Camilla Corcoran, now a national account manager with HarperCollins Children’s Books, recently attended a reunion with her former co-workers at Eeyore’s Books for Children in New York City, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the store’s closing.
Nineteen years ago, fresh from suburban Littleton, Colorado, and with all the naiveté that implies, I accepted a position at a Manhattan bookstore that was to become the best job I ever had: a bookseller at Eeyore’s Books for Children. The owner of Eeyore’s, Joel Fram, had been in business for 15 years or so by the time I came along, and owned two stores: one at E. 83rd St. and Madison Ave., and the other on Broadway at W. 79th St. Though each store had its own distinct layout, neighborhood clientele and sales patterns, they shared one important thing: a diverse and fun-loving staff that was dedicated to putting just the right book into the hands of a child—or their not-a-moment-to-spare parent or caregiver.
Sharon Hancock (now director of school and library marketing at Candlewick Press) hired me at the East Side Eeyore’s in 1989. To this day she remembers my interview. When she asked me why I wanted to work in a bookstore when all of my previous retail experience had been clothing-related, I replied, “Because I never want to sell another pair of bicycle shorts ever again.” And thus began the adventure of my lifetime.
Eeyore’s closed its doors for good in the summer of 1993 (I am sad to say that Sean Lennon never came in to redeem his outstanding gift certificates), but most of the extraordinary people I had the good luck to work with are still in this industry in one way or another. Among us are editors, sales and marketing and publicity folk, teachers, librarians, writers, artists and musicians, to name just a few of the paths our careers have taken.
Bruce Connelly, an actor who filled in his time between roles processing the returns at Eeyore’s, plays the role of Barkley, the large, exuberant sheepdog on Sesame Street, and at last word was taking Barkley to the big screen. Brian Selznick won the Caldecott Medal in January for his groundbreaking illustrated novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And a few of us who are no longer in the book business still manage to have a stake in the game: Andrea Katz got married, moved to Brazil, and raised three beautiful children there who are voracious readers. Tony DeCicco co-owns the legendary Greenwich Village bar/cabaret The Duplex,with the brother of Kate Morgan Jackson, the editor-in-chief of HarperCollins Children’s Books, my current employer.
And Sean Murtha left Eeyore’s for the American Museum of Natural History and is now exhibition preparator at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. Sean told me, “My time at Eeyore’s was precious to me, even if it wasn’t directly on my ‘path.’ My knowledge of children’s books was spotty at best, but on a broader, more personal level it was a perfect fit. It allowed me the breathing space to develop artistically.” I still remember the beautifully detailed map of Narnia painted by Sean that hung in the East Side store.
The group of managers and booksellers who shared my tenure at Eeyore’s were a close-knit bunch, and although I still see most of them individually or in smaller groups (or even at sales conference: Hi, Steve Geck!), we also like to get together en masse every five years to really catch up. This year, Kate Kubert Puls (former manager of the East Side Eeyore’s, and currently running her own children’s literature consulting business) and Eden Stewart-Eisman (former manager of the West Side store, after Steve Geck, and now the librarian at St. Luke’s School in Greenwich Village), via e-mail and Facebook, managed to round up all of us who could be found for the 15th anniversary of Eeyore’s closing.
We normally meet in Central Park near the Delacorte Theater, but Sunday, September 14managed to be hot and muggy after a wild rainstorm, so instead Kate got us permission to gather in the air-conditioned splendor of the atrium of the Sony building on 55th and Madison. With enough food and drink to keep a medium-sized country alive for at least an hour or two, we hugged and chatted and exclaimed over both actual mates and offspring and those in photographic form. And even though everyone’s a little older and grayer by now, the rallying cry was, “You look just the same!”
Brian Selznick, who used to paint the windows of the West Side Eeyore’s every month, brought along a portfolio of all of his amazing window creations. Brian said he thinks about those windows every time he does a book cover. “Book covers, like the windows, have to look good from far away, from close up, and have to make you want to open the door or the book, as the case may be.” Brian also brought some photo documentation of his many astonishing hairstyles over the years. And of the day the sidewalk in front of Eeyore’s collapsed and sent concrete (and a couple pedestrians) tumbling into the store’s basement.
Those who remained at the store until the bitter end regaled the ones who left earlier with stories of those final days that seemed at least somewhat funnier now than they were back then. Meg Belviso, an editor at Angels on Earth magazine, compared the paltry inventory selection just before the West Side store finally closed as the bookstore version of Monty Python’s “cheese shop” sketch: “Do you have Where the Wild Things Are?” “Not as such...”
We reminisced about favorite (and least-favorite) customers. Kate Kubert Puls remembered a younger Robert Sabuda as a frequent customer—nice as he could be, as he bought every pop-up book in stock while he studied paper engineering. We compared notes on what ISBNs are still ingrained in our memory (mine is Pat the Bunny, Eden Stewart-Eisman’s is Goodnight Moon), and recalled the fun and the occasional stress (children’s books being, after all, a bunny-eat-bunny business) of working at a job we all loved.
Eden commented to me that she too had a terrific mentor in Steve Geck, and with the encouragement of some remarkable school librarians she worked with doing multicultural book fairs, she was guided to an MLS degree. Eden has been fostering a love of books and reading in her students at St. Luke’s School for the past 16 years! Ann Levine, a bookseller from the East Side store (whose son is now college-age, but whom I can’t think of as anything but a toddler), left magazine publishing and now teaches kindergarten at the Harlem Day Charter School. Ann noted, “I’ve never known a better way to immerse myself in the world of books than by surrounding myself with the children, families and booksellers who truly love and appreciate literature for young readers.”
One of my favorite stories is how Steve Geck (now executive editor at Greenwillow Books) initially turned down Brian Selznick’s job application. Brian recalled, “I came into the store knowing nothing about children’s books beyond Where the Wild Things Are and The Cat in the Hat, and Steve sent me away because the sign said, ‘Must have extensive knowledge of children’s literature.’ But he must have taken pity on me because he told me that if I studied and came back he’d reconsider. I think he was shocked that I actually did come back, because even though I didn’t know much more when I returned, he hired me. I will always be grateful for that small act of charity!”
Steve noted in response that of all the applicants he’d ever turned away with the instruction to come back after they’d learned a bit more, Brian was the only person who ever returned. He had apparently spent days at the Donnell Library, and Steve told me, “Anyone who worked that hard to gain knowledge, my gut instinct told me would be a good employee.” Steve was absolutely right in that regard—Brian had a fan base of kids and parents who wanted solely to be waited on by him!
Brian used to come to our store on Sundays to do story hour, and that’s where I learned just what a terrific reader he was, keeping kids of all ages and attention levels hanging on his every word and laughing their tiny heads off. Tony DeCicco (who left Eeyore’s to become a touring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle before his rise to businessman) once advised me to look out for a great picture book that was soon to be published by two really funny guys who came into the store one day. That book? The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.
Some of our group couldn’t make it to the reunion, for various reasons. Helen Perelman, formerly an editor with Scholastic and Hyperion, now a freelance writer/editor as she raises her preschool-age twin girls, dashed in for about five minutes because her husband couldn’t find parking. Sharon Hancock wasn’t able to come down from Boston that weekend. And sadly, Roxanne Hsu Feldman (middle school librarian at the Dalton School) and her family missed the message about our last-minute change of locale, and ended up having their own solo picnic in the park. Roxanne, we missed you!
What I recall best about my time at Eeyore’s (aside from the fact that I now know how to wrap a gift of absolutely any shape—and fast!), is that it was the first job that showed me what I was good at, and the business I wanted to be in. Work, however hard it could get at times, was a place I looked forward to coming every single day. Apart from the thrill of getting to meet some of my children’s-lit heroes like Madeleine L’Engle and Maira Kalman up close and personal, what I carry with me even now is a list of books that have become lifelong favorites, many of them introduced to me for the first time by someone that I worked with, and that I still pass along to other friends, coworkers and family.
Sharon Hancock, who so kindly hired me all those years ago, told me that she considers her tenure there “my master’s in children’s literature—and I got paid for it!” I think everyone who spent time working at Eeyore’s thinks that as well, and that’s what makes me proudest of having worked there. Wild horses won’t keep me away from our 20th reunion!