Kaneohe, many people said oh dear, what’s going to become of BookEnds? But now Border’s is nowhere to be found. And then there’s the whole electronic book thing.   What’s your survival secret?
Pat: I think the secret MAY be in staying just-big-enough to have a reasonable inventory, small enough to be quick on our feet, to make changes that we see meets the demands of our VERY discerning customers in Kailua….our biggest strength is our very very loyal customer-base.

Hanging out at BookEnds

Hanging out at BookEnds

Pat & Friends

Pat and friends

MUF: On an urban island with a population of just under a million yours is THE independent general interest bookstore. Ever consider cloning yourself? Expanding?
Pat: We’d love to expand; we never have enough space to keep our books reined in! And we’ve got some fun ideas for a BIGGER kid’s section, but….. even thought about another branch, but the thinner you spread your flavor, the less taste there is! So, no cloning, but we’re happy to give helpful hints to others…..

MUF: It’s obvious you folks love children’s books. How do you chose what to carry in your store?BookEnds Books
Pat: We try to carry stuff we love, we try to read as much early material as we can get, and we take the really good advice of the sales reps who sell us publisher’s lists. A well-written children’s book should be just as entertaining for a grown-up as for a child, so if we like it, chances are a lot of kids will like it too.

MUF: As middle-grade authors (and readers) we have to ask: what favorite titles, new and old, fiction and nonfiction, are you recommending to middle graders these days?Pegasus Origins
Pat: We love the Percy Jackson series, the Pegasus series, the Copper Dark is RisingSeptimus Heap series, the Susan Cooper books, the Sisters Grimm, the Series of Unfortunate events…there are really so so many great things coming out right now, that it’s hard to keep up…..Harry Potter started a huge demand for Sisters Grimm Mirrorsfantasy, but there is still a lot of reality-based fiction that is excellent……I have to admit that I don’t get a lot of NON-fiction coming Heap Magykthrough the door these days , for middle-readers, anyway.

MUF: Since you carry used books along with new, chances of finding an old favorite in your shop are pretty good. Can you think of some rare children’s titles or editions you have in stock that we might have trouble finding anywhere else?
Pat: We’ve got a really nice cache of Raggedy Anns that you don’t see often, some of the old Ant and Bee books, a few early Nancy Drews, a very old Little Black Sambo.BookEnds Raggedy Ann & Andy

MUF: Tell us a little about your Kailua neighborhood. If a family made a day trip to BookEnds, would there be family-friendly places nearby to get a snack or meal after browsing? What other family activities and attractions would be available nearby?
Pat: Well,  there’s the park, and the beach really close, Book Ends Beachthe community pool and tennis courts, lots of shopping, and Kailua has the gamut of restaurants, from Macdonalds and Subway, pizza of all types, to Indian and Mexican foods and lots of healthy salads. And of course, coffee for mom and dad….and we’re all waiting to see what Target, opening soon! is going to mean for us here.

Readers, have any of you been to this shop?   If not, and if you’re planning a visit to Honolulu, do include that trip over the Pali to Kailua for a book-lover’s holiday.  If you live on Oahu  already, why not un-chain yourself and drive to the windward side to experience a real bookstore!

 

Sue Cowing is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012, HarperCollinsUK, 2013).

 

 

 

 

 

BookEnds drawing

 

Indie Spotlight: Some Bookstore Myths and Magic, 2014

Bear Pond #6Quail Ridge logo #2avid logo|
Thinking back on the bookstores we’ve interviewed here on Mixed-up Files in 2014, I realize more than ever that independent bookstores are a  children’s-book lover’s priceless treasure, and that the more we value them the more they will prosper. More is more. The things we give our energy and attention to increase.CBW logo
Fortunately there’s good news out there at the moment, so in case anyone’s worried about the future of your favorite shop, I’d like to mention a few persistent myths about the business, then talk about what bookstores offer readers today, using this year’s interviewees as examples.Fountainhead logo

First, the myths:
Myth: #1 Thanks to Amazon and e-books, independent brick-and-mortar bookstores, like physical books, are becoming a thing of the past. Nope. According to the American Booksellers Association, indie bookstore numbers hit a low of 1,651 in 2009. screenshot_1233But since 2009, the number of stores has grown 19.3 percent to 1,971 and indie store sales have grown about 8 per cent each year since 2011.
That’s only partly due to the collapse of Borders. So what’s happening? Birchbark InteriorIndies are taking advantage of the growing buy-local movement, getting to know their communities and their customers Bear Pond #4and offering them a welcoming atmosphere for browsing and events. They’re hiring staff who read, know, and love books, and are eager to make personal recommendations and connections A number of the newer stores were founded by people with little or no bookstore experience who simply believed every town ought to have a bookstore, and theirs didn’t. (Hugely successful MG author Jeff Kinney is currently planning to open one in Plainville MA where he lives).Bankstreet Bookstore

Myth #2 Independent bookstores are too small. I can find a bigger selection at the chain store. Maybe, if you’re mainly interested in the newest books and best-sellers. The chains, in order to stay competitive with Amazon, have adopted a business model that emphasizes more and more sales of fewer titles. Once you get past the headliners, you may be surprised how many good books are “out of stock.’ The indies are doing just the opposite: stocking fewer copies of a greater variety of books.  And of  course some indies aren’t small.  Think Powell’s.birchbark logo

Myth #3 It’s a lot cheaper and more convenient to order books on line. That’s true. If you know what you want, you can order a book at deep discount cross that off your to-do list, and have the book delivered to your door or a giftee’s without ever having to change out of your pajamas. Of course you don’t meet very many interesting people that way.

Now for the magic: why shop at an independent bookstore?

birchbark booth

“Forgiveness Booth” at Birchbark Books

Magic #1: unique atmosphere
People open independent bookstore owners for the love of it and do their best to realize their dream of what a bookstore could be. These stores are what Janet Geddi of Avid Bookshop calls “third places.” Joy and laughter are not uncommon. When we asked Jane Knight back in July what she hoped people would experience when they browsed at Bear Pond Books, she replied, simply “Nirvana!” Elizabeth Bluemle of Flying Pig Bookstore says, “We often hear from people that they like to come in when they’ve had a hard day.” Independent bookstores are created places as much as they are businesses.Birchbark crafts

Fountainhead camp

Treasure Island Camp at Fountainhead Books

Yippee Skippee

Puppet Theatre at Bank Street

Avid frank #1

Frank, the Fabulous Fiction Fan

The free hand of independents can lead to some wonderful bookstore features like the native American art and the Forgiveness Booth (a converted confessional booth with forgiveness guaranteed) at Birchbark Books, the books camps for kids at Fountainhead Books, the weekend performances of the Fractured Fables puppet theatre at Bank Street Bookstore in New York, or Frank the Fabulous Fiction Fan, who was created by a local 11-year-old boy and is Avid Bookshop’s answer to Waldo.

Magic #2: making memories
More and more we understand that what children will remember from their childhood are not the things their loved ones gave them so much as the experiences they shared. Spending hours together at a real bookstore and coming back with personally chosen books is a long-remembered experience.  Avid books front #1

Magic #3: quality, diversity, & surprise
Independent bookshop owners are curators, free to indulge their own good taste. Valerie Welbourne of Fountainhead Books says: “The main thing we look for is good writing.” Unlike chain managers, independents can buy, promote, and display books any way they want. Of course they need to sell books and are aware of what’s current, but they have other considerations too. Flying Pig paintingAs Elizabeth Bluemle of Flying Pig books says “I can stock some quirky title that no one’s ever heard of and keep it on the shelf forever if I want to.” What that means for us is that in any independent store you will find some titles that are available almost nowhere else. (That is certainly true of the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Lakota language books at Birchbark Books).

Magic #4: finding your people (and your book)
Indie booksellers aren’t trying to sell you reading devices or a company line. They’re passionate about books and their favorite thing is to talk with you about books you might enjoy and help you find the one that’s yours. They care about their community, and when you buy your books there, the profits stay home.
Most indies have a soft-spot for children’s books and their readers, especially for middle-graders. When we asked this year’s shops for their recommendations of middle-grade books, of course they mentioned the well-known and the award winners, but also some lesser known new and old favorites of theirs and their visitors. I’ll list some of these again, in hopes you may find among them something new to you, but you:

From Avid Bookshop, Athens GA (www.avidbookshop.com): Stephan Pastis’ Timmy Failure books, Frostborn by Lou Anders, and anything by Avid Timmy FailureJennifer Holm. (The Fourteenth Goldfish is now widely reviewed and praised, but I first learned about it from screenshot_1351Bank St. Carrot JuiceAvid Bookshop.)Avid Frostborn

From Bank Street Books New York NY (www.bankstreetbooks.com): The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, Carol Weston’s Ava and Pip , and Julie Sternberg’s Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake.

From Bear Pond Books, Montpelier VT (www.bearpondbooks.com): The Meaning of Maggie by Bear Pond Meaning of MaggieBear Pond  Return of ZitaMegan Jean Sovern, The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson, The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, and anything by Steve Jenkins or Linda Urban.

From Birchbark Books, Minneapolis MN (www.birchbarkbooks.com): How I became a Ghost, by Tim Tingle, Wolf Shadows by Mary Cassanova, Summer of the Wolves by Polly Carlson-Voiles, and Black Elk’s Vision, a Lakota Story, by S.D. Nelson.Birchbark How I Became a Ghost

From Children’s Book World, West Los Angeles CA (www.childrensbookworld.com): The Neddiad by Daniel CBW Neddiadcbw how they croakedPinkwater, Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, How They Croaked:

Home of theBrave

Home of theBrave

The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Lesley M. M. Blume, Temple Grandin, by Sy Montgomeery and Temple Grandin, and Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis by Pete Nelson.

From Edmonds Bookshop, Edmonds WA (www.edmondsbookshop.com) some old favorites10481268Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech , Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, plus Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary.

From Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne VT (www.flyingpigs.com):
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately the Milk and The Dolphins of Shark Bay by Pamela S. Turner.Dolphins of Shark BayFountainhead: Inventor's secretfountainhead snicker of magicFortunately the milk

 

 

From Fountainhead Bookstore, Hendersonville NC (www.fountainheadbookstore.com): Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer, The Shakespeare Mysteries by Deron R. Hicks, and anything Quail Ridge Revolutionby Donna Gephart.Quail Ridge Gooseberry Park

From Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh NC
(www.quailridgebooks.com): Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Making Money by Tommy Greenwald, Revolution by Deborah Wiles, and Gooseberry Park by Cynthia Rylant.

Readers, It’s almost January. Do you know where your nearest independent bookstore is? Go for the joy of it in 2015!   And please, tell the rest of us where it is.

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