Author Archives: Sue Cowing

Indie Spotlight: Children’s Bookstores in 1917

Inside An Unlikely Story

Independent bookstores are springing up everywhere–in cities and suburbs and small towns across the country. And why are they thriving?  Because  despite predictions about the inevitable end of bookstores and physical books, it turns out that a whole lot of people like to go to a real place, browse, buy, and read real books, and meet and talk with others who have read them.   Book chains try to give customers a uniform and predictable  experience in all their stores.  But every indy is unique, reflecting the owners’ ideal of what a bookstore could be. The bookstores we’ve highlighted this year certainly show  this variety of visions.
And we’ve noticed  trends continuing this year:  authors founding bookstores, new bookstores in small towns helping to revitalize the town center, store book clubs, strong links to communities.  And , always, great book recommendations from staff readers. Heres a brief look back, with Indie Spotlight dates for each ship in case you missed the full interview.   Be prepared to add to your tottering must-read pile!

Parnassus Books , Nashville TN, Jan 30.
Parnassus was founded by author Ann Patchett and publishing veteran Karen Hayes. Manager Mary Laura Philpott describes it as a store full of nooks and corners. When you visit, one of their many shop dogs—Sparkman “Sparky” VanDevender, Opie Brennan, Belle Bock, Bear Gardner, Mary Todd Lincoln Coffman or Eleanor Roosevelt Philpott—may great you and accompany you to the shelves. They recommend Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin and Awkward by Svetlana Chinakova for fiction, and for nonfiction Courage to Soar by Simone Biles and Maps by Aleksandra Mizelinski.   Visit them at

Treehouse Books, Ashland OR Feb. 27,
In business 39 years. Jane Almqist and Cynthia Salbato say of their shop, “we are a bridge between the world of imagination and ordinary reality.” Isn’t that exactly what readers are looking for in a book? The owners grew up in the back yard of Disneyland, and this is reflected in the store’s Wizard Apothecary and Secret World Vault. “We love to encourage our guests to be their most magical selves while they are in Ashland and to take some of that enchantment with them into their daily lives. “ They dress as Lady Jane Owl and Cynthia Ravenwitch while in the store. The store holds story-themed art activities and takes book clubs to a new level in their Wizard Academy, with its monthly themed story games. They also love to feature both some undiscovered books. Among their recommendations: Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, My Diary from the Edge of the World, by Jody Lynn Anderson, and When the Sea Turns to Silver by Grace Lin

Voracious Reader, an Independent Bookstore for Young Readers with an Appetite for Books. Larchmont NY (March 31)
Voracious Reader opened 10 years ago during the time when bookstores were thought to be bad prospects. But time was right for them. Francine Lucidon describes the shop’s atmosphere as “super friendly,” especially on Fridays when Franklin, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel store dog greets customers. Francine especially likes to bring in books by exciting debut authors she meets at regional conferences. Her book club for 8-11 year olds, Uncommon Corps of Ravenous Readers, reads Advance Reader’s Copies of to-be published books and discusses them over pizza one Friday each month. Members can graduate to a similar club called YA Alliance when they turn 12. She recommends The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt, and the Pixie Piper books by Annabelle Fisher.   Visit them

Linden Tree Books, Los Altos (April 28)
Their motto? “Where imaginations grow.” Co-owner Diane Edwards describes the Linden Tree staff as “literary matchmakers” who are trained in simple interview techniques to help young readers find their next favorite book. The shop has a Linden Tree Page Turners club for young people to get together once a month to discuss what books they’ve been enjoying. They recommend Spy School by Stuart Giles, Connect the Stars by Marissa de los Santos, and Frogkisser! By Garth Nix.  Visit them at

Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston TX (May 31 )
This book shop opened in 1996 and was named for the Blue Willow style of china. The owners ignored the economic downturn and have succeeded. Blue Willow offers “opinionated advice” and has a book club for middle-grade girls called “Another Shade Blue.” They also take part in an annual Tweens Read festival in October. They recommend, among others, The Green Glass House by Kate Milford and Beyond the Bright Sea by LaurenWolk.  Visit them at

Read With Me, A Children’s Book and Art Shop, Raleigh NC (June 30).
This new shop has an unusual arrangement, with adult books on one half of the store, and children’s books on the other. Books are chosen with good visual art in mind, and there are numerous book-related art activities planned including a cartooning workshop for ages 11-14. The shop offers local art for sale. Some favorite books at the store for this age are Kwame Alexander’s Out of Wonder, and Ben Hatke’s Mighty Jack. Visit them at

Eyeseeme African American Children’s Bookstore, University City Mo. (August 30)
Jeff Blair and his wife Pamela founded this bookstore because they wanted their own and other kids to know they were part of a great heritage and history that precedes and goes beyond slavery, reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement. Jeff says this is the only bookstore “devoted exclusively to promoting positive African American images and African American history while advocating for academic excellence.” Some of the books they recommend for middle-graders include the Eddie Red Undercover series by Marcia Wells and The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Okuida Equiano by Ann Cameron. What they would like most to see published would be adventure series set in pre-colonial Africa. Visit them at

An unusual feature of Kid’s Ink, Indianapolis (Oct. 30) is that everything is painted white to make the books stand out. It is sometimes called “The Train Store” because they have always had a train track and they sell trains. They like the nonfiction books they stock to have indexes, tables of contents, and recommended reading. Among the fiction they like for middle-graders are Pam Munoz Ryan’s Eco and Jason Reynold’s Ghost. Visit them at

Unlikely Story Bookstore & Cafe, Plainville MA. (Nov. 29) Best-selling children’s author Jeff Kinney and his wife opened this shop in their home town in 2015 in protest against Amazon and defense of the physical book . It has renewed Plainville’s downtown center. Their hope, well founded, was that despite the small size of the town, Jeff’s fame could bring people in and other authors in addition to Jeff to make appearances. 
They recommend the Thirteen Story Treehouse books by Andy Griffiths, called “the Jeff Kinney of Australia”; The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd; and The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wang-Long. The shop has a whimsical atmosphere with flying books and a quiditch game with a snitch. Lots of author events including of course Jeff Kinney. They recommend the Thirteen Story Treehouse books by Andy Griffiths, the Jeff Kinney of Australia,, The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd, and The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wang-Long Shang. Visit their website at

Readers, how’s this for a happy New Year adventure resolution?  When you want a new book in 2018 , browse and buy it (and maybe a couple of new titles you wouldn’t have thought of) at an Indy shop.  There’s probably one near you and if not, there should be one at a day-trip distance.  What a pleasure.

Indie Spotlight: An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Cafe, Plainville MA

Good news! A new and thriving small bookstore, founded by children’s author Jeff Kinney,  whose store’s mission statement is “To enrich our community with great books, healthy food and inspiring conversations.”  We’re speaking today with General Manager Deb Sundin.

MUF: It’s interesting and “unlikely” that a very busy and successful children’s author would take on the task of founding a bookstore. Can you tell us the whys and hows of that story?
Deb: Long before he became a famous children’s author, Jeff Kinney and his wife Julie decided to settle in the small town of Plainville, Massachusetts(population 8000 plus) after they graduated from college, and Jeff wrote his first Wimpy the Kid book there. In the middle of the town stood the grand old Falks Market, established in 1856 and once the town center, but it had been sold by the owner, Meryl Falk, almost 20 years before. Like many of the townspeople, Jeff and Julie would pass by that abandoned building and wish someone would buy it and do something with it. Finally Jeff and Julie did buy it, still not knowing what they would do with it. At last Jeff decided Plainville’s town center should have a bookstore and a café to help bring it back to life, so he combined the two and opened An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in 2015. Unlikely Story has three levels with an event space occupying the second floor, and the top floor being developed into Jeff’s Wimpy Kid Studio.
MUF: Describe the atmosphere you try to create in your shop. What would you want a 9 to 12 year old to experience when they visit?
Deb: We aim for an atmosphere that is very warm and friendly and whimsical There are flying books hanging from the ceiling plus a Quidditch game with snitch. Our staff is very friendly, We want people to feel like they are visiting an old friend and I believe they do.
MUF: How do you decide what books to carry in your shop?
We have a book buyer who works with 5 or 6 major book representatives plus independent small publishers’ reps.. She also consults us, reads reviews and galley proofs of upcoming books, and considers customer feedback. Naturally we carry a lot of Wimpy Kid books, and these attract visitors to the store from all over New England and the country, and beyond.
MUF: As middle-grade authors, we’d love to know what titles you find yourself recommending most often to or for this age group?
Deb: We like Australian author Andy Griffiths (sometimes called the Jeff Kinney of Australia )
and his series The Thirteen Story Treehouse, A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord, The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Llyod, Swim That Rock by John Roccos, and The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wang-Long Shang.

MUF: Any activities or author visits of interest to middle-graders coming up?
: Yes, today at 5 Jeff Kinney will introduce the newest book in his Wimpy Kid series, The Getaway. Tomorrow best-selling author and journalist Peter Zeutlin will be here to sign his new book, Rescued: What Second –chance Dogs Teach Us About Living with Purpose, Loving with Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things. On Dec. 9 the Writers’ Loft, a group of local writers,  will hold their annual Holiday bBook Bazaar in our event space.  Then on December 12, Jeff Kinney will appear again to sign books. In the week between Christmas and New Years we’ll have craft activities for both younger and older kids.

MUF: If a family visits An Unlikely Story, is your café a good place for a family snack or meal after browsing? Other places in the neighborhood? And if they can stay a little longer, are there other sights and activities nearby that they shouldn’t miss?
: Yes our café would be fine for this. There is also a small diner in the neighborhood and a gluten-free restaurant. I’d recommend the Fuller Craft Museum in Boston. Providence is closer to us than Boston and a nice size city to get around in. It has a wonderful children’s museum.
MUF: Thank you, Deb, for taking time in this busy bookstore season to talk to us about An Unlikely Story.  Readers, have you visited yet?

Indie Spotlight: Kids Ink Children’s Books, Indianapolis

Always a delight to learn about a thriving independent children’s bookstore! We’re speaking today with Shirley Mullin, owner of Kids Ink Children’s Books in Indianapolis, Indiana
MUF: Kids Ink has been open for over three decades, riding out even the bookstore blues of ten years ago. What’s your survival secret? Have you made adaptions over the year that helped?
We have made constant adaptations to changes in the book industry, the economy, and our customers. We’ve been constant in basic principles ie Kind, Fair, and Honest. We also have always emphasized customer service focusing as much as possible on the children and young adults asking them if they have read a book that they really like. Or, asking what interests them.

Beyond that, however, we have adapted our business to stay viable. We are constantly look for new markets. Several years ago we started supplying books for several title programs which has been successful. We offer not only the books but our expertise in choosing titles. This often involves taking books to the district for a “show and tell, ” helping them decide what works for the curriculum. We are currently beginning to experiment with pop-up stores in some of our larger retirement communities offering holiday shopping and gift wrapping at the facility.
Maintaining our presence at major educational events has also been important either selling books tailored to the event or providing information about the store.Finally, we have expanded our assistance to schools helping them find and book authors…often linking schools together.   We then supply the books for the school to sell.

MUF: Describe the atmosphere you try to create in your shop. What are some special features of Kids Ink?
We have always had a train table and have sold trains.   The past few years we have sold Brio. The train gives children a focus point and something engaging while their adults shop. It is not unusual for us to be called the Train Store.
We do our best to maintain the store as a bright cheerful place. All the fixtures are white so the books and toys stand out. Because we are about 20 percent books, our displays are interesting with perhaps a raccoon puppet and a book with a raccoon title or a Playmobil Knight package with a book about knights.Our front window is large and attracts attention most recently with banned books and now featuring the up-coming John Green book.
But the most important component of atmosphere is the staff. We try to make sure that we are able to greet everyone courteously and respond to their questions. We greet everyone who walks through the door and try to be aware of when they need suggestions.

MUF: Kids Ink is a small shop, so your books must be curated. How do you decide what books and related items to carry?
Terri orders all the sidelines/toys. She has a good eye for what our customers want. We only sell real quality toys with emphasis on “playability,” safety, and good construction. (I am quite able to order toys that never sell!) I personally order all the front list. I read all of the picture books before ordering and many of the novels and non-fiction. For all of them, I think about who might want this book and/or who should need this book. Sometimes there is a book that is about a subject or event that hasn’t been requested but the book is important and needs to be read.
For non-fiction, I look at who wrote the book. Are they qualified to write about this topic? I favor non-fiction that has good elements like Table of Contents, Index, Bibliography and Suggested Reading.
Most important, I watch for books that are inclusive of gender, race, and sexuality. Diversity is very important to me and all of the staff.

MUF: As middle-grade authors, we’re curious to know what titles, new or old, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourself recommending most often to readers ages 8-12?
Books by Jeanne Birdsall, the Penderwicks, Kimberly Brubacker Bradley’s The War that Saved My Life, Rita Garcia Williams titles, Pam Munoz Ryan titles, Jason Reynolds, Ghost and Patina.Non-Fiction varies a lot depending on what the child finds interesting. We have a lot of requests for biographies, books about animals, and weather.

MUF: Do you have any activities coming up that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
Sarah Cannon, a debut novelist will be signing on 12/2/17 from eleven to one for Oddity. Her book will be of interest for this level.

MUF: If a family is visiting Indianapolis from out of town, would there be family-friendly places near your shop where they could get a snack or meal after shopping? And if they could stay longer, are there some unique family activities or sights they shouldn’t miss?
Shirley: We are next door to The Flying Cupcake, a marvelous place incredibly popular with all our customers. Then next door to that is Father Bryne’s Pizza with unusual grilled thin crust pizza. Across the street is a long established Illinois Street Food Emporium which is known for chicken salad croissants baked daily in house as well as a Grater’s Ice Cream store. In addition, our corner contains shopping for everyone…a jewelry store, a boutique with unusual home items, an art store, clothing store, and a Starbucks.
Even better, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is twenty blocks from the store. It is the largest children’s museum in the world.

MUF: Thanks, Shirley, for sharing news  about your fine shop.  Readers, have you visited Kids Ink yet?