From time to time bookstore owners are forced to turn to their kids for help, especially during the holidays, when there never seem to be enough booksellers. But last fall a group of teens and tweens contributed their time and expertise without being asked. By making an ongoing commitment, they made it possible for their parents' new businesses to run smoothly. And in the case of Nancy Oliver of Wit and Whimsy, a children's bookstore in Marblehead, Mass., which has just held its official launch, to open at all. Oliver says that if her two teenage daughters hadn't wanted to open a bookstore with her, she and her husband wouldn't have moved forward with their plans.
One of the youngest child booksellers is August, age 10. Although he doesn't actually "run" 20-year-old Califon Book Shop in Califon, N.J., which his parents purchased last summer, he considers it his own. "He's an only child and he thinks he's on an equal footing with us. He came to the closing, and he always refers to it as ‘our' store," says Claire Boland, whose mother, a former sculptor, also assists by building window displays. For Christmas, for example, she constructed a seven-foot, rotating woodland castle, inspired by childhood memories of trips to view department-store windows in downtown Wichita, Kans., in the 1940s.
August is more of a salesman, according to Boland. When grandparents ask about books that kids between the ages of eight and 11 would like to read, he's ready with a recommendation. He's also written shelf-talkers for series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Percy Jackson. When Boland was having a hard time finding someone to lead storytime, he volunteered for Saturdays. Not that all of his labor is volunteer. "If he's actually working and shelving books, he gets paid," says Boland, who doesn't pay him for reading the inventory.
At Wellesley Booksmith, soon to be renamed Wellesley Books, in Wellesley, Mass., "the whole community is so supportive," says Gillian Kohli, who bought the store with her husband in the fall. Customers brought in treats at Christmastime for their favorite booksellers. Kohli's children—James, a senior at Rice University; Peter, a sophomore at Pomona College; Colin, age 16, a sophomore in high school; and Nora, 14, a freshman—have contributed to the store's image as a community center.
When a customer had trouble downloading Google Books, Peter offered one-on-one tutoring at the store. And when a woman called asking how to add attachments to e-mail, Colin made a house call, even though her question had nothing to do with books. "It felt good to be able to help her out and have people call us for whatever they need," Kohli says.
All the children like working the register and interacting with customers, says Kohli, who has come to rely on them for help with the store's WordStock inventory system. Colin works at the store on Sundays, while Kohli continues to disentangle Wellesley's operations from those of its former sister store, Brookline Booksmith. Over their monthlong college break, Peter and Colin did whatever had to be done, from taking the recycling to the town dump to doing stock checks and helping carry people's bags to the car. At present Nora has sports on the weekend, so she is less active in the store.
By contrast, Nancy Oliver's daughters, 15-year-old Emma and 13-year-old Sarah, helped her select Wit and Whimsy's name and colors: the blues and greens, including Benjamin Moore's Fun 'N Games. The teens also helped paint the store and unfinished furniture. Emma, who has a good eye for design, chose the Sticks furniture that the store sells and came up with the concept and image for the logo. The name was a group decision.
Emma is also involved in the buying. "When I get a catalogue, I have her mark it up, especially for YA," says Oliver. "She knows what teens want to read." Emma also enjoys crafts and is planning a series of activities for the store, starting with origami. Sarah prefers running the store, says Oliver. She likes to operate the cash register and make change. Both children contribute to Oliver's goal of making the store a place where kids feel comfortable hanging out. "I've had kids do homework at the store and then buy books," she says. "That's what I was looking for."
Although these children may not truly be running their parents' stores, they are definitely helping make the stores run. At a time when many booksellers are nearing retirement, they are also lending youth and vitality to bookselling's graying image.
Older Kids Help Out, Too
Today's teens and preteens aren't the only ones helping their bookseller parents. Below are some second- and third-generation booksellers who started the very same way.
Becky Anderson, Anderson Bookshop in Naperville and Downer's Grove, Ill.
Michael Fox, Joseph Fox Bookshop in Philadelphia
Suzanna Hermans, Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y.
John Hugo, HugoBooks in Andover,
Marblehead, and Newburyport, Mass.
Chris Morrow, Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt.
Emily Powell, Powell's Books in Portland, Ore.
Casey Coonerty Protti, Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif.
John Rubin, Above the Treeline—originally developed to help "mom," Roberta Rubin, at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill.
Vicky Titcomb, Titcomb's Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass.
Tony Weller, Sam Weller's Bookstore in Salt Lake City
Nancy Bass Wyden, the Strand in New York City
Zack Zook, BookCourt in Brooklyn, N.Y.