Former children's bookstore owners have skipped down different yellow brick roads since closing their stores but they still have one thing in common—taking heart in the impact they've had on readers. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, independent children's bookstores in the U.S. grew to more than 350, many owned by former teachers and librarians who brought their passion for quality books to the marketplace.
Although most of those original children's booksellers have moved on, many still relish the thrill of being pioneers, of establishing thriving community resource centers that ignited children's imaginations. Some of those pioneers have survived major changes in the book industry, while others have happily integrated their children's bookseller pasts into their current lives.
Twenty-five years ago, the excitement among children's booksellers spread across the country, says Valerie Lewis, co-owner of Hicklebee's in San Jose, Calif., since 1979. "There was just this sense that we were in the right business at the right time. We'd get together and start talking about what we were all doing. The energy was palpable. "
Many children's booksellers jumped into the fray because they loved books, not because they were particularly knowledgeable about business. "I certainly didn't know the rules," says Lewis, who had previously been involved in children's radio and teaching art, and immediately started working with schools and libraries. One of four partners who started Hicklebee's, she and her sister, Monica Holmes, have co-owned the store for 22 years.
By 1984, Lewis and others started the Northern California Booksellers Association, which garnered about 50 members. At that year's American Booksellers Association convention in Washington, D.C., so many questions came up relating to children's-only bookstores, recalls Anne Irish, then co-owner of Pooh Corner in Madison, Wis., that her co-owner Denise Herzberg stood up and suggested a meeting.
"I remember a bunch of us—known as the founding mothers—sitting on the floor after that meeting talking about starting our own association," Irish tells PW. California children's booksellers Jody Fickes Shapiro and Betty Takeuchi went home and wrote organizational by-laws during the following year.
For some of the "founding mothers" the real catalyst for ABC's inception was a presentation at a pre-ABA children's bookselling day, according to Takeuchi, who opened San Marino Toy & Book Shoppe in 1975, and was ABC's second president, from 1987 to 1991. "Someone put on a skit that made children's booksellers look like silly fools," she says. "This was not who we were. We worked very hard. Now it's funny how angry we were."
In 1985, a core group of children's booksellers launched the ABC at the ABA convention in San Francisco. "We started our programming at ABA in 1986," observes Marilyn Hollinshead, owner of Pinocchio Bookstore in Pittsburgh, Pa., from 1980 to 1997, and the first ABC president. "ABA was very good to us. We were on a very tight budget, and they gave us floor space and included us in the programs."
ABC grew during those exhilarating years of children's bookselling, but with so many children's-only bookstores closing toward the end of the '90s, ABC membership began trending toward more general bookstore members. Last November, ABC merged into ABA, marking the culmination of a process set in motion nearly two years earlier when the ABC board, concerned about the organization's long-term survival in a fast-changing industry, initiated possible merger discussions with ABA.
ABA welcomed the merger of the two organizations, which had more than a 95 percent membership overlap. From 1984, when ABC spun off from ABA, the children's booksellers' organization had seen its membership drop from a high of approximately 600 to 250, evenly split between children's-only stores and general bookstores.
Around 125 children's-only bookstores now exist, reports Kristen McLean, the ABC's former executive director, now consultant to the ABC Children's Group at the ABA. Many general bookstores have also been struggling to keep their doors open. Nicky Salan, one of the "founding mothers" of both the ABC and NCBA, started Cover to Cover Booksellers in San Francisco in 1976. "The store wasn't exclusively children's; it was about two-thirds," Salan says. "When I retired 11 years ago, we were worried about Amazon." Cover to Cover continued to operate after Salan's retirement but closed in March.
As a children's bookstore owner, Irish probably went through more transformations than anyone else. When she opened Pooh Corner in 1976, she had two partners. She bought them out in 1991; two years later, Irish took on a new partner. "I went from no competition to five stores in Madison," Irish says. "We tried our damnedest to stay afloat," she says, but in 1994 they approached Highsmith Company, which bought Pooh Corner, incorporating it into other locations called Education Station. Irish stayed on as a buyer until 2001, when Highsmith fired her. A year later their stores went belly up. Irish became ABC's acting director, and its director from 2002 to 2005.
Many of the original children's booksellers, such as Irish, were young mothers who wanted to extend their appreciation of children's books in their communities. But when Irish opened Pooh Corner, she had no background in children's books. "Raising children supplied a heavy dose," she says. Irish's son Rob, now 43, was in second grade when he lined up all his friends, Irish recalls. He showed them Where Did I Come From? and announced, "You've got to read this. It's the best book!"
Now a grandmother, Irish volunteers at her public library. She laughs about young Rob's book choice, saying, "I hope children are still suggesting books to their friends. I don't see anyone offering the author events we did. We were such important assets to our communities."
Children's bookstore owners who have survived the rash of closings are still true believers in the worth of quality children's books. "Handselling is why people come to my store," says Ellen Mager, who recently celebrated her 28th anniversary as owner of Booktenders's Secret Garden Children's Bookstore & Gallery in Doylestown, Pa.
Mager attributes her store's longevity to hard work, establishing long-term contacts with authors and illustrators, going to lots of conferences—and a very supportive community. "More than 50% of my business is placing authors and illustrators in schools as well as my store," she says. "I keep a large section of signed books by past guest authors’ available. People shop there first.” Adding a children’s illustration art gallery to her store has also helped business, Mager believes. “My prints go from $20 to $199 and originals from $150 to $800, so the pieces are reasonable as well as wonderful.”
Customers have always appreciated individualized service from their local children's book experts, according to Suzanne Sigman, who owned The Little Book Room in Milton, Mass., until 1997. She recalls one customer who came to her store after being sworn in as a U.S. citizen "to thank us for stocking history books she bought to study for the citizenship test."
"We made—and still make—a lasting impact on individuals," says Carol Chittenden, who celebrated Eight Cousins' 25th anniversary in Falmouth, Mass. on July 1. "We're still in business today because we still love the business passionately, pay our bills, have superb colleagues said and are darned lucky," she says proudly. "We happened to open in a town that's too small for big boxes and has maintained its central shopping area."
As much as children's booksellers loved connecting children with books, for some the increased competition from chains and the Internet, such as Amazon, finally persuaded them to opt for retirement. Chauni Haslet owned All for Kids in Seattle, from 1983 to 2008. While the chains may have stocked plenty of books, Haslet says, "salespeople usually lacked the expertise of independent children's booksellers. I wish we could have convinced people that knowledge was more important than size."
Competition also proved fierce for Gail Willett, who opened Savanna Books, the first children's bookstore featuring multicultural books, in Cambridge, Mass., in 1989, and closed her store in 1996. Prior to starting Savanna Books, Willett had operated a bookfair business from her home and presented workshops. When children's bookstores were popping up everywhere, she took the leap.
During the 1990s, picture book art also flourished. When Olivia and author/illustrator Thacher Hurd started Peaceable Kingdom Press in 1983, they enlisted Thacher's father, Clement Hurd, to produce a poster of Goodnight Moon. The business expanded, catering to the booming retail market. During the decade, says Thacher, "business at least tripled."
Meanwhile, children's bookstores hosted authors and illustrators such as Barbara Cooney, Brian Jacques, or Maurice Sendak, among many others. "It was such a joy to watch them interact with young readers," says Shapiro, who owned Adventures for Kids in Ventura, Calif., from 1978 to 2005. "The fact that our town had a children's bookstore meant that kids had amazing opportunities to meet the authors they admired."
Interacting with the creators of children's books was a treat for booksellers, too. "We hosted a quiet dinner for Philip Pullman with Eight Cousins' staff," says Chittenden, adding, "The conversation was riveting." Shapiro recalls Tasha Tudor's arrival at Adventures for Kids after a long drive, when she asked to use the bathroom. Tudor emerged and said, "Lovely. But I so much prefer the woods. Don't you?"
As much as booksellers enjoyed meeting authors, it was their shared love of books that inspired the book entrepreneurs, because that's what they were—perhaps without realizing. "We delighted in watching young families read their way through the shelves, from board book to young adult," says Barbara Thomas, co-owner of Toad Hall in Austin, Tex., from 1978 to 2000. "We had surprisingly intimate relationships with parents as we fielded their requests for books to help guide, educate and entertain their children."
Thomas recalled the father who never read books as a child, who struggled to read aloud the ending of Island of the Blue Dolphins to his son. "He had no idea of the power of a children's book" until that moment, she says. The father later returned to Toad Hall, asking Thomas, "What else have you got?"
"That was when I realized," says Thomas, "the responsibility and the privilege of being a bookseller."
But change was on the horizon. What happened to some of the children's bookstore pioneers? How had their experiences in the book business influenced subsequent endeavors?
Sigman, who had been an educator before opening The Little Book Room, returned to her previous career. She currently administers educational programs from her home in Massachusetts for the Churchill Centre in London, an organization supporting scholarship about Winston Churchill.
"We were devoted to educating customers, old and young alike," says Sigman. "The bookstore was part of my life's continuum of learning and sharing what I know." Although her store closed 13 years ago, "it's a rare month when someone in the community doesn't tell me how much they loved the store and miss it still," she says. (Every former bookseller interviewed for this article had a similar story to tell.)
Shapiro concurs, saying, "We provided a venue for experiences that will forever be part of our customers' lives. I am stopped all the time and told that by people who grew up with our store in their lives. I have been thanked over and over for turning them on to reading." Shapiro is now a children's author; her first picture book, Up, Up, Up! It's Apple-Picking Time, was published in 2003, and Family Lullaby followed in 2007.
Hollinshead and her husband now reside year-round on Martha's Vineyard. A grandmother of five, Hollinshead is the author of Nine Days' Wonder, a picture book published by Philomel in 1994. "I try to attend Children's Literature New England every year and read as many children's books as I can," she says.
Some former children's booksellers continued to focus on their people skills. Willett had been a psychiatric nurse prior to opening Savanna Books. In 1996, she became the program coordinator at the Cambridge Public Library, where she stayed for seven years. In 2006, she became a life/health coach. Willett now teaches healthy cooking classes in her home. "It's the culmination of everything I've done, what I've learned from bringing people together in the community," she says.
Thomas and her husband have focused on a different kind of people project since she closed Toad Hall in 2000. They had bought The Antlers, a 1901 railroad hotel in Kingsland, Tex., and began restoring it in the 1990s. Their current business allows guests to choose a suite, a cabin, or caboose for their stay.
"I don't miss running a business," says All for Kids' Haslet, "but I'm lonely for the people—the authors, staff, customers." Haslet started Summer Salad Suppers at her home to socialize with the friends she made through her store. Each supper has drawn around 35 people, including authors Karen Cushman, Jack Prelutsky, and Laura McGee Kvasnosky.
Shapiro said she is so busy writing and volunteering, "I don't know how I ran my store!" What saddens her is that "access to a wide range of quality children's books is no longer available in our community except at our beleaguered public library."
Perhaps the chains are now "getting their comeuppance," says Takeuchi, whose store is still in business. "But the times have changed. It's evolutionary. The Internet has a tremendous influence on our little niche of the world. Children themselves are so programmed today. They have no free time for author signings."
A further sign of the times, says Thacher Hurd, is that overall book sales today depend on chains, “If your books don’t sell to chains you’re toasted. Book buying used to be a big democracy. Numbers sold balanced out with so many very opinionated and highly knowledgeable book buyers at children’s bookstores, not a few buyers like the chains have now,” he explains. “I always had a sense that my picture books had a place to go. They don’t anymore.”
Haslet still speaks about the importance of children's books, especially picture books, to parenting groups around Seattle. "Laps, not laptops," she advises them. "There's no comparison between placing a child in front of a computer screen for an abstract experience, or reading, cuddling with a child on a caring parent or adult's lap. That creates a lifetime memory."
"I'm so absolutely grateful," Haslet says, "that I lived my productive life with books rather than machines." Perhaps children's booksellers were—and still are—visionaries, and if community collaboration is still valued, they succeeded in their mission.
Wilensky owned the Oz Children's Bookstore in Southwest Harbor, Maine, from 1982 to 1997, and served on the board of the ABC for eight years. In 2002, Wilensky moved to Tucson, Ariz., where she is assistant editor of the Arizona Jewish Post, a freelance writer/editor, and chair of the History/Memoir/Biography Committee for the Tucson Festival of Books. “Children’s bookstores mattered to all of us,” she says. "A few years after I closed Oz, while hiking in Acadia National Park, a family approached me," she recalls. " ‘It's the Oz lady!' one of the children cried. They all hugged me."