There’s a 10-year-old boy in Upstate New York who never sees anyone these days other than his parents and the booksellers at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck. “He’s discovered a love of reading during the pandemic that has absolutely blossomed,” says Oblong manager Nicole Brinkley. “He can’t get enough of funny or sweet animal chapter books.”
Despite Covid-19 restrictions and countless other hurdles, a handful of dedicated children and teens come into the store for recommendations each week. But, as Brinkley says, “They’re being tugged in even more directions than usual, always at the whims of adults who want them to sit in front of a screen for however many hours a day. The things they read aren’t only an escape. It can be something that’s completely in their control.”
Brinkley isn’t the only bookseller thinking about children and reading during these challenging times. Nearly one year into the pandemic, life has not returned to normal, and across the country booksellers are finding their own ways to forge, maintain, and deepen their connections with the kids who turn to them for books. Some of their approaches are temporary and some may last well into the future, but all are geared toward ensuring that children continue to know that bookstores are there for them.
Clear the shelves
Chicago bookseller DL Mullen lost a major lifeline to readers when the Chicago Public Schools shuttered due to the pandemic last year. With three elementary schools in walking distance of her Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery, she had delighted in setting up “Semicolon Corners” in the school hallways as a first connection to kids that would get them to enjoy reading and come to the store.
“The books were a representation that a lot of the students didn’t see otherwise—characters who may be Black or disabled, or from a nontraditional home,” Mullen says. It was an important give-back from the store, aligned with her mission to foster reading in the community and her personal joy in meeting young readers. When she got the news that schools were closing on March 13, she was filled with despair.
“We recognized that children wouldn’t have access to the schools, children wouldn’t have access to books, and the educational gap that exists in communities of color is only going to grow larger,” Mullen says. “And that’s problematic for me.”
In response, Mullen did something radical. “While we’re closed, we have an entire room of children’s books that are just sitting there,” she notes. “So we packed up every book, hit up the Chicago Public Schools teachers and principals we knew, and said, ‘Come get these books for free.’ ”
Only then did Mullen try to figure out how to pay for what became the #ClearTheShelves program, and customers joined in support. To date, the program has raised more than $165,000, and it has also maintained Mullen’s connection to her readers. At #ClearTheShelves events, families often receive food and other supplies, and children get to pick a book of their choice.
The events allow Mullen and her employees to see readers face-to-face, albeit from behind masks, and they have been fascinated to observe which books readers are choosing during the pandemic. Younger readers continue to love board books. Middle schoolers are gravitating toward books by Kwame Alexander, Brittney Morris, and Trevor Noah but are also beginning to read titles for older readers, like The Autobiography of Malcom X. High school students have been seeking out a mix of speculative fiction by writers such as Octavia Butler and practical books on entrepreneurship and life skills.
Those choices are a source of hope for Mullen, and a sign that young people are not passively accepting the worst of the pandemic but are instead finding ways to grapple with its meaning and think about their own futures. With Semicolon now reopened to limited foot traffic, the #ClearTheShelves events are also a chance for children and young adults to make a first connection with the store’s booksellers that encourages them to come back in again.
“I happen to have a really cool staff,” Mullen says with a laugh. But she also knows that it is a helpful draw, because children and young adults begin to associate reading with people whom they admire.
It’s a boost for Mullen, too, at a time when she had feared losing ties to the readers who give her purpose. “It works very well,” she says. “These teenagers normally walk in with their heads down, like they don’t want to be here, and their parents told them to come. By the time they’re leaving, they’re laughing, joking, and dancing, and it’s comfortable for them.”
300 storytime books and counting
Stephanie Heinz, children’s buyer and events coordinator at Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, was standing six feet from a boy who could not find a book he wanted to read. A few questions and answers later, she produced a book that she promised would be funny. “I couldn’t see his mouth, but his eyes lit up. He said, ‘Yeah, that looks really cool,’ ” she recalls. “That moment was so great. It added years to my life.”
Shopping by appointment has been among the many ways that Heinz has kept a relationship with her customers alive. When readers come to the door she slips bookmarks, stickers, and dinosaur tattoos to them. “There’s this element of surprise, when everything feels so controlled,” she says. “Just going out requires so much deliberate action, that to have something surprising is really nice.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Heinz has done everything she can to reach young readers. As soon as Print was forced to close to in-person shopping last spring, she began doing storytime picture book readings on Instagram TV and Facebook Live, via her home webcam. Nearly one year later, she still does them twice a week. By her count, she has read more than 300 picture books in that time.
But Heinz says there are limits to her ability to serve children online or in the store. The best way remains by deepening connections through Portland’s schools, which have many students who qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches and who are more economically insecure than they were before the pandemic.
Last summer, Heinz worked with local teachers on a project called My Book Forever. Collectively they raised $5,000 to mail books directly to students. Instead of mailing the same book to everyone, Heinz put her handselling skills to work, tailoring book choices to each student. The success of the program encouraged her to take on a similar project, called the Portland Readers Program, that is currently underway with a local teacher and library.
Heinz says the store has helped boost efforts like the Portland Readers Program. On a recent phone call, a customer offhandedly said, “I just really want to do something to help kids right now.” Heinz told her about the program, and when the customer came to pick up her order, she also left a check for $1,000 to support the effort.
Heinz does not foresee the outreach programs she has created with educators going away after the pandemic, though she’s less sure about the storytimes, which have been possible only because publishers have relaxed their rules about sharing content online. But the book appointments might stick around longer, and for now, they provide her with the connection to keep going.
Just before Christmas, Heinz says a parent gave their child—a regular customer—a shopping spree at the store. They played hooky from remote learning and came in to browse. Every few minutes, the child hemmed over one book or another, and the mother kept saying, “It’s whatever you want. This is your birthday present. Get whatever you want.”
Heinz says, “Especially after dealing with so many months of these limitations and regulations, it was just so sweet and endearing.”
Stepping back from the screen
Eight Cousins Bookstore co-owner Sara Hines notices how families move around her Cape Cod store in packs since it reopened, carving out sections for themselves. In-person shopping is still far from normal.
“I suspect that it is partially intentional, and partially just that we’re changing the way that we move these days,” Hines says.
In response to those changes, Eight Cousins has made a few alterations of its own, some of which Hines and her fellow co-owners plan to keep in the future. Given the traffic in downtown Falmouth each summer, she says curbside pickup is there to stay.
But for a bookstore known as a hub of children’s literature, Eight Cousins is an outlier. As many indies moved to enhance digital offerings for children during the pandemic, Hines chose to take a very deliberate step back, even though it comes at the cost of engagement with the readers she loves.
“Everyone’s interacting with technology, and kids are interacting with technology a lot more through school,” Hines says. Though that may reduce isolation, she is concerned about the amount of time children are spending looking at screens.
“They need the real world around them,” Hines says, “but that’s a hard conversation to have right now, because we’re all doing so many things virtually, and that’s needed. Technology has come to mean something very different in the last year.”
For now, Eight Cousins is sustained by foot traffic and online orders, while much of the outreach Hines does is through established groups that are already working with children. But even for her, there have been two cases where the rules about screens have fallen to the side.
Years ago, Eight Cousins’ previous owner, Carol Chittenden, formed a relationship with a local health group to share children’s books and literacy tips with expectant and new mothers. Hines has continued that relationship and has been meeting virtually with the group. At first, she says, it was difficult, but then she remembered that the screen was less important than the sound. “It was about language enrichment, so it was really more about hearing the story,” she realized. After two sessions, she committed to doing two more this coming spring.
Hines also couldn’t resist an opportunity to do a virtual visit with local elementary students about advance reader’s copies and book publishing. She sent ARCs to the class, and then during her visit she explained how books are published. The experience was invigorating for her, with students asking questions about every aspect of the writing and publishing process. Next, the students will write reviews of the ARCs they were sent.
Meanwhile, Hines walked away from the class happy to have reengaged with young readers for a time. “It was fun,” she says, “and it was great to hear their questions. They had very, very detailed questions.”
Hines plans to return to the class to talk about writing the reviews and has a couple of other class visits planned for the spring. Until the virus abates, she says it is enough to sustain her in the absence of having kids running freely through the store.
The keys to the bookstore
When the pandemic began, well-to-do families started fleeing the coasts for less populated places, including the resort communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, Idaho. A few miles south, in Hailey, Sarah Hedrick quickly adapted to the needs of the new visitors as well as the residents who live year-round in the small community. She put her cell phone number on the website for her bookstore, Iconoclast Books, and told people to reach out anytime.
A customer from New York did just that, asking if she could send her teenage son down to pick up some books. Since Hedrick was heading out to make deliveries, she did the first thing that came to mind and offered to leave the keys for him.
“She said, ‘What?’ ” Hedrick recalls. “And I said, ‘I’ll just hide a key and he can help himself.’ ”
An hour later, Hedrick returned to a darkened store to find the teen sitting in a chair, mask on, reading a book, with stacks of puzzle books, cookbooks, and novels on the counter. She jokingly asked if his parents had ever told him what a light switch was, and he replied, “I’m just having so much fun being in the moment.”
Hedrick’s nonchalance belies a passion to make sure that kids see her store as a potent balancing force in such a challenging and uncertain time. An ad-hoc book giveaway started up in front of Iconoclast, and children often stop by to leave books they have already read so that others can take them.
The road to Hailey was not an easy one for Hedrick, a mother of four who raised her children after her husband died. She downsized and moved her store from Sun Valley, and as she did, she also gave up employees. Through the pandemic, she has run Iconoclast entirely herself, with an occasional volunteer (a 12-year-old who has grown up shopping at the store), a cat, and a dog named Barkley, after former basketball star Charles Barkley.
Despite the challenges, Hedrick says, “I wake up every day so grateful because moving into the smaller space, not having other employees, and having 100% contact with every customer has made my life so unbelievably rich in friendships and kindness and acts of love.”
Hedrick points to a local father who moved to town with his family and signed his nine-year-old up for basketball. A few weeks ago, the father called on a Monday night and said, “Hey, I’ve got a car full of boys chanting ‘Barkley.’ Is he at the store with you?” When she said yes, he replied, “Great. We’re on our way in.”
Soon, four boys in basketball uniforms and masks barreled into the bookstore, and now it has become a routine. Every Monday and Wednesday after basketball practice, they come to the store and the father buys a book for each kid. “He doesn’t put any limits,” Hedrick says. “One kid got a hardcover Guinness Book of World Records and another got a $4.99 DC comic.”
After their first visit, Hedrick burst into tears. “I get to see something like that almost every day in the store now,” she says.