This series looks at how children’s bookstores are responding to the needs of their communities at a time when most stores are closed to the public because of the pandemic.
When Kenny Brechner, PW blogger and owner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, read about “the yeoman’s work” that local schools were doing to deliver breakfast and lunch to families in his community, he wanted to assist by providing books for children and adults to promote family reading.
Last spring Brechner created Little Free Library-style book houses to give away age-appropriate galleys, f&gs, and blads in all seven schools in the Mt. Blue Regional School District. But with schools closed and with no way for kids to use those libraries, Brechner culled the store’s collection of ARCs and donated 500 for the school vans to deliver between March 31 and April 8. The selections ranged from picture books and early chapter books to YA titles and books for adults.
To get even more books into the hands of readers, Brechner is also participating in what he describes as a “very cool program” called the 2,020 Maine Books Challenge. Created by local nonprofit Educate Maine, it helps bookstores, too, by encouraging Mainers to buy a gift certificate from an indie bookstore and donate it to Educate Maine. The gift certificates are then forwarded to teachers so that they can purchase and distribute books to students. The goal is to raise $20,200, for a total of 2,020 books (at roughly $10/per book) to be given to students. Although DDG is one of the designated indie bookstores, participants can purchase gift cards from any book retailer.
For bookstores without a bricks-and-mortar location, the past month has been “really, really interesting,” said educator Rebekah Shoaf, owner of three-year-old Boogie Down Books, “a bookstore without walls” in the Bronx. Among the challenges she has encountered after being forced to close its longtime pop-up location and Saturday morning storytime at Mottley Kitchen because of Covid-19, is a lack of internet access for many of the people she serves.
But Shoaf has found that she can reach some families in the Bronx and beyond by moving her storytimes online. When she canceled in-person storytimes in mid-March, she wasn’t sure what direction to take. After her yoga teacher started offering classes on Zoom, she decided to use the same free platform for Boogie Down. With that decision came a new problem: she could no longer supply books to her storytime readers. So she conducted the next two storytimes. Since then, authors and publishers and others in the community have volunteered to read for Boogie Down. Last Saturday, April 11, Bronx educator Cristy Cuellar-Lezcano read Maybe Something Beautiful /Quizás algo hermoso by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael López (HMH) in both English and Spanish. The week before, author Mahogany L. Browne read from her book Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (Roaring Brook), written with Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, and Woke Baby for younger readers.
Shoaf estimates that online storytimes draw about three times as many families, roughly 40 to 50, as her in-person ones did. In fact, Zoom storytimes have been so popular that she is adding one more on weekdays. She also moved her middle-grade book club for ages 8–13 online last month, when the Mott Haven Library that usually hosts it closed because of the pandemic. At its largest the in-person club drew 15 kids, eight kids on average. The April 20 online book club meeting is already on track to exceed those numbers; so far, 19 kids have signed up for a session on Jerry Craft’s New Kid (HarperCollins). Unlike storytime, Shoaf is limiting book club attendance to 30 kids, to encourage everyone to participate.
“All kinds of unexpected learning is happening as we’re forced to innovate,” said Shoaf, who has also encountered a lot of new faces at the store’s intergenerational Well-Read Black Girl Club on Zoom. Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, N.Y., asked to share the book club with its customers, and blogger Kristin White, owner of Long Story Short in Bermuda, was among the attendees, who discussed Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick (Amistad) earlier this month.
River Dog Book Co., which also operates without a permanent bricks-and-mortar location, had just gotten its license in March for its new home in Portland, Ore., when the coronavirus hit. The store opened in 2018 online and held pop-ups in Beaver Dam, Wisc., where it had planned to open a bookmobile. “Obviously I can’t do author events or pop-ups,” said founder BrocheAroe Fabian, who is focusing on her online store for now. “Having a nontraditional model gives me an edge,” she added. “I’m very lucky in one way: I don’t have much overhead.”
To empty her basement, which is filled with inventory, Fabian began putting together book bundles with books and activities for kids that she delivers for free in the Portland area or ships for a flat $5 fee elsewhere in the U.S. The bundles are grouped by age and include one for Storytime Picture Books for young children as well as an Inquiring Minds Activity Bundle with nonfiction titles on nature and science for ages 5–7, and a hardcover middle-grade bundle for ages 7–12. In a case of what Fabian calls “cuteness overload,” a three-year-old sent her best friend a bundle of books to read since they can’t play together during the pandemic.
Fabian is also using this time to partner with nonprofits like Howard’s Heart, to help them fulfill wish-list items for teenagers in foster care in the Portland area. And she’s begun planning on other directions that her business can take. Public schools may be closed now, but homeschoolers have been less affected and will continue to need educational titles even after a coronavirus vaccine is developed. So she’s begun contacting homeschooling groups about being their local bookstore and running online book fairs for them. “I’m looking at fulfilling their orders through Ingram’s Consumer Direct Fulfillment or through Bookshop.org. “It’s not a huge money maker, but it is a point of connection,” said Fabian, who despite the drop in her business, down by a third from last year, is finding ways to regroup.
See our previous articles in the series, “Bookselling in the Age of Covid-19: How Bookstores Are Connecting with Customers” and “Bookselling in the Age of Covid-19: How Kids’ Bookstores Support Literacy, and Each Other, in a Time of Crisis.”