Children’s booksellers have reason for cautious optimism. Although the delta variant is surging in parts of the country, the number of Americans who are fully vaccinated continues to inch upward and the economy is rebounding. Eager to meet the perceived needs of their communities, several entrepreneurs without prior bookselling experience opened children’s bookstores during the pandemic, and currently they are drawing sighs of relief.

They also have reason to look forward to CI9: building community with other indie booksellers, several of whom already have provided advice and encouragement to them in their new ventures.

Alice, Ever After Books, Buffalo, N.Y.

Opening Date: July 3, 2021

Alice, Ever After Books might never have existed if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. For more than a year, owner Megan Howe taught kindergarten via Zoom, while her husband kept their toddler quiet and worked across the table from her in their tiny Boston apartment. The two moved back to their Buffalo, N.Y., hometown earlier this year to escape a living situation that was becoming intolerable.

After driving by a vacant commercial building, Howe decided to make a 20-year dream a reality by opening a bookstore there. “There was no listing, so I cold-called the owner,” she says. “It took me 20 years, but then it moved very quickly after that phone call. Then people started to get vaccinated. The timing was uncanny.”

The 800-sq.-ft. bookstore stocks 1,500–2,000 books, from board books to YA, plus a shelf containing adult books. “And we have a display of ‘I just came from the zoo’ books,” Howe notes, in honor of the store’s proximity to the Buffalo Zoo across the street.

Howe expressed appreciation for approximately 20 indie booksellers across the country who, she says, “held my hand and guided me all the way. Each bookseller would talk to me, and then pass me on to the next; this happened over and over.” Howe joined the ABA and is taking a “crash course for new booksellers” hosted by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association.

At the store’s grand opening celebration, masked customers were welcomed by a group of musicians performing outside. Howe hopes it will be the first of many special events. “Once I figure out how to do it, I’m going host events and classes,” she says.

Fable Books, Venice, Fla.

Opening Date: June 4, 2021

Robyn Lee says she opened Fable Books to provide “a fun experience for kids in the area and a destination for their parents and grandparents.” The 1,000-sq.-ft. store has a woodsy theme: the ceiling is covered with clusters of leaves, there are forest-related fixtures and displays, and the store mascot is a raccoon named Fable.

Lee, a former educator, often fantasized about opening a bookstore after becoming an avid reader as an adult. “I loved reading books with my daughter,” she says, “and literature-based curriculum was my favorite part of being a preschool teacher.”

Admitting that it was “a leap of faith to take the plunge into bookselling,” Lee recalls she decided to make her “silly dream” a reality after observing how committed to supporting local businesses the residents in Venice had become during the pandemic.

While Lee describes herself as “winging it,” she has also done her homework. She has watched how-to videos on bookselling on YouTube, produced by companies ranging from Ingram and Scholastic to the Big Comfy Bookshop in Coventry, England. She also joined the ABA and is taking full advantage of its resources, especially the educational webinars.

As she prepared to open her store, Lee drove around southwest Florida, introducing herself to other Gulf Coast indie bookstore owners, who have been generous with their time and knowledge. Among them was Rebecca Binkowski, a bookseller of 25 years who has owned MacIntosh Books & Paper on Sanibel Island, Fla., since 2017. “She spent a lot of time talking with me and walked me through her store’s POS system,” Lee says.

Rohi’s Readery, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Opening Date: June 19, 2021

On the other side of the Sunshine State, Pranati Kumar deliberately opened Rohi’s Readery on Juneteenth, June 19, a date that reflects its mission statement of being “a social-justice–driven children’s bookstore” committed to promoting inclusivity and diversity. Its 1,000-book inventory emphasizes books featuring BIPOC and LGBTQ characters and people with disabilities.

Kumar says the 1,000-sq.-ft. store was inspired by the fact that she didn’t see herself, as an Indian immigrant to the U.S., represented in the books she read when she was a child.

Despite the pandemic, Kumar, who has an extensive background in education and obtained bookseller certification through the International Association of Professions Career College, felt compelled to persevere with opening Rohi’s Readery to provide a safe learning space—not just for children but also for their parents and other adult caregivers—that would attend to people’s emotional needs as well as their educational interests.

Programming for both adults and children includes story times, classes, workshops, and even community meals. “We’re all collectively going through trauma,” Kumar explains. “The goal is to provide an opportunity for people to build connections through literacy, to grow and learn together after the experiences of the past year”—particularly families that have moved to the area during the pandemic and might feel isolated.

“For me it’s really all about community,” Kumar notes. “It’s about access to stories about underrepresented communities.”

Kumar and Terri Hamm of Kindred Stories, a new Houston pop-up and online bookstore that sells books by authors from throughout the African diaspora, are learning from one another. While Hamm searches for a location where she can open a physical storefront, Kumar wants to enhance Rohi’s Readery’s digital presence. “My hope is to offer an online experience, but right now, I’m just a party of one,” she says.

Sandcastle Tales, Del Mar, Calif.

Opening Date: September 15, 2020

Alex Rhett, who grew up in Mexico and France before moving to California, opened Sandcastle Tales in Del Mar, Calif., in July 2019. Less than nine months later the store, which is located on the main road going through the beach town north of San Diego, shut down due to a lack of customers. “I saw my business die,” she recalls. She was forced to move out of her shop and place her inventory in storage because she could no longer afford rent.

After negotiating favorable terms with Del Mar Plaza, a restaurant and shopping complex anchoring the downtown area, Rhett reopened Sandcastle Tales in a 450-sq.-ft. space with 2,500 books for children ranging from board books to YA, with an emphasis on art, the ocean, nature, and the environment.

Surrounded by clothing stores and closed restaurants, Rhett drew families to Sandcastle Tales by offering weekly storytimes on the plaza’s communal outdoor patio. “We would not only read stories but everybody participated,” she recalls. “We also made crafts. People would come and pay for the [craft] kits.” By November 2020, attendance averaged 50 people.

California has relaxed its Covid-19 guidelines, but Rhett intends to continue minimizing physical contact and restricting the number of people permitted inside the store at one time. Taking advantage of Del Mar’s mild climate, she says she is also going to continue scheduling outdoor events, explaining, “I have to do storytimes outside, my store is so small.”

Three Stories Books, Lemont, Ill.

Opening Date: April 3, 2021

Sommer Steele was inspired to become a bookseller after touring a vacant space across the street from the vintage furniture and home decor store she has owned for more than five years in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, Ill. In December 2020 she decided that she would open a children’s bookstore in the storefront. Three Stories Books opened less than four months later.

“More and more young families have been moving to Lemont, and there weren’t many destinations downtown where kids were welcome,” Steele explains. “I had no intention of starting another business. We were going through a pandemic and I knew nothing about bookselling; I didn’t even know where I’d get the books. But I wanted a place for families. We didn’t need another bar or restaurant.”

The learning curve has been steep, but Steele has embraced it, joining the ABA and reaching out to the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. She solicited advice from several Facebook indie bookseller groups she participated in and met John Mesjak of Abraham & Associates, PW’s 2018 sales rep of the year. “Luckily, he was the first rep I talked to,” she says. “He visited my store and was both realistic and encouraging, not wearing rose-colored glasses.”

Steele plans on hosting events in the 1,200-sq.-ft. space, in which she spotlights colorful picture books by displaying them face out in the front area, while middle grade and YA titles are shelved in a back area designed to look like a classic library. She is already planning something even more ambitious than a reading or storytime: a street festival featuring children’s authors including Rena Rosen and Amy Logan, face painting, live music, and food vendors.

Despite owning another retail business, Steele describes her entry into bookselling as a humbling experience, disclosing that if she had known how little she knew about the industry before she signed the lease, she never would have done it. “It’s been harder to learn than the typical retail experience,” she admits, “but everyone has been so supportive. I have customers who I believe will show up, and I have this other community of booksellers and publishers’ reps who will help me.”

The Wandering Jellyfish Bookshop, Niwot, Colo.

Opening Date: July 31, 2021

Beginning when she was a student at the University of Colorado, children’s writer and illustrator Carissa Mina kept her eye on a 112-year-old historic building outside of Boulder, in downtown Niwot, that she envisioned as the perfect space for a children’s bookstore. “The minute that building became available in April, I jumped on it,” she says. “I’ve been waiting five years for this.”

Mina asked fellow children’s lit enthusiast Jerilyn Patterson to partner with her, and the two are launching the Wandering Jellyfish Bookshop on August 14. The 620-sq.-ft. retail space holds 1,400 books. There is also a 450-sq.-ft. area in which writing and illustrating workshops are planned.

Two of the first things Mina and Patterson did after signing the lease were joining the ABA and signing up for Paz & Associates’ online training courses for prospective booksellers. They also hired Donna Paz and Mark Kaufman as consultants. “Donna and Mark introduced us to some veteran booksellers that we talked to as well,” Patterson explains.

The bookstore co-owners note that their volunteer work with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators eased the transition, providing them with some knowledge of how the industry works.

Launching a business during the pandemic didn’t faze either woman. “We both felt like we wanted and needed some personal connection,” Patterson says. “We’d been online for so long. This bookstore is the perfect marriage between what we both love—children’s books—and getting books out into the community.”

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