Occasionally booksellers and bookstores make cameo appearances in books, but 33-year-old Booktender’s Secret Garden Bookstore & Gallery in Doylestown, Pa., could be the first children’s specialty store to be the subject of an entire picture book – and the recipient of its profits.
Earlier this year Nicole Plyler Fisk, associate director of First-Year English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., published The Booktender’s Garden through Lulu to benefit the person on whom the book’s main character, Miss Ellen, is based: 64-year-old bookstore proprietor Ellen Mager.
The idea for writing a fundraising book about Mager, who has been struggling financially, came from Fisk’s friend, local Doylestown resident Kara Hughes. Because of her health Hughes wasn’t able to write the book. But when Fisk visited the bookstore last summer with her son, Jack, and with Hughes, she was so impressed at Mager’s ability to select just the right book that she took on the task.
Fisk returned to South Carolina and wrote a poem about her experience at the Doylestown bookstore, where she experienced first-hand why Mager received a handselling award from the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association in 2012. She turned to Lulu for publication after previously using the publishing platform for a book for her son’s homeschooling project, The Pirate Train. She found Cloud Pillow Studio to illustrate the book after a Google search.
Fisk’s biggest concern about the book fundraiser was that selling indie books can be difficult. “The markup is high [compared] to traditionally published books,” she said. “To make a $5 profit per book, it has to sell for $13.82, an especially hard sell for a paperback.”
For Mager, the book came as a complete surprise. “I didn’t know about it until [Fisk and Hughes] handed me a finished book.” Mager said. “I cried. As I’ve been struggling, my being here really means something to people.”
Mager has sold 65 copies in the store since January 27. Reps have purchased the book for themselves. So have adults, who were customers at the store when they were growing up and tell her that the book depicts their own experience at the bookstores. Some have purchased a copy for each of their children.
During PW’s phone conversation with Mager, a customer spoke up loudly in the background and said, “It’s a beautiful book. There’s a lot of emotion in it, if you know Ellen and the store.” Mager added, “The wording is very cute; the pictures are very cute. It’s the nicest print-on-demand book I’ve ever seen: the paper, the color, the illustrations.”
Mager has already received over $500 from the book’s profits and has put that toward doing “extra things” that she can no longer afford, like attending BEA and Children’s Institute. “It’s been really nice,” she said.
But even with the psychological and financial boost from the book, Mager said, “I’m ready to have someone come in and do all the work. I finished my 33rd year in January. I’d like to be able to do other things.” Mager would be happy to stay on and work with a new owner.
As for Fisk, helping Mager in this way was such a “wonderful” experience that she wanted to use her writing to benefit other deserving people. Fisk recently taught a service-learning writing class at the University of South Carolina; together with the students she wrote and published I Had a Home in Syria (March). The proceeds will help pay tuition for a displaced Syrian graduate student in the U.S. (her name has been withheld to protect her family, which still lives in the war zone).