Anne Irish, a leading figure in children’s bookselling in America, died on January 26, at age 78. She was among a cadre of women who opened and purchased bookstores in the 1970s and 1980s and went on to cement children’s bookselling as a distinct profession in the American literary scene.
Irish opened her children’s bookstore, Pooh Corner, with Denise Herzberg and Donna Huntington in 1976. The Madison, Wis., store quickly became a community staple. The Capital Times described it as “a first aid station for culturally battered children and adults. [It is] an alternative to plastic fantastic toy stores and a definitive haven from slam bam television.”
With two young children of her own, Irish knew what readers wanted. Running a bookstore was a different matter. Prior to opening Pooh Corner, her only experience was a five-day intensive education class offered by the American Booksellers Association. But within a few short years, Irish had gained a mastery in children’s bookselling that put her at the forefront of her generation.
At the time, children’s booksellers were struggling to gain a footing as equals to their general trade bookselling counterparts. But with a large number of new children’s stores opening, pressure was growing for educational opportunities backed by the support of a nationwide network. After questions from children’s booksellers dominated a session at the 1984 ABA convention in Washington, D.C., Herzberg and Irish called for an immediate meeting.
“I remember a bunch of us—known as the founding mothers—sitting on the floor after that meeting talking about starting our association,” Irish told PW in 2011. A year later, they launched the Association of Booksellers for Children. At its peak, the group had 600 members, drawing equal participation from children’s stores and general trade stores.
In 1991, Irish bought out her partners and took sole ownership of Pooh Corner. The store was later acquired by Highsmith Company and renamed the Education Station. Irish stayed on as a buyer until 2001. She then became the executive director of the association she had co-founded in 1985. Consistently attuned to changes in the publishing industry, she helped ABC adapt to the emerging shift toward a frontlist-focused publishing trade. She retired from her position at ABC in 2005.
With the decline of children’s bookstores in the early 2000s, ABC eventually merged with the ABA in 2010. In many ways, the joining of ABC within ABA provided the seeds for the ABA’s annual Children’s Institute, which drew more than 400 attendees from 266 stores last summer.
Valerie Lewis and Monica Holmes, co-owners of Hicklebee’s Children’s Bookstore in San Jose, Calif., and founding members of the ABC, offered this tribute: “Warm and welcoming, Anne Irish was one of the people we would first connect with when we arrived in a new city to attend a meeting or conference. We would exchange bookstore stories and talk about new programs that could get children reading. She was a good listener, filled with ideas and an easy smile. Anne was key in developing programs for the ABC including the Building Blocks catalog, the E.B. White Read Aloud Award, and the annual ABC auction. Anne’s calming grace relaxed those around her in even in the stressful hours prior to ABC events. Anne was also a gracious host, whether at her home with board members or welcoming new booksellers at meetings across the country. We salute Anne for all she did to strengthen the foundation of the children’s bookselling community. We will miss her.”
In retirement, Irish volunteered at her local library, played softball, painted, and traveled. She is survived by her husband Chuck, two children, Rob Irish and Marney Hoefer, and two grandchildren, Will and Ben.