Tree House Books in Ashland, Ore., has taken all the steps that indie bookshops across the U.S. have had to in the past year. No more than eight customers are in the store at any given time, book deliveries go out each day to readers, and co-owners Jane Almquist and Dirk Price have put substantial effort into boosting their website’s e-commerce capabilities. But in partnership with an employee who runs a local nonprofit, they are also quietly putting the finishing touches on something they hope will be magical for kids.
This spring, Almquist and bookseller Cynthia Salbado will launch the beta version of the Secret Storyworld, an interactive website for kids to learn how to craft their own tales and engage more deeply in the world around them. The site introduces subscribers to 12 realms, divided by month and linked as a yearlong set of story arcs that teach children how to weave their own versions of the hero’s journey.
Each month has a theme—January kicks off with a time traveler hotel, June features a Faery Godmother Traveling Tea Party, and in October there’s a monster ball—and kids read from a related genre and write their own stories using prompts and games provided through the site.
“All kids want to go on a quest,” Salbado says. “They all read Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. And they all ask, ‘When am I going to get my quest?’ The Secret Storyworld is saying, ‘You are your quest. You’re being called all the time every day, every month, every year. You just have to decide what quest you’re going to take on.’ ”
Salbado has been working on the idea for so long, she jokes that it all began on paper planners, but it gained momentum when Almquist and Price purchased the store in 2010 and she came on board as a bookseller.
“I instantly loved the idea for the Secret Storyworld,” Almquist says. Salbado initially envisioned it for adults, but Almquist suggested making it accessible to people of all ages—and from there, the two set out to create it. They hired an experienced web designer and created the structure for the various realms around a three-part story arc. When completed, the site will be hosted by Salbado’s nonprofit Art Now, but the bookselling components will be handled by Tree House.
The website is integrally linked to the physical existence of the bookstore as a storytelling place, and likewise, the realms are based on real locations in Ashland. Along with the reading and writing that occur through the bookstore and the website respectively, each month has treasure hunts and projects that get kids out into the community.
January’s time travel hotel is the Ashland Springs Hotel. May’s fairy tale theater is the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which draws tens of thousands of people each year. Each will have a physical quest associated with it, and the goal, Almquist says, is to get the budding authors to see hidden stories in the places around them.
An unexpected opportunity
In many ways, the pandemic gave Almquist and Salbado the chance to test some components of the Secret Storyworld. With restrictions in place, they held multiple Covid-safe outdoor events. On the first day of summer, the bookstore hosted a Faery Godmother Promenade through a town park, and in December they led their sixth annual Gnome for the Holidays Storygame outdoors.
In January, Almquist and Salbado launched a middle grade book club; the first book the club read was Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, and February’s pick is Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses. Teens who grew up as readers in the store help facilitate the conversations with a staff person on Zoom.
There is still work to do, but Salbado and Almquist anticipate that the beta site will launch in late February by invitation only for readers in Ashland. In time, they want to make the site available in other communities, tailoring the physical locations to wherever subscribers and local partners—including fellow bookstores and librarians— are, and anchoring the journey to local bookstores in those places.
Almquist’s hope is to open up a world of storytelling for future booksellers and readers. “The books here all inspire us, and we try to set up the store so you feel that creative spark,” she says. “But the young people of today are also the published authors of the future. This is for those kids who would love to share their stories.”