In times of change, the future of children’s bookselling arguably lies in how stores have refined or reinterpreted longstanding programs, such as author events, book fairs, and subscription book boxes, for a new generation.

To find out more about the innovative solutions that some stores have taken, we took a closer look at the approaches of six very different independent bookstores. They include one of the country’s oldest, Books Inc., which is headquartered in San Leandro, Calif., and dates back to 1851 and the California Gold Rush, as well as the six-year-old Silver Unicorn in Acton, Mass., both of which have experimented with nonprofit book fairs and book festivals for middle graders, respectively.

Other stores, like Copperfield’s Books, headquartered in Sebastopol, Calif., offer kids chances to meet big-name children’s authors and illustrators over pizza dinners. For close to a decade, the Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, N.C., has been giving away books to kids in rural areas who have never visited a bookstore. And 38-year-old Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, one of the oldest children’s specialty bookstores in the country, has found a way to make virtual author visits work, despite many of their colleagues having given up.

In addition, 13-year-old Parnassus Books in Nashville boasts a successful YA subscription box program that continues to draw new readers. It also predates national and international subscription boxes like OwlCrate Monthly Book Box and FairyLoot Fantasy Book Subscription Box.

Below are tips from booksellers at each of these stores about how they are revitalizing their businesses and serving their communities.

“Bookstormer” Dinners

Patty Norman, director of kids’ events at all nine Copperfield’s Books stores in Northern California, likes to think of herself and others who encourage a passion for reading in kids as “book barnstormers,” or “bookstormers.” The name comes from the barnstormer pilots of the 1920s who crisscrossed the country promoting flying with aerobatic stunts. Similarly, today’s kids’ authors fly into cities and towns to promote their latest books and are soon gone to the next event in the next town or state.

In 2012, Norman began hosting five or six middle grade Bookstormer Dinners per year for Copperfield’s Petaluma store. The dinners are designed to bring together kids and librarians from school districts in North Bay, north of San Francisco. Featured authors have included Chris Columbus, coauthor of the House of Secrets series and director of the first three Harry Potter movies, and Claribel A. Ortega, author of the Witchlings series.

“Our biggest thing,” Norman says, “is harnessing the energy of the community and getting the bookseller and teacher out of the way to let kids engage with the author or illustrator. It is so moving. You can’t monetize that: kids learning to love to read.”

To find participants for each event, Norman relies on an email list that she has developed over the years, made up of families who shop at Copperfield’s. She writes to parents or caretakers of children who she thinks will enjoy a particular author or illustrator and be comfortable talking with them. “I try to pick kids who are independent,” Norman says. “It’s a great experience for them. They get to order dinner, speak for themselves, and purchase the book themselves.”

Norman caps attendance at 30. To get a mix of students from different school districts, she sometimes contacts librarians and asks them each to invite a student to attend with them.

Norman says she tries to pick titles that “will appeal to everybody,” adding, “I try not to prejudge too much.” Two of her favorite events were Annie Barrows dining with 28 sets of twins for The Magic Half in 2014 and Ben Hatke doing a doodle dinner the following year for Little Robot. Though most dinners are at a local pizza parlor, Norman felt a nearby purple house would be the perfect spot to host Jason Segel for Nightmares!, the first book in the trilogy he wrote with Kristen Miller, which features a purple house on its jacket, and contacted the house’s owners to arrange it. More recently she varied the format for Angie Thomas, who attended a pre-event dinner for The Manifesto Prophecy (Nic Blake and the Remarkables #1) at a local bakery last year.

In addition to the dinners, Norman has also used Bookstormer as the name for the foundation that she launched for the 2019–2020 school year, in coordination with Copperfield’s. It provides free books for kids in Title 1 schools for author assemblies, relying on donations from Copperfield’s customers, grants, and a recent $10,000 gift from a football team, which she prefers not to name.

Getting graphic

In 2023, sportswriter Paul Swydan was trying to find a way to mark the fifth anniversary of his bookstore, the Silver Unicorn, in Acton, a Boston suburb. He says the marketer in him knew that the only way to get buzz for a “mature” business was to do something big.

He rejected the idea of opening a second store. “A lot of our success is due to the fact that we’re part of the community,” he says. Rather than try a new community, he decided to celebrate books in the store’s strongest category by launching an annual Kids Graphic Novel Festival aimed at middle grade readers and their families. “Graphic novels have always been our sweet spot in terms of turns. Even when we put more books into it, kids just blow through them.”

Even so, Swydan admits that there may have been a bit of naivete in his decision to create a book festival. But that didn’t hurt attendance; the second year drew an estimated 3,000 attendees—and that was on top of an unexpected scheduling snafu that saw the Silver Unicorn and the Boston Comics in Color festivals being held on the same day.

The Silver Unicorn festival is free, as is parking, and the first 500 families also get free tote bags. “We try to take the burden off families,” Swydan says. In addition to focusing on booking authors who appeal to 8–12-year-olds, he tries to schedule events for younger kids, ages 6–10, with graphic novelists like Jannie Ho (The Lost Mitten), as well as authors like Dan Nott (Hidden Systems) who will appeal to older siblings. Other headliners included Lincoln Peirce, known for his Big Nate books and the Max and the Midnights series, and Kayla Miller, author of the Click Graphic series.

In addition, the bookstore holds a Design Your Own Cover contest for ages up to 12 years old to encourage kids to create their own graphic novels or put their spin on one that’s already been published, the winners of which are announced at the festival. This year, the bookstore displayed all 170 entries.

So far, both festivals have enjoyed “really great” sales, Swydan says. Both were responsible for the store’s biggest sales day in their respective years, outselling both Christmas Eve and Independent Bookstore Day. In 2024, the store sold 1,850 graphic novels, and that figure doesn’t include other books or T-shirts sold. “Our goal is to be revenue neutral before we sell a book,” says Swydan, who makes sure that the entire staff is paid and helps at the festival.

Swydan is already looking ahead to 2025’s event, which will be held a month later than the past iterations, on May 3, so that the festival doesn’t coincide with school vacation week.

Free books—and author visits—for Title 1 kids

In 2015, Angie Tally, children’s department manager at the Country Bookshop, decided to do more to help children in her community by forming Authors in Moore Schools (AIMS), a nonprofit that promotes books and reading in Moore County, N.C., where the store is located. In recent years, AIMS has expanded its mission to serve even more Title 1 schools by working in rural communities throughout the state, where kids seldom visit a bookstore.

Over the past eight years, AIMS has brought 120 authors to 57 rural schools and donated 22,360 books in partnership with the Country Bookshop. “My goal for the kids AIMS serves,” Tally says, “is to let them know that you are special. You’ve met someone famous. You have your own story. Now you can tell your story, too.”

Though AIMS is separate from the bookstore, Tally says that “it absolutely could not do the work it does without the relationship with our independent bookstore partner.” The Country Bookshop gives AIMS a 25% discount for books for its events. In addition, the nonprofit is supported by grants from local businesses and other area nonprofits, such as the Arts Council of Moore County, and by gifts from individuals.

AIMS may be Tally’s side hustle, but in 2022 she added what she calls “a sort of side gig to her side gig” by partnering with North Carolina–based First Bank to launch a First Bank Book Club, which gives free books for students when authors visit schools in towns with bank branches. “This has been especially meaningful,” Tally says, “since community is part of AIMS’s mission, and First Bank staffers actually come and assist with author events.”

When bank staffers saw firsthand the impact of pairing kids and books, they asked to add Little Free Libraries to all the branches. Each now contains eight children’s books, from board books to YA, which are available to young readers.

Despite AIMS’s many successes, Tally has begun to rethink how the nonprofit can best get books into the hands of children. Initially she made a 10-year commitment to bringing authors into schools that seldom get them and ensuring that students get copies of the corresponding books. But given recent controversy in her state over book challenges in schools, Tally is finding it difficult to bring some authors for school visits. Among the ideas that AIMS is considering are book fairs that give books to kids.

Book fairs with free books for Title 1 kids

On the other side of the country, Books Inc., which has nine stores in Northern California plus two Compass Books locations at San Francisco International Airport, has already begun experimenting with free school book fairs for Title 1 schools.

For the 2023–2024 school year, the bookseller moved all its book fairs and author visits, which are held in conjunction with the fairs, under the Reading Bridge umbrella. In January, the organization received nonprofit status as a 501(c)3. Its stated mission is “to provide children across San Francisco Bay Area with access to new, diverse, and inclusive books.”

According to incoming executive director Vanessah Liu, in its inaugural year, Reading Bridge gave away a total of 1,320 books at three schools across the Bay Area. She says the organization’s business model remains the same as in the past: to work with schools to tailor book fairs to their needs.

Currently, Reading Bridge’s book fairs are funded by store customers who round up their purchases to the nearest dollar and donate the differences to the nonprofit. “My goal and my mission,” Liu says, “is to increase donations in order to serve more of our economically disadvantaged schools.” In June, she started by holding a tabling event at the Books Inc. location in Mountain View. She’s also looking at grant opportunities as well as exploring the possibility of having school partners donate back to Reading Bridge.

For the coming school season, Liu would like to be able to add one more Title 1 school. “Right now,” she says, “we are trying to fulfill our longstanding requests from schools that we have previously partnered with [for book fairs that serve as school fundraisers].” The fairs with free books will be scheduled around them.

Books in a box

In recent years, a number of bookstores and other businesses have entered the children’s subscription book box space. But when it comes to YA subscription boxes, Parnassus Books in Nashville prides itself on having the oldest first edition book club for teens: ParnassusNext, which it introduced in 2013 with local author Ruta Sepetys’s Out of the Easy. More recent selections, all signed first editions, include Morgan Matson’s The Ballad of Darcy and Russell and Erica Ivy Rodgers’s Lady of Steel and Straw.

In an interview that appeared on the store’s Musing blog last year to mark the 10th anniversary of ParnassusNext, Mary Grey James, former director of Parnassus Books for Young Readers, said she started the club because of the dramatic growth in the area that she saw from her early days as a publisher sales rep. She and Stephanie Appell, director of books and events for young readers at Parnassus, “knew from working the sales floor that there were young customers who eagerly awaited a favorite author’s next book and would be thrilled with a signed copy.”

According to Rae Ann Parker, current director of Books and Events for Young Readers, the success of ParnassusNext spawned additional children’s clubs. Parents and caregivers wanted book boxes for younger members of the family, too, which led to the launch of Spark Book Club for middle graders in 2020, followed by the Sprout Picture Book Club two years later. As to which of the kids’ first editions is the most popular, Parker says, the numbers fluctuate too much month to month for there to be a clear favorite.

Part of what makes each ParnassusNext selection special, Parker says, is that it’s chosen by a group of booksellers, which includes herself and two other avid YA readers on her bookselling team. “We’re picking a book that we love, across genres. It’s not necessarily going to be a bestseller.”

Many of the books are signed at the bookstore, often in conjunction with store events. The store also creates short videos that are sent to all ParnassusNext subscribers to give them brief behind-the-scenes looks at the book-signing process. Each book is wrapped in tissue paper, which is held together with a unique sticker, and a bookmark is included.

Parnassus promotes teen book box selections at the front of the store with the latest book box packaging, and in the YA section where it displays five or six recent picks. A video of the most recent selection runs on a monitor at the front of the store. And the store posts a list of all past selections on its website.

Despite many older readers being drawn to YA, Parker says she believes that ParnassusNext selections are mostly reaching teens. She gets a lot of emails from parents and grandparents about the picks. In addition, she sees a number of kids move up from middle grade subscription book boxes to ParnassusNext.

Virtual events with IRL success

Children’s Book World & CBW Teens & Adults in Los Angeles is one of the few stores that began holding virtual events before the pandemic—since there are only so many in-person school visits an author or illustrator can make in a day—and it’s also one of the rare bookstores that has continued to make virtual events work.

Initially, the store’s general manager, Brein Lopez, began recording and broadcasting school visits live at the same time of the school day when they are most frequently held in person, but he sometimes encountered scheduling problems as well as technical issues. In addition, security blocks meant to protect schools from cyberattacks sometimes prevented teachers from showing live broadcasts in their classrooms.

So Lopez began prerecording events. He gets advance galleys from publishers, which he then distributes to schools so they can submit author questions to him in advance. When he records an event celebrating new releases—such as a recent one with Ali Terese (Free Period) and mother and daughter Kirby Larsen and Quin Wyatt (Gut Reaction), or one conceived around cultural ideas like “Light and Legacy: Asian American Nonfiction to Inspire Every Reader” with Joanna Ho (Eyes That Kiss in the Corners), Supriya Kelkar (And Yet You Shine), and Christina Soontornvat (All Thirteen)—he already knows what topics kids and educators would like him to cover. Afterward, the recordings are available on the CBW website.

In terms of sales, Lopez says, “I’ll be honest, we’re not selling as many books as we would on a school visit or in person. School visits are our bread and butter.” Even so, the store’s virtual school visits, recorded on Crowdcast and more recently on Zoom, are accessed by schools, librarians, and families as far away as South Korea. Plus, Lopez notes, “I’m more concerned with whether we are reaching young people. If we get sales, it’s a win-win.”

Given CBW’s strong list of Spanish-language and bilingual children’s books, some of those sales have come from outside California, including from Puerto Rico. In addition, Lopez has found that many educators don’t know they can place orders with local indies and instead order directly from CBW. When the store gets orders from another state, it fulfills the orders and then lets the educators know about independent bookstores near them.

“We have one goal here at CBW: that every child sees themselves and each other on our bookshelves,” Lopez says. “That’s what I did as a young BIPOC kid. I want everyone to have the great experience I did. Our community supports that.” For him, all CBW events, whether in person or virtual, are driven by that goal.

Return to main feature.