Thirty years ago, Philippe Werck opened Poespas, a children’s bookstore, in his native city of Hasselt, the capital of Belgium’s Flemish province of Limburg. In 1984, he launched his own children’s publishing company, Clavis Publishing, which currently releases more than 180 Dutch-language titles annually. Now Clavis—the Latin word for key—has opened its doors in this country with the establishment of a Manhattan office and the spring launch of its first 10 English-language titles. Independent Publishing Group will distribute Clavis titles in the U.S. and Canada.

Werck, who had previously worked in the advertising department of a Hasselt newspaper, entered the bookselling business at the age of 25. “I was looking around for good books for my own young children, and they were rather hard to find in general bookstores,” he explains. “The thought that my need for good books would also be the need of many other parents created the store. I started Poespas without partners and today the store is still a family business, where the most important partners are my children.”

Even as he stocked Poespas’s shelves the evening before the store opened, Werck had his next step in mind. “I remember thinking on that night that I really wanted to be publishing myself one day,” he says. Six years later, he was. Werck founded Clavis and released its first five titles, rights to which he had purchased at Frankfurt. Soon thereafter the publisher began signing up authors and illustrators to create an original publishing program. Over 24 years, Clavis has published books by Belgian, German, Dutch, French and Italian writers and artists, in formats spanning board books to young adult novels. Clavis’s Hasselt office now numbers 34 employees.

A frequent visitor to book conventions and fairs around the globe, Werck has over the years sold rights to Clavis titles to publishers in many countries, including the U.S., and he estimates that his house’s books have been translated into 30 languages. “It seemed the logical next step was to enter the English market ourselves,” he notes. “I remember visiting New York City 20 years ago and saying to myself, ‘One day I will have a business here.’ It was one of my dreams.”

Though Werck expects to add books by American authors and illustrators to Clavis’s English-language list in the future, initially it will consist of translations of Clavis’s Dutch titles, of which there are 1,050 in print. The spring list includes three titles by Liesbet Siegers, part of the Clavis Toddler line of concept board books published on five age levels; six picture books: Max on His Tricycle, Max Exercises and Ricky by Guido van Genechten, Deep Sea Doctor Dean by Leo Timmers and Little Red Riding Hood and The Little Matchstick Girl, both illustrated by Debbie Lavreys; and Totally Lisa, a middle grade novel by Stefan Boonen.

Samara Klein, formerly a sales manager for Harry N. Abrams, selling Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet Books, is senior manager of Clavis’s New York office. She coordinates the company’s U.S. marketing and publicity and acts as a liaison between the Clavis home headquarters and IPG. Having worked with IPG for several months, Klein is impressed with the company’s staffers, whom she calls “extremely knowledgeable, well organized and responsive. They care and work hard for each individual title they sell.”

At IPG, title development manager Mary Rowles, a former publisher sales rep and children’s bookseller, has long been a fan of Clavis’s books, saying that it is “a great opportunity” for IPG to be selling Clavis titles directly for the publisher. “Clavis will certainly raise the profile of our children’s list, which has grown tremendously in the last five years,” Rowles says. “And it is a good fit in that IPG has a strong presence in the library, school, gift and specialty markets, and Clavis books work well across a variety of markets.”

Werck and Klein will introduce booksellers to Clavis’s American publishing program at BEA, where the publisher’s books will be displayed in a dedicated section of the IPG booth. Clavis’s fall list will contain 17 titles and Werck anticipates the house will release between 35 and 40 titles in 2009. “We don’t have specific goals set in terms of the size of our list,” he says. “We will publish books that are right for the market, right for the children and right for the list itself. We are not in a hurry to publish many books quickly. We see this as a long-term project.”