Indie Spotlight

Indie Spotlight: Children’s Bookstores Survive !

Madison Duckworth and owner Susan Selfors at Liberty Bay Books, Bainbridge Island

In spite of the challenges of Pandemic closures, children’s  bookshops have found creative ways and generous friends to help them stay in business. When COVID became pandemic, those following the book business assumed that widespread unemployment would mean a decline in book sales. They weren’t counting on people stuck at home doing their own cooking or repairs and wanting to know how. People curious about other pandemics in history or, in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, about African American history,  and racial injustice. Most of all, they underestimated the desperation and determination of people staying home with their out-of-school children!

The good news is that book sales actually went up in 2020 ,  and that the biggest increase was in children’s books. The not-so-good news is that most of that business has gone to Amazon.  The online giant has  been thriving while independent bookshops have struggled and sometimes gone under.

With COVID restrictions, everything that defines bookshops, everything they do best. was now impossible. At heart a bookstore is a place. A place where people can go to browse at leisure, talk about books. and get recommendations from booksellers.  Booksellers who have curated their collections and know their customers and communities. It is a place to attend community events, classes, author talks, book clubs, concerts. Now that their doors were ordered closed, how could independents survive?

One answer is: with a little help from their friends! As he has in the past, bestselling author James Patterson has made a generous donation to help bookstores survive the crisis. Early on, he launched #SaveIndieBookstores, a partnership with the American Booksellers Association and the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. He personally  contributed $500,000 for grants to bookstores. “I’m concerned about the survival of independent bookstores, which are at the heart of main streets across the country,” Patterson said. “I believe that books are essential. They make us kinder, more empathetic human beings. And they have the power to take us away — even momentarily — from feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and scared.”

Many stores issued pleas to their regular customers to  shop online or making donations.   Fortunately, communities love their bookstores. The GoFundMe for Hicklebee’s in San Jose (, for example, saw 1,000 people give $80,000 in just over 24 hours. Hicklebees also partnered with the Santa Clara Office of Education to create a “Keep Kids Reading” book drive for hundreds of families in need.

Indy bookstore owners are nothing if not imaginative and adaptable. The 2020 mantra of Maureen Palacios, co-owner of Once Upon a Time Bookstore ( in Montrose, California, was

“Try Anything.” Her shop arranged FaceTime appointments with staff who would take customers on a virtual tour of the shop and help them select books. They also made some popular videos featuring their stuffed toys. Other shops persuaded well-known authors, who normally command a fee for an appearance, to do free virtual author visits. Many other activities, such as book clubs and classes, were more or less convertible to online.

Of course every independent bookstore had to up its online ordering business to keep going. Many shops went from being gathering places to feeling more like fulfillment and shipping warehouses, with maybe some curbside pick-up sales. Yet here bookshops caught a break. Amazon, called upon to ship increasing volume of goods during the pandemic, decided books were not essential items and gave them lower priority. This probably tells you all you need to know about them as a bookseller. Books were still cheaper from Amazon, but no longer could you count on them being delivered in a couple of days. Who knew? It might be a couple of weeks or more.

Aha, an opportunity! Many shops had already taken to delivering to the door locally, but now they had an edge. Jim Morgan of The Curious Reader ( in Glen Rock, New Jersey, has sometimes spent 2 hrs. on the road. He tells customers: “If you order from us and we have it in stock, you’ll have it that afternoon.” That’s music to the ears of the mother of a restless 7-year-old weary of online school. Location, location. Some shop owners wondered if they weren’t spending more money on gas than they were making in sales. But they were often rewarded with thank you notes, snack bags, and cookies. And future loyal customers.

Then even independent shops started having trouble delivering specific titles in a timely way. A paper shortage developed, and many publishers started deceasing print runs and putting off publication dates.  So titles in demand
weren’t always easy to get. But book stores still had plenty of good books in stock. So some expanded and emphasized their book subscription services, choosing and mailing a couple of appropriate books each month for all reader levels. Eyeseeme ( of University City Missouri’s selections are all under $25, and billing is monthly.

Hipocampo Children’s Books ( of Rochester New York had only been in operation for a year when the shutdown hit. Fortunately, they had already built a loyal community following because of their unique mission. Owners Henry Padron and Pamela Baile stock children’s books in 14 languages, plus a small collection of adult books in Spanish and English. Of course with the shutdown, they could no longer host the dance lessons and cultural and folklore workshops they liked to hold on site.  But they were able to move some events to Facebook Live. And now that they have been allowed to open again, they have a clever way of assuring social distancing. They’ve taken out all the seating in the shop and placed hula hoops around the floor.

April 24, 2021 is National Independent Bookstore day. Let’s all celebrate this year by un-chaining ourselves. Amazon is going to thrive no matter what. To make a real difference, buy books in person or online from the folks who really know and care about books, and who create wonderful places for us to find the books we love. When you shop at an independent bookstore, you support a community. And in the long run, sales of carefully curated books at independent shops actually help to determine the quality of books that will get published.

Just looking for a huge selection of books where you’re likely to find almost any specific title you’re looking for in stock? You still don’t have to resort to the Big A. Go to Powell’s Books in Portland Oregon (, the largest independent book store in the world. Powell’s offers a vast selection of new and used books both in its physical stores (they’re open now) and online.

Soon we’ll all be able  to enjoy our favorite bookstores in person.  Let’s support them now so they will still be there when we do go.  Want to locate an independent children’s bookstore near you or a new one to explore online?  Go to:

Interview with Josh Roberts, Author of The Witches Of Willow Cove

After reading Josh Roberts’ debut novel, The Witches Of Willow Cove, I leaped at the chance to interview him for our Mixed-Up File Blog. It’s a spellbinding tale, full of mystery and magic, friendship and folklore. Josh wastes no time jumping into the action and setting the tone for his fast-paced story. Without a doubt, it is one of my favorite books of 2020.

I am so excited to welcome Josh to our blog and cannot wait to hear his answers to all my burning questions.


“A delightfully spooky page-turner . . . Roberts spins an engrossing tale of magic, mystery, and friendship.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review). 

“Full of magic, mayhem, gripping danger, and a good dose of humor . . . Hits all the sweet spots for the modern spooky middle grade novel.” –WritersRumpus

“A spellbinding story of friendship, teamwork, and the perils of coming of age in a modern-day coven.” –Kurt Kirchmeier, Author of The Absence of Sparrows


  1. Tell us about The Witches of Willow Cove.

In THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE, thirteen-year-old Abby Shepherd and five other middle school girls from a small New England town discover they not only have magical powers, but also share a secret connection to the Salem Witch Trials. Then a mysterious stranger named Miss Winters arrives and offers to teach them everything she knows about witchcraft—for reasons that may or may not be entirely innocent.

It’s one part spooky mystery and one part fantasy adventure, and it pulls heavily from real history, local folklore, and my desire to explore themes of friendship, family, loss, and loyalty. It’s also firmly rooted in the upper-middle-grade range, meaning the characters are a little older than the usual eight to twelve, the story gets a little darker, and the questions of right and wrong don’t necessarily have easy answers. And I hope it’s a lot of fun to read!

  1. How did you come up with the idea?

Growing up, I lived in a three-story Victorian funeral home a few towns over from Salem, Massachusetts, so it was probably inevitable that I’d be drawn to writing a spooky book set in a small New England town. I always knew that Abby would discover she was a witch, too, but the story definitely grew in the telling from those initial ideas.

One thing that influenced me early on is the historical anecdote that the Salem Witch Trials didn’t actually take place in modern day Salem, but rather in a nearby town that used to be part of Salem in the seventeenth century. I loved the idea of a town with a dark and secret history, and I started to wonder what would happen if you were a kid living in a town like that and you discovered not just its secrets, but that those secrets were directly tied to your own family history.

It was an intriguing idea that wound up taking me to some very unexpected places.

  1. Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!

 Actually, I think to a great extent they are all reflections of how I see myself—the good and the bad parts, the characteristics I like about myself and the ones that I don’t. I will admit to borrowing some of the smaller details of certain characters from people I know, though. The way one person twirls her hair, the way another’s nose turns beet-red when she’s angry, that kind of thing. And one of the characters—I won’t say which!—is based on my wife, who I met when we weren’t much older than the characters in this story.

  1. How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?

Probably more than you’d think for a story about teenage witches. Obviously, I was never a teenage witch, or even a teenage girl, for that matter. But I did grow up in a town a lot like Willow Cove, and I did like to sneak around and solve mysteries when I was a kid, and like most people I’ve dealt with feelings of betrayal and questions of loyalty and the hard reality that most people are a lot more complicated than “good” or “bad.”

I’ve always been interested in historical mysteries, as well as the treatment and portrayal of women throughout history, too. I guess you could say that while I haven’t lived all the experiences of the characters in THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE, I’ve certainly given them a lot of thought over the course of my life.


  1. What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Did those books influence your writing?

My favorites were THE PRYDAIN CHRONICLES by Lloyd Alexander. They were the first books that made me cry, not necessarily because they were sad but because I was sad when I finished reading them, knowing that I’d never go on more new adventures with those characters.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that my whole understanding of what it means to grow up was defined by the character development and experiences of Taran, the main character—what’s right, what’s wrong, how one should act, how to apologize, how to be a man in a world where sometimes the wrong kind of masculinity is celebrated. If there was ever a better literary role model for impressionable boys, I don’t think I’ve encountered him.

And it’s safe to say that as a kid, my first literary crush was Taran’s love interest, the clever, hot-tempered, stubborn, snippy, creative, sarcastic, talkative, scatterbrained, wonderful Princess Eilonwy of the red-gold hair. You could probably argue that she made such an impression on me that I filled THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE with a whole coven of girls who’d be right at home alongside her on any adventure.

  1. What are you working on now?

I’m deep into the second book of the Willow Cove series, tentatively titled THE CURSE OF WILLOW COVE. I tried to make the first book a fully standalone novel, but anyone who’s read it knows that the final chapters suggest a larger world of magic and mystery waiting for them. I’d always planned on this being a multibook series and I couldn’t be happier that I get to continue on with these characters and this world.

  1. What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’m a plantser! Half plotter, half pantser, 100% willing to tear things up if I think of a better idea along the way. My usual process is to think of general story idea, then write the first five or six or seven chapters to see where it goes, and then panic and stop everything until I have a more solid understanding of what I’m writing towards. I don’t recommend it, but I’ve come to trust the process. Even if I could do without the panicking part.

  1. Loaded question: How long was your road to publishing and what happened along the way?

It took my ten years from the day I wrote the first sentence of the first draft to the day I got an offer for publication. There were at least three full drafts in between, and two other unfinished manuscripts mixed in as well.

THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE is the book that taught me how to write a book, because I wrote it and rewrote it so much that I do think I made (and hopefully corrected) every mistake a beginning author can make with it before it finally found a home.

  1. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

There are a few things I wish I’d fully understood before I set out on my writing journey. The first is the importance of getting something on the page. You can improve a bad manuscript. You can’t edit a blank page. I said earlier that took me ten years to write this book, but in reality it only took me a few years once I really committed to writing every day, even for a few minutes at a time. Writing is the only way you can get better at writing. There’s no substitute for it.

The other lesson I learned is to not judge myself too harshly. Sometimes what you’re capable of putting on the page isn’t very good. I mean, congratulations if you’re one of those people who can nail it on the first try, but for most authors I know, the process of improving is gradual. So, while it’s good to be critical of your work, it’s maybe not productive to be your own worst critic. Take joy in the process of writing. Celebrate the small victories when you realize you’re getting better. It’s a journey, and journeys aren’t meant to be fast.

  1. Do you have a favorite middle-grade book?

I have dozens of favorites. These days, I consume most of my middle grade books on audiobook, listening to them with my daughter as we drive around on errands or road trips or to and from her dance classes and riding lessons.

We’ve both enjoyed the CITY OF GHOSTS series by Victoria Schwab, THE STITCHERS by Lorien Lawrence, MIDNIGHT AT THE BARCLAY HOTEL by Fleur Bradley, and THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jaqueline West, just to name a handful of recent titles. I love that middle grade is thriving these days, and I’m excited to be a part of it with THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE and its forthcoming sequels!

Find Josh Roberts online at

Indie Spotlight: Ashay ByThe Bay, Black Children’s Bookstore Vallejo CA

Given the challenges of the pandemic, many independent bookstores have turned  increasingly to online sales to survive. Deborah Day, founder and CEO of  “The #1 Black Children’s Bookstore,” Ashay By The Bay, Vallejo, California, made hers an online shop from the beginning in 2000. It survived the recession of 2008 and is still going strong. Fittingly, Ashay is a powerful Yoruba word that means “it shall be so.” It is also Deborah Day’s given name.

So! Day has developed an engaging and user-friendly website ( with over 800 titles, from  baby books to picture books to fiction and nonfiction for middle grade and young adult readers. Most have black American and African subjects, themes, and characters.  But since there is a large Latin American community nearby she also has school collections of Spanish and bilingual books for them. More about her school collections in a moment.

It’s exciting to see so many books for kids about black culture, people, and history gathered onto one curated site. I have now added several titles to my staggering must read pile. For instance, though I’m not a fantasy or science fiction fan at all, I can’t wait to read Tomi Adeywmi’s West-African inspired fantasy, Children of Blood and Bone.  Before the week is out I will probably also dip into Nnedi Okarafor’s imaginative and highly praised tale of magic and adventure in Nigeria, Akata Witch. As Day understands, good books for kids are good for everybody!

Before COVID, Day advertised grew her business by going to events, holding book fairs, and helping groups to conduct book fairs. She loved making in-person contacts that way. Now that those events are no longer possible she is relying more on social media ads, and she is hearing from people across the country.

The Pandemic also poses a challenge to her goal of getting children’s books about black subjects and black experience into the schools where they can have more impact on students’ understanding. Few schools are buying books right now and many students are doing distance learning. What an important time to build a home library, Day says. Of course there are many digital book available online, but the students are already screen-weary from school work. Day loves books and believes and holding a book to read is a more satisfying experience.

During shutdown, people can consult the Ashay website for the lists of the book collections, organized by age/grade e level, that Day offers to schools, and find ideas for books to order. These collections include many core curriculum books, but also give a chance for some independent publishers to become better known. Here are just a few of the many titles on her lists for middle graders:

Biographies: The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (Young Readers’ Edition) by Kamala Harris ; Portraits of African- American Heroes, by Tonya Bolden , including figures from dance, law athletics, science, and more. Who Was Jesse Owens? By James Buckley and Gregory Copeland; Brave. Black. First, 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World, by Cheryl Hudson; Hidden Figures, Young Reader’s Edition, byMargot Lee Shetterly; Black Women in Science: A Black History Book for Kids by Kimberly Brown Pellum;

Award-winning Fiction:

P.S. Be Eleven, Rita Williams-Garcia; The Season of Styx Malone, by Kekla Magoon; Harbor Me by Jaqueline Woodson; Ghost and Look Both Ways, by Jayson Reynolds; A Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams Jackson;Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes; The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.


The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba;28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World by Charles R. Smith; The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love, and Truth, edited by Wade and Cheryl Hudson; Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men who Changed America, by Andrea Davis Pinkney.

The Arts:

Radiant Child: The story of Young Artist Jean Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe; Who is Stevie Wonder? By Jim Gigliotti; The Legends of Hip Hop by Justin Bua; The Rose That Grew from Concrete,by Nikki Giovanni and Tupak Shakur; Poetry for Young People: African American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersad and Marcellus Blount; Who is Stevie Wonder? By Jim Gigliotti and Who HQ’; Misty Copeland: Life in Motion.

December 2020:  an ideal time to get to know more about black culture from the excellent books being published for children.   It’s also an ideal time to give beautiful, real books to children who’ve been doing schoolwork online all day. And let’s please bypass the chains when we buy these books (Amazon will survive the economic crisis) and support independent booksellers like Ashay instead. A triple win!