Mixed-Up Files continues to find marvelous children’s bookstores all over the country, and we’re eager to share our discoveries with you. This month we’re talking with Carol Chittendon of The Eight Cousins Children’s (& Grown-Ups) Books in Falmouth, Massachusetts, now in its 26th year.
MUF: What can children and their parents (and their dogs) expect when they visit the Eight Cousins?
Carol: On arriving at 189 Main Street in Falmouth MA, things get interesting even before you come in the front door, especially if you’re a dog. There’s a water dish every day, and first thing in the morning we put out dog biscuits. Apparently local crows wear wristwatches or read the sign at the bank, because they often show up right around 9:30 and help themselves to the dog biscuits. We know they’re smart, and we hope to teach them to read books before long.
But if you’re not a dog, you might want to have a look at our Alphabet Throne. Or maybe you’ll save that until later, pass through the foyer without even looking at the notices of upcoming events, and enter the cheerful bookstore itself. Chances are someone will say hello but let you browse in peace, unless it appears that you’re on a mission and in a hurry. You’ll find an open area near the door, with round tables displaying current topics, and walls stuffed with beautiful, fascinating books. Toward the front of the store are science and beach books, the small but rich adult section, and regional books about Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.
A little farther back you’ll find a big triangular area surrounded by shelves and shelves of picture books, and a certian number of related toys and games. Around the walls there’s a sequence that begins with early readers, and extends around the room through emerging readers, middle grades, early teens, and young adults. There are also areas for art, music, sports, folk and fairy tales, foreign languages, history, biography, puzzles, horses, and more. It’s a chore to squeeze them all in. Throughout the store you’ll find friendly, well-read staff buzzing about, putting books on shelves, looking for a requested item, checking stock on a computer, offering help, making suggestions of good books for each age and interest.
MUF: Tell us more about the Alphabet Throne out front.
Carol: We occupy a space that was once the telephone company. In fact, above the front door the keystone is the head of a young woman wearing earphones. During WWII, this was the eastern-most telecommunications node for the war effort, and the operators had a dormitory next door, a canteen where they received special rations, and there were steel shutters, now rusted, that could roll down over the windows. And there was a concrete pad out in front that held a couple of phone booths, long gone when we moved in in 1992. I always thought that concrete pad would be a nice place for a sculpture, but the idea of a chair made out of letters of the alphabet didn’t come to me for a couple of years, when thinking of appropriate ways to celebrate our 15th birthday in 2001. I asked Sarah Peters, a sculptor and customer, if she knew anyone who would be interested in trying to do it, and about 10 minutes later she said yes, she would. It was her own brilliant idea to give each letter a surface texture of some object that starts with that letter. Until you can come and sit in it yourself, you can see her results online. I asked Sarah to make it big enough that an adult would feel a little bit childlike when they sit there, and wide enough that an adult and child could share the space. In fact, two adults can share it, if they’re reasonably good friends. It thrills me no end that people enjoy it daily, puzzling out what’s on the surface of each letter. In warm weather, they often sit in it to read, or wait for a friend, or enjoy their ice cream before entering the store.
MUF: You’ve described your collection as a “unique grouping of books.” What do you mean? How do you choose the books you carry?
Carol: I always tell new employees first thing, “There’s nothing here you couldn’t buy elsewhere, and much of it you could find cheaper somewhere else if you searched. The one thing we have to sell that you can’t find anywhere else is our particular collection.” In choosing books I seek some kind of balance among culture, fun, beauty, insight, and knowledge. Since everything could conceivably fall under one of those umbrellas, I have given myself pretty free rein, checkbook willing. But I do also judge for global interest, quality in content and production, and a price I deem a fair investment for the customer. And then I keep my antennae out every waking minute for recommendations, customer requests, sales history, new titles, hot topics, intriguing manuscripts, trade press, and tips from colleagues. After the light goes out at night, I listen to NPR and the BBC just in case I wake up long enough to hear about another book. On a bad day, when people seem to ask only for schlock and we gladly sell them the raciest or grisliest book at hand, I think of the whole thing as a peculiar form of prostitution: forget what you care about, just give ‘em what they want. But that’s only a couple of times a year, and my respect for the variety of taste is reinforced every month when I sign the rent check.
MUF: In a time when there’s a lot of gloom in the media about the survival of children’s bookstores, Eight Cousins appears to be going strong. What’s your secret?
Carol: Oh, pish. There was a time when nylon was going to replace cotton and wool, and microwaves would kill off ranges and ovens. Now they’re all busy, all useful, each in its own way. Humans need information and stories. They often need free giftwrapping, it turns out. And a clean restroom, welcoming staff, interesting events, reasonably convenient parking, and the time to enjoy any of those. That said, we are now the town’s only bookstore, so we have added about a thousand adult titles, which are selling well, but have required squashing some of the children’s books together a bit. I never take it for granted that we’ll be in business for more than the next six weeks, but the six weeks has gone almost 26 years at this point, so I guess the secret of extending it is to provide people a friendly, interesting experience.
MUF: We at From the Mixed-Up Files write for Middle Graders, so we’re curious to know what fiction and nonfiction titles you recommend most often to kids this age. Are some of them favorite books that are not big sellers but deserve to be better known?
Carol: Oh, we have so many, many, many. And I think the middle grades are the very core of childhood, the time when children absorb their lifelong impressions of the world outside themselves, and get acquainted with their own internal identity. After all, the major task of childhood is to discover the true self – and the ages from 6 to 12 are when that happens. Before that, they’re getting the mechanics; afterward they get busy acting upon their identity and the outside world. Here* are our summer reading lists of fiction for the middle grades, and they reflect the ones we think give back the most to their readers. I don’t generally make specific recommendations for non-fiction, because individual interests dictate so strongly that readers usually find the sports or biography or helicopter book they want with little staff involvement – though given a chance, I’ll always press a Jean Fritz or Russell Freedman book into a reader’s hands. A book I love that’s not on the lists because it’s still only in hardcover is Chicken Feathers, by Joy Cowley. I’m lobbying Penguin to get it out in paperback ASAP!
MUF: Having recently joined the very small ranks of puppet-novelists, I’m fascinated that you feature a full line of hand- and stage puppets in your store in addition to your books. Do you sometimes have puppet plays or story-telling performances at the store?
Carol: We carry the Folkmanis puppets, and we joke that the staff has to socialize each of them before we put them out on display, because we enjoy playing with them. While we haven’t tried doing any puppet plays with them (lacking a proper puppet novel up to now!) they do often make appearances at our storytimes, and they often come down to talk to a fussy young customer while a parent shops. However, we try hard to keep them sanitary, fresh, and new so they’ll sell. I must tell you that giftwrapping a large shark is a challenge – but it can be done.
MUF: What do you like best about operating Eight Cousins? What keeps you going?
Carol: Humans are a problem-solving species, and I love the business side, the problem solving side, of Eight Cousins as much as I love the books. I love figuring out where to put a display, how to make an author welcome, how to say no to authors whose books won’t sell here, which computer to buy, how to bring out the best in each staff person, how to connect with the community, how many copies to order… the list is absolutely endless. So when that wears me out, I dive into a promising book, or pick up an old favorite, and that makes everything new again.
HOWEVER, I do hope to sell the store in the next few years, while it’s a strong and vibrant business, before I lose the energy necessary to keep it all bouncing along merrily. I’d love to continue working here, but would like to cut back to 30-40 hours per week. And I’m keenly aware that a new owner would bring new strengths, improve things that I don’t do so well, and see the world with a younger eye.
MUF: We encourage families, especially those whose towns don’t have a children’s bookstore, to make shops like yours a memorable day-trip destination and bring home books as souvenirs! If out-of-towners visit your store, is there a family-friendly place nearby for them to get a bite to eat after book browsing?
Carol: Oh yes! We’re in a lovely village area where there are many little shops and restaurants, a village green, a wonderful library, a fascinating science playground, a weekly Farmer’s Market, band concerts in summer, and interactive historical society exhibits, all within three blocks one direction or another. If you’re up to walking 8-10 blocks through a pleasant neighborhood, you’ll be at a kid-friendly public beach.
MUF:And if they can stay the whole day or even the weekend, are there other unique family activities in or around Falmouth that they might enjoy?
Carol:Cape Cod is renowned as a place to vacation, so it makes a special effort to welcome visitors for any length of time. Within that, Falmouth has a 12-mile bike path (almost level, so it’s an easy ride) that goes through varied environments, and ends in Woods Hole at the ferry landing for Martha’s Vineyard. The scientific institutions in Woods Hole offer an aquarium, frequent lectures and displays. Our local land preservation group maintains a number of natural open spaces, and they offer prepared materials on where to go and what to look for.
MUF: Have middle-grade authors been guests at Eight Cousins? Do you have some events coming up that you are excited about?
Carol: We have been honored to host many, many fine middle grade authors, such as Elise Broach last summer. We’re currently working on our calendar for this summer, but it would surprise certain publicists mightily to hear that this or that author was definitely coming. The best way to find out what’s happening is to sign up for our e-mail newsletter at www.eightcousins.com
Readers, if you’ve visited the Eight Cousins, or if reading about it makes you think you’d like to go, be sure to leave a comment here. Also tell us if you know another great children’s bookstore we should feature!
Sue Cowing, author of You Will Call Me Drog, lives in Honolulu, two thousand miles across the Pacific from the nearest children’s bookstores. One of those is Hicklebee’s in San Jose, California, our Indie Spotlight feature in May.