Lauren Savage and Diane Savage, her mother-in-law, opened The Reading Bug in San Carlos, Calif., a community south of San Francisco and north of Palo Alto, in 2008. The city has long attracted families raising young readers, and the Savages’ vision for a children’s bookshop has proven successful. “We have a big condominium complex area around our downtown,” explained Lauren Savage, whose customers include 30- and 40-something parents as well as seniors. “It’s almost all foot traffic, and we’re right on the main drag.”
The Reading Bug built a following around in-store events and storytimes, and it does most of its business in picture books and early readers. Top sellers are readaloud favorites and “not necessarily new releases,” Savage said; staffers hand-sell Carrie Finison and illustrator Brianne Farley’s rhyming picture book Dozens of Donuts, and SJ King’s Secret Explorers series. For middle graders, The Reading Bug offers popular titles like Rick Riordan’s The Cursed Carnival and Other Calamities and Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series. And Savage said Brené Brown was popular among the store’s adult customers last year, as were a number of titles that did well at other independent bookstores, such as Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours.
The store features a ceiling-high wooden tree, signed and decorated in black marker by authors who come to visit. Browsers look up to see Bob Shea’s drawing of a dinosaur, Dav Pilkey’s sketch of Captain Underpants, Robin Preiss Glasser’s illustration of Fancy Nancy, Pam Muñoz Ryan’s signature, and some good advice graffitied by Oliver Jeffers: “Don’t eat books at home.”
“The funniest one was when Tomie dePaola came,” Savage said. “He looked up the tree and said, ‘Get me the ladder—I’m ready!’ ”
In 2016, the co-owners reevaluated their bricks-and-mortar business model. “The store was at a point where we had plateaued in sales,” Savage said. They decided to experiment with a personalized subscription service, and used Kickstarter to raise funds to purchase materials for the first set of boxes. The initial mailing was to about 100 subscribers, but six years later, “we are well into the thousands of subscribers—in the 3,000–4,000 range,” she estimated.
In each box, which costs about $27, The Reading Bug sends three to five books, categorized by reading level (newborn, toddler, early reader, or reader) and hand-picked according to the sender’s wishes. “Some will say, ‘He’s five years old; I don’t know what he likes,’ ” Savage explained. “While others have very specific interests, such as, ‘I have a child who wants books about trains that are nonfiction,’ or, ‘They wanted trains last time, but it’s all about flowers now.’ We cater to that. We do much more than just putting ideas on our website.”
Savage’s sole quibble with the process is the lack of good options for shipping: “We charge $3 on top for shipping, and we’re eating at least 50% of the shipping cost,” she said. “No one is willing to work with a price point that makes any sense.”
In February 2018, the shop found another way to connect with readers: Reading Bug Adventures, a podcast for young readers that has exceeded two million downloads over its nine seasons. The ebullient episodes—with original scripts, songs, and incidental music written and performed by the Savage family and Reading Bug staffers—share stories while name-dropping featured books from the store and advertising the subscription service. Major publishers often sponsor episodes, which helps cover production costs.
“Twenty-five percent of our new subscribers come from the podcast,” said Savage, a former musical theater major at Emerson College and now the lead voice of the show. “Surprisingly, lots of people road trip to our store due to the podcast—we’ve had people say they were listening while driving from Arizona to California, and they literally sought us out on the way.”
Reading Bug Box subscribers and podcast listeners cushioned the shop’s landing when the pandemic closed stores in 2020. “During the pandemic, we were just shipping for a while, and that was the only income we had,” Savage said. “Our website has always been there, but we made changes to make the user experience better.” The main bookshop uses the ABA IndieCommerce platform, but Reading Bug Box customers are served via a separate website set up “to handle the sheer number of books coming in for subscribers.”
While the front of The Reading Bug remains a conventional walk-in space, the store’s former event space (which seated 150) now serves as a shipping center. “We’re running everything out of the same place for now, although the idea was not to be a warehouse,” Savage explained. “Fifty percent of sales in 2021 were our subscriptions.” She and her employees have carved out 1,500 sq. ft. of their 5,000-sq.-ft. retail space, repurposing it for the approximately 15,000 books per month they sort into subscription packets.
Savage has also shortened customer service hours while extending after-hours to personalize, pack, and mail packages, as well as to record the podcast. She hired an additional full-time employee to handle the extra business. Storytimes still take place, Covid protocols permitting, on Fridays and Saturdays in an outdoor, Astroturf parklet in front of the store.
With these adjustments made, Savage seems prepared for what the new year brings. “We always wanted to be a multimedia company,” she said. “Kids and books—we are always looking for the next thing.”