Indie Spotlight

Indie Spotlight: Bards Alley

Our Indie Spotlight shines today on Bards Alley, in Vienna, Virginia. The combination bookstore/café offers a homey, intimate space to browse for your favorite book and sample some local fare including coffee, hummus, bakery items, and even wine.

Owner Jen Morrow opened Bards just ten months ago and says the idea came as she watched her young son learn how to read. During that time, Jen rediscovered the nostalgia of going to a bookstore, and thus Bards Alley was born.

Here’s more from Jen:

MUF: What’s the biggest challenge in keeping an independent bookstore alive when the competition from big bookstores is so fierce?

Jen: It is simply finding ways to leverage being “small but mighty.” We don’t have access to the same resources, but what we are able to do locally is a differentiator. We employ people in the community, pay local taxes, donate to schools and non-profits, and bring customers to the town center who will hopefully shop at other local businesses. By offering in-store events, many of which provide access to authors, a curated selection of books tailored for our community, and programs for local aspiring writers, we are promoting culture and diversity. A place where people can unplug for awhile. I love it when a customer steps into the store, takes a deep breath, and says, “Ah, I love the smell of books!”

MUF: We love the smell of books too! What do you love most about Bards Alley?

Jen: I love seeing the joy on people’s faces when they walk in for the first time. I can’t tell you how many “thank-you’s” I have received over the past ten months. It is clear that our community was looking for a place to browse and talk about books, across many generations and genres of readers.

 

MUF: You clearly focus on making everything look welcoming—including folding the café experience right into that ambiance.

Jen: We take pride in how we curate local offerings as closely as we curate our book selections. Our outdoor patio is very popular this time of year! With our café, we are able to provide book clubs and customers who attend our author events a convenience that other bookstores can’t provide.

MUF: As middle-grade authors, we’re always interested in what readers want. What titles (fiction and non-fiction) do you find yourself most recommending to readers ages 8-12—and their parents? Which titles are the ones most frequently asked for?

Jen: This is such a good question! Series are wildly popular at our store, and I find myself recommending The Unwanteds, which my son (who is almost 11) read through in a few short weeks. I’ll also recommend anything by Stuart Gibbs and Louis Sachar. Debut novels are also a favorite of mine to recommend and recently I have talked a lot about The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes, as well as Orphan Island. Our young customers are also seeking graphic novels such as Smile and Drama and El Deafo. But we have also been recommending a lot of new and old classics, such as A Wrinkle in Time, Hatchet, Tuck Everlasting, and Anne of Green Gables. We are also seeing popularity with a lot of fiction based on real-life events, such as Refugee and The War that Saved My Life. Of course, most people have found Harry Potter on their own, but I can’t help but recommend it to those who haven’t yet given it a try!

One last note: this summer Bards will be offering a Summer Reading Challenge for school-aged children: read a book in each of these categories:

  1. Biography or Non-fiction
  2. Comic book or graphic novel
  3. A book written by an author of color
  4. Poetry

MUF: Thank you so much, Jen!

Bards Alley is located at 110 Church Street, in Vienna, VA.

(571) 459-2653

Indie Spotlight: Book & Puppet Company, Easton, PA

Sue Cowing for Mixed-up Files: Another new independent bookstore catering to kids!  Today we’re talking with Andy Laties and Rebecca Midgal, Co-founders of Book & Puppet Company in downtown Easton  Pennsylvania (www.bookandpuppet.com).
MUF: Most independent book shops are founded on their owners’ passions, which is what makes each one unique. How did your passions for books and puppets combine to give Easton its first bookstore?
Rebecca: Andy and I first began doing improvisational puppetry together at Bank Street Bookstore in New York City. It has been such a fruitful collaboration, we wanted to take it to the next level by putting a puppet theater in our own bookstore.
MUF: Book & Puppet has another, out-of-this-world founder, Boingustopheles. Tell us a bit about him.
Rebecca: Boingustopheles is our beloved founder, a philanthropic robot from the Intergalactic megalopolis of Mikmukdukporp who believes in the healing power of comedy and humor. We are very grateful that Boingustopheles has chosen to locate a store on this planet. Boingustopheles thinks that everything we humans do is hilarious. We haven’t had the heart to break it to him that most of the “jokes” are actually serious. Perhaps he would find that even funnier, however.
MUF: What atmosphere do you aim to create at Book & Puppet Co.? If a middle-grade reader comes into your shop looking for her or his next good book (or puppet) what happens?
Andy: This store is a fun and funny place to hang out—the large selection of fiction for middle-readers kind of sneaks up on kids. It’s not the first thing they notice. We are very low-key with middle-graders. They need to feel respected, and free to examine the books. After a little while, I check in very casually to see if I can provide any advice. I’ve been a children’s bookseller for decades, so I’m able to identify what most kids would be interested in, once they’re comfortable opening up to me about their current reading.

MUF:How do you choose what books to carry in your shop?
Andy: When I’m considering whether to buy a book, I imagine which customer would choose it. When it comes to children’s literature, I serve children, parents, teachers, grandparents—I need books for all of them. This bookstore also caters to adult readers: I do the same thing there—I visualize my customers and try to select books they would like.
MUF:As middle-grade authors, we’d love to know what titles new or old, fiction or nonfiction you find yourselves recommending to this age group these days?
Andy: I love to turn young people on to Joan Aiken, whose Wolves of Willoughby Chase books were a precursor to Steampunk. I recommend Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce whenever possible. I recommend series that compare to Harry Potter—I often pitch Maile Meloy’s Apothecary series and John Stephens’ The Books of Beginning series. I recommend the Family Fletcher series by Dana Alison Levy to kids who like contemporary family stories. For nonfiction I gravitate to Steve Sheinkin—I love his Jim Thorpe biography Undefeated in particular. And I enjoy showing kids and parents Jazz Day—The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill.

MUF: Tell us about some of the regular activities at Books & Puppets, including puppet shows for all ages. Both of you are also graphic novelists and share your skills in workshops at the store. Do you have workshops and events coming up that would appeal to ages 8-12?
Rebecca: Our puppet shows are great for kids of all ages, and children ages 8-12, if they can be induced to come, seem to enjoy them a good deal. We also have arts and crafts project for older kids.
MUF: You also put on some events aimed and political and social action. Any coming up?
Rebecca: We just had an info-shop event about the feminist revolution in Rojava, Syria, and we plan to do more programs like that in the future. On an ongoing basis, Mangled Myths, our weekly improvisational puppet shows for grownups, often include political satire.
MUF:If a family from out of town came to visit your shop, would there be family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could get a snack or meal after browsing? And if they could stay a little longer, are there nearby sites or activities they shouldn’t miss?
Rebecca: This is a fantastic place for families to visit. We are right in downtown Easton, PA, close to the Easton Public Market, an indoor, indie-style food court that is a destination in the region. The Public Market was established in 2016 as a year-round home for the vendors who congregate every Saturday, April through December, at our eagerly anticipated Farmers Market, which is the oldest one in the country. There are many dining options in the neighborhood, notably the State Café right around the corner from us, and nearby Terra Café, both of them frequented by families.
We are only two blocks from the Crayola Experience, which is a popular family destination that draws visitors from throughout the nearby states, and the State Theater is across the street from us, offering national acts including many family-friendly shows. Also close by are the Sigal Museum, the Canal Museum and other historic attractions. Easton has frequent weekend outdoor festivals in the Summer and Fall, such as the Bacon Fest and the Riverside Arts Festival.
We stand at the gateway to the Lehigh Valley and the Poconos, offering a wealth of arts festivals, outdoor adventures and other amusements. All this makes Easton a great family vacation destination.
MUF: You have said that, contrary to the conventional assumptions, now is a good time to open an independent bookstore. Why do you think so? You’re just getting started. What are your hopes and plans for Book & Puppet Company in the future?
Rebecca:  It’s true that this appears to be the time of the “retail apocalypse” with big stores and shopping malls closing, due to the growth of online retail. But everyone still wants to go out and enjoy our communities. Children especially need to be surrounded by books in order to get excited about reading—they can’t simply shop online. Independent bookstores can be successful if we serve as gathering places for neighbors. Many of the new crop of bookstores have raised start-up money using crowdfunding websites, which enable local supporters to participate and show their enthusiasm.
Our hope is that Book & Puppet Company becomes an anchor for community life in Easton, playing a part in the city’s economic and cultural revival. We hope to run bookfair fundraisers in local schools, host authors and performers, and support the reading practice of our neighbors for many years to come.

Thanks Andy and Rebecca for introducing us to your lively shop!  Readers, if you’ve visited Book & Puppet or would like to, please add your comments.

Indie Spotlight

Our Indie Spotlight shines today on Barstons Child’s Play, in McLean, Virginia.

The combination toy/bookstore actually has four locations in the Washington, D.C. metro area, and has been around for about 30 years.  MUF spoke to the whole team responsible for curating their wonderful book collection: Molly Olivo (Book Buyer for all 4 stores), Sara Hemming (McLean Book Manager), Bregette Poore (McLean Store Manager), and Steven and Simmie Aarons (Owners/Founders).

MUF: What does your bookstore (within a toy store) offer that makes you a special place to for readers to go buy books?

As a company, we are big believers in the importance of finding the joy in childhood reading (and play).  We pride ourselves on finding the right book for every child and building relationships with our customers. We focus our attention on the kid reader- what they find interesting and what they want out of their reading experience.  If we can spark a love of reading in a child with a book picked especially for them, we have completed the most important step in creating a lifelong reader.  We have worked hard to create a book store that is solely for the kids.

– Molly Olivo

We are able to capture a unique audience of kids that includes avid readers and kids who might never step into a more traditional book store. It is a real joy to see both sides of the store evolve and grow with our customers.

– Simmie Aarons

MUF: What’s your favorite part about this job?

The kids! Being able to discuss Ron Weasley with a 10 year old who just finished Harry Potter or discovering a giggling 6 year old with their head stuck in the Day the Crayons Quit is incredibly rewarding.

– Molly Olivo

Talking to the kids every day makes the job not feel like work. The real reward for me, however, is having a child that we almost lost as a reader come in for their second or third book that week. It sometimes takes setting aside all projects for the day and sitting with a child, reading the first page of stacks of books to find the one that ignites the spark. Not every child will love reading every book, but our goal is to get every child to love reading.

-Bregette Poore

MUF: What are your strategies for competing with big bookstores and online retailers?

Big bookstores and online retailers can never give you the indie experience.  We are providing customers with high quality service, staff that care about their kids, and individualized recommendations that have nothing to do with publisher marketing budgets or algorithms.  At the end of the day, our passion for books and kids has helped to set us apart, and we hope that our customers continue to value that and keep coming back.

– Molly Olivo

MUF: One of the many things to love about your store is the obvious care you take with making books look interesting. Browsing is so much fun here!

One of our favorite features is that we’re always changing the department and displays. One of the considerations in our displays is representation and diversity. We had a kindergarten teacher come in whose student was not engaged in reading because none of the stories were about anyone like her. She was shocked at how many options we had to build up her classroom library. We sometimes forget the importance of representation until you hear a kid exclaim, “Finally! Someone who looks like me!” when picking up a book. Every year I’m surprised by the emotional response to our Black History and Women’s History month displays when we think that is the bare minimum for a bookstore to cover.  We were also proud to promote the Children’s Book Council’s Reading Without Walls Challenge last year that awarded children for reading outside their comfort zone.

– Sara Hemming

MUF: Another fabulous new feature is the “blind date with a book”— books already wrapped up with just a few clues about what’s inside. What fun, to guess what’s inside the packaging and then get to read it!!

MUF: As middle grade authors, we’re always curious to know what titles, new or old, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourself recommending the most to readers ages 8-12? Which books seem to be flying off the shelves right now – on that same age range?

Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid has been one of our favorites recently.  Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis work so incredibly well together, and it is such a fun adventure with something for everyone.  

Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic from Armand Baltazar is really fun and unique. 

Graphic novels have also been super hot recently.  Amulet and Nimona are always favorites at Child’s Play.

One of our favorite underappreciated backlist titles is The Seventh Most Important Thing, by Shelly Pearsall.  It is empathetic, surprising, and incredibly interesting. It also has the added bonus of being set in DC and based on a piece of art that is at the Smithsonian.

 

MUF: We’re so glad to get to know you all. Congratulations on your continued success and huge thanks for being such a strong supporter of books and kids.