On Small Business Saturday (November 25), Elizabeth Bluemle and Josie Leavitt celebrated the 20th anniversary of The Flying Pig Bookstore with cupcakes and cider. What began as a tiny 850 sq. ft. children’s-only bookstore in Charlotte, Vt., in the same building with the post office, has grown into an award-winning general bookstore in Shelburne. Among The Flying Pig’s honors are a Pannell Award for Children’s Bookselling and being named Best Children’s Bookstore in New England by Yankee Magazine. In the intervening years since they founded the bookstore, Bluemle and Leavitt have also gone on to become popular bloggers for Publishers Weekly. A blog post by Bluemle led to a bidding war for The SheepOver, a locally published picture book by Jennifer and John Churchman. On December 31, Leavitt will be leaving the store; Bluemle will stay on as sole owner.
What made you decide to open a bookstore in Vermont?
Josie Leavitt: We moved to Vermont from New York City in June, 1996. Both Elizabeth and I were teachers and writers and wanted to take our time to investigate schools before we chose jobs. A small building in Charlotte was for lease and we didn’t want it to be [rented to a business that] the community couldn’t use. We looked around our new town and saw lots of kids, and thought: “Let’s open a children’s bookstore.” We signed the lease in September and opened 10 weeks later.
Elizabeth was really the brains behind the store. She ordered all our inventory, and I coordinated the shelving and renovation of the space. Her experience working at a Crown Books in Los Angeles was invaluable, as I had no clue about the day-to-day operations of a bookstore.
The name of the store comes from an expression that roughly translates into “never,” and yet the bookstore is entering its third decade. What are the bookstore achievements that you are proudest of during that time?
J.L.: We are the proudest of still being here. We have bucked the odds and continued to thrive. We have weathered the storms of chain store pricing issues, the scourge of Amazon, and the advent of the e-book, and still customers flock to our store. We have tried to maintain our small bookstore feel with excellent customer service while being proactive for the bigger issues that all bookstore face.
We have been able to introduce our customers to so many wonderful authors and illustrators—Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney and so many more. Customers still remember when they met Steven Kellogg, Kate DiCamillo, and Howard Dean. I still remember the look on kids’ faces when we had our Harry Potter parties. It’s been a truly amazing 20 years of connecting books and readers.
With a change in ownership about to take place, how do you see that affecting the Flying Pig’s mission?
Elizabeth Bluemle: After 20 years, we are pretty solid in our mission and our approach to books and community. I think the biggest changes will come from the new staff we’ve hired and will hire. Each person arrives with different skills and passions and ideas, and those affect the bookstore in wonderful ways. In terms of Josie stepping back, we will miss her crazy, funny self (though she will visit often), but the change should be pretty smooth. Over the past year and a half, she’s done more and more outside the store, and this summer and fall I’ve taken over the pieces she is usually responsible for, so it won’t be an abrupt shift. And Josie reminds me that whenever the computer system freaks out, she’s just a phone call away.
Successful bookstores are always changing. A decade ago you moved from Charlotte to Shelburne and added more adult titles. What changes do you see on the horizon and where would you like Flying Pig to be 10 years from now?
E.B.: We are always refining our goals and hatching new ideas. Recently, I’ve been rethinking events, trying to come up with creative, unusual ideas for author visits that will make them irresistible to our customers. And we have started doing a lot more partnering with other local businesses and organizations in interesting ways, which is invigorating and a lot of fun. Vermont is chock full of fantastic people doing innovative things, and one of the joys of having a bookstore is the opportunity to be involved in those projects. We’ve also got a strong mission to get new books into the hands of kids who don’t have the extra funds to buy them, and to get authors out to underserved populations. So we will continue expanding those efforts.
Ten years from now? I’m hoping some of the kids who have grown up reading at the bookstore will want to take over and fly the pig for at least another 30 years.