Category Archives: Indie Spotlight

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)

Lessons from Becoming a Bookseller

Last year I took a part time job at my local independent bookstore, Annie Blooms Books. I spend seven to twelve hours a week on the floor, restocking books, handling special orders, ringing up sales and helping customers find books. I spend another three to ten hours a week working on author events both in the bookstore and off site. Annie Blooms is a general bookseller with a strong children’s section so I’ve particularly enjoyed broadening my horizons beyond children’s books. Here are ten things I’ve learned from bookselling that have broadened my perspective as an author.

IMG_12941. People like to read what other people are reading. Blockbusters are not entirely engineered by publishers. They tend to occur naturally because reading is a more social activity than it seems.

2. But on a related note, Blockbusters are hard to predict. Sometimes a book gets a ton of hype, a fat advance, even a celebrity author and it just doesn’t connect with readers even if the bookseller happens to love it. Sometimes a quiet title surprises everyone.

3. Indy booksellers love it when an underdog takes the prize, whether the prize is an actual literary award or just strong sales. Indy booksellers are at a disadvantage in the marketplace dominated by Amazon and the big chain stores so we have a fellow feeling for small publishers and debut authors and often go out of our way to recommend underdog books.

4. Reviews matter. Without fail when a book is mentioned on NPR we sell out of that title by the end of the day. Probably we only had 1-3 copies of it in the store, but still, that’s impressive. Sunday is a good day for us because people come in with the newspaper book review section looking for something specifically. I always cared about the loss of regular book reviewing in the local paper. Now I care even more. If you are lucky enough to live in a town that still puts book reviews in the paper, give your newspaper some praise and attention.

5. Libraries are a bookstores best friend. Lots of parents & grandparents come in looking for the book their kid has checked out 500 times from the library. A long hold list at the library tends to encourage people to buy rather than wait. A strong library system feeds avid reading and encourages library goers to buy the best of the library books they’ve read.

6. Often people are buying a book gift for a person they don’t know well. So a bookseller who can spend 10 minutes chatting with them about what 10 year old girls, who like horses and magic but nothing to scary, are loving this year is a huge help. It’s one of the things that most sets a bookstore apart from an online book vender.

7. Book gifts reflect both the pleasure of the readeIMG_1353r and the values of the giver.  I find this especially true of grandparents. They often go for the nostalgia read which is why we still carry book like Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. They also want something that reflects Oregon to send to distant grandchildren. Or something that reflects their family history which is why historical fiction and immigration stories appeal to them.

8. A white book buyer is often choosing books for a  child who is not
white. 
This was a very happy discovery and I’ve learned to be bold about suggesting diverse titles to white buyers (grandparents especially) who are thrilled to see kids on the cover who look, not like them, but like the beloved children in their lives.

IMG_1287_29. Often people are not there for the books. A bookstore more than most shops is a place people come for a little oasis in their busy life. We have families who make it the after soccer game treat every Saturday, friends who meet up before going to the pub next door, people who stop every afternoon on the way back from the dog park and teenagers who come to hang out with their pals. Most of these people don’t buy every time. Sometimes they are just here to pet the store cat or rock on the store dragon.

10. Passion matters. Booksellers tend to gush over their favorite books. They squee happily when someone brings it to the counter. Engage in lengthy patron chat about what else the favorite author has written, and brainstorm similar books. We don’t get paid to care and the books we care about are often not best sellers nationally, but sometimes booksellers can bring to light a book over looked by the big awards and reviewers and make it a star.

 

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).