Indie Spotlight

Indie Spotlight: Velveteen Rabbit Book Shop & Guesthouse

Imagine a children’s book store where you could stay overnight, curl up, and read.  There is such a place!  With us today is Marie Nelson, owner of The Velveteen Rabbit Book Shop and Guest House  in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, to talk about her shop and tell stories of her amazingly loyal and determined customers.

SC for  Mixed-Up Files: What a dream, to have a bookshop with a guesthouse!  How did this combination come about?

Marie: My husband, Jim, and I opened the bookshop in 1994. He is the accountant for the bookshop and all around repair person. He also has a daytime career as a CFO. I was a teacher and have always had books as a huge part of my life. We opened with the help of family and friends.
For the first 10 years or so we lived above the bookshop. The shop is in a terra-cotta Victorian home just off the Main Street in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. The town is about 12,000 residents with a university town nearby and several other small communities. We decided that we might like a little extra room. Clare was born in 1996 and Ben in 2000. The upstairs is now a quaint flat with charm and comfort. Guests are able to enjoy privacy and the amenities of being close to our downtown.
It is fun to meet people from near and far. We have had visitors from Tennessee, Illinois, New York, California, Australia, Iceland and from many parts of Wisconsin. We feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to meet and visit with people from near and far.

MUF: Many towns, even big towns, don’t have a bookstore, period, much less a children’s bookstore.  But yours is thriving.  How have you made it a success?
Marie: We are a general bookshop with an emphasis in children’s literature. I have a passion for books and have many favorites from my childhood that are fun to stock and be able to share with current generations…. picture books, middle readers and young adult novels. I also have staff who are readers. They have many recommendations in the store and in our newsletter that keep recent releases also in front of our customers. Finding the right book for the customer is what it is all about.

We like to listen to our customers. We are very fortunate to have customers who have stayed with us through the years. Just yesterday I had a customer who would come in with her children and is now purchasing for her grandchildren. Her daughter was also in and purchasing for a young family member. This same customer was also the first to book our guest house when it opened in 2007 for a wedding couple. We have so many delightful stories of customers who are just fabulous. I will always remember when the road in front of the store was under construction for months. At one point you could not get to us unless you really made an effort. We had one longtime customer who actually crawled over a fence one day to get to us because it was just blocked every other way that day. She was in her eighties at the time. It just brought a huge smile to my face.

MUF: I can imagine!  As middle-grade authors, we have to ask: say a ten- or eleven-year old comes in to your shop and asks for a good book to read.  What favorites, fiction and nonfiction, might you be likely recommend to him or her?
Marie: We really enjoy getting the right book for the right person. I often use the staff recommendations in the store, our Indie Next flyers, the ABC catalog and the staff to assist with finding the right book. We do quite a bit of ordering, also. As an example of an eleven-year-old, I can use my son’s recent reading. He likes fiction and non-fiction. He just finished Holes, read The Outcasts (Brotherband Chronicles #1) and The Invaders (Brotherband Chronicles #2). A book he recommended for the store is Rock of Ivanore. As a nonfiction selection, he has read titles from the Eyewitnessseries.

Author signing and tea party with Laura Schaefer

MUF: What makes your day as a children’s bookseller?
Marie:  I like the daily interactions with kids of all ages and grown-ups. I have a local dentist who gives out gift certificates to kids for good check-ups. She just ordered some more gift certificates. I have the opportunity to chat with people of all interests and learn a great deal. People pick up books or browse and we both enjoy learning something. It is also very rewarding when people say how comfortable they are in the bookshop and how they like to bring in family or friends who are visiting. I remember once my 85-year-old grandmother saying when she was visiting the bookshop that I was a good host. This was quite a compliment  and I have taken her words to heart. I want people to enjoy visiting and look forward to each visit.

MUF:  If readers and their adults from out of town came to visit your shop, are there some favorite family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could get a bite to eat after browsing?
Marie: We are right next to a wonderful Irish Pub called Paddy Coughlin’s. We often enjoy dinner at the pub. I actually have many visitors to the bookshop who enjoy lunch and browsing. The customer who just left was planning to dine at the pub. We also have a shopping and dining guide for Fort that the chamber publishes. I often give this out with recommendations. The Carpe is another great place as is Beauty and the Bean. You can walk to many good establishments in the area.

You could be here in the guest flat with your favorite book.

MUF: And if they are lucky enough to stay in the guest house overnight or for the weekend,  can you recommend some unique sights and activities they shouldn’t miss while they’re in Fort Atkinson?
Marie: In the bookshop and the guest house I have a Discover Guide which highlights many places to visit as well as a calendar of events. I also have the Jefferson County Guide for people to have. Both guides offer great activities in the area. I would certainly recommend visiting The Fireside Dinner Theatre. They have delicious Friday Fish and offer a fabulous dinner and theater experience on other afternoons and evenings. The shows are excellent and fun for the whole family. Café Carpe often has a musical offering. You can enjoy dinner and a performance. Fort also offers an outstanding museum. The Hoard Historical Museum and National Dairy Shrine Museum offers educational and fun entertainment.

Surprise carolers at the annual holiday celebration

MUF: Any special events coming up in October? How does the The Velveteen Rabbit celebrate Halloween?
Marie:  The second Saturday of every month at 10:30 we share stories. The theme for October is Goblins, Ghosts and Ghouls Oh My! Usually Mrs. Smith reads stories and simply shares good books and engages kids in an activity. A special we have is “with the purchase of a Halloween children’s book get 18% off a Holiday children’s book this December.” This is in honor of our 18th year.

The big Holiday Anniversary Celebration is set for Saturday, December 1. We celebrate with author signings and many in-store festivities.

MUF: Thanks, Marie, for sharing your delightful shop with us. Readers, if you’ve visited The Velveteen Rabbit, or if reading about it makes you think you’d like to, comment to let us and Marie know.  Browse the shop’s website at:

Sue Cowing is the author of You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda, 2011, Usborne UK, 2012)

Indie Spotlight: bbgb (Bring Back Great Books) in Richmond, VA

Have you had the pleasure of visiting a real children’s bookstore lately (not just the children’s section of a chain store, with its standard and predictable book selection)? Independent children’s bookstores can be found all over the country, thank goodness–new and old ones, big and small, each unique and waiting to be discovered by lovers of children’s books.  This month we’re talking with Jenesse Everston, Co-owner with Jill Stefanovich of bbgb (bring back great books) in Richmond, Virginia (

Sue Cowing for MUF:  I was happy to hear about your new store (from middle-grade author Wendy Shang). What’s the creation story?
Jenesse:  Jill and I first met on the playground while our children were toddlers.  We chatted about books and art and travel and recognized straightaway that we viewed life from very similar perspectives and shared a similar aesthetic. Then and there we agreed that one day we should open a shop together!
As it happened, I moved to Europe for five years.  While there, the children’s bookshop in our town came up for sale.  Jill and I had been loyal customers for several of its 26 years in existence, and we couldn’t imagine life without it.  One skype conversation and one week later…we became the new owners, and we would manage the shop together long distance for the next 15 months until I moved back.

bbgb, a name you can play with. . .

MUF: I understand you remodeled the store to bring all the shelves down within kids’ reach and then turned the space above into a gallery.  What else have you done to make the store unique and inviting?
Jenesse: Our customers are so patient with us, we have to say.  We have moved fixtures so many times as our shop collection and mission has evolved!  We worked hard to mix open space with little hidey-hole spaces to accommodate the spatial preferences of our readers.  We have child-sized fatboys, a small bench and table, and a large bench and table.  We want to create an environment that supports a variety of interactions around books.

MUF: You strongly emphasize matching books to kids. How does that work? Suppose a ten-or eleven-year old walks into your store today, looking for something good to read. . .
Jenesse: We engage them in conversation!  We can see those eyes roving the shelves and know how daunting it can sometimes be when faced with so much choice.  We find out the types of books they’ve read, they like to read and move from there.  So many of our customers are regulars; we stay attuned to their preferences while we nudge them into new areas.

MUF: One of the best things about operating an independent bookstore must be that you absolutely get to choose which books to carry (or not) and how to feature and display them in the store.  So what do you base your choices on?  Do you carry some titles that most bookstores don’t?
Jenesse: We true back to those notions that have engaged us as readers: the sense of wonder, the perspective-changing, the smile or sigh engendered by our experience with books.
Our collection is very tight.  We tend to rotate titles so that our customers are always finding a treasure.

MUF: As middle-grade authors, we have to ask, do you have certain favorite tiles, fiction and nonfiction, that you like to recommend to boys and girls in this age group?
Jenesse: Oh goodness!  It absolutely shifts depending upon the child, our current interests and what we find is relevant in the context of the world at that moment.  
Our list of favorites is long and constantly changing, to be honest.

MUF: Have middle-grade authors appeared at your store?

Jenesse: Yes. We are currently preparing for Tom Angleberger’s launch-week visit for his third installment in the Origami Yoda series:  The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee.

MUF: Your summer reading program sounds. . .rewarding.  Is there still time to join up?
Jenesse: Well, we are well into the summer, but we just enrolled 3 more!

MUF: I can imagine what fun it was to watch Arietty in a children’s book store!  Is movie night a regular thing at bbgb?  What other events do you have coming up?
Jenesse:On Tuesday, local artist Mim Scalen, conducted a postcard art workshop with a group of participants aged 7 and up.  We’ve had mother-child yoga, games nights, movie nights, local artists and artisans, knitting workshops…We want to support other small businesses in our community and love to collaborate.  In addition, we like to keep our own kids engaged with the shop!

creating postcards

MUF: If a family from out of town came to visit your store, would there be kid-friendly places nearby where they could get a meal or a snack after book-browsing?
Jenesse: Our location really ties us into our community.  We are just blocks from the Fine Arts Museum, coffee shops, and one of the largest retail streets in town, which full of restaurants gift shops, toy stores…

MUF: And if they could stay the whole day or even the weekend, are there some unique family activities indoors or out that they shouldn’t miss?

Jenesse: We are in a unique situation where the city is grounded by an urban university which is strong in the arts.  In addition, we sit on the James River, which is home to herons, bald eagles, and where you can raft as a family.  Plus, Richmond is a real restaurant town.  Fantastic choices and family-friendly at all levels, from coffee shops to fine dining.  We do love our town.

MUF:  Thank you, Jenesse , for giving us this glimpse of your lively new store and your community!

Wrapping things up. . .

Readers, Can you think of your own  clever phrases bbgb could stand for? Have you’ve been to bbgb or does it sound like a place you’d like to visit? If so, leave a comment here for Jenesse and Jill.   And if you have a favorite children’s bookstore you think should be featured in these posts, please let me know. 

Sue Cowing is the author of YOU WILL CALL ME DROG, a middle-grade novel (Carolrhoda Books, 2011, Usborne UK, 2012).  She lives in Honolulu, 2,000 miles from the nearest children’s bookstore, but she’s planning a trip. . .

Indie Spotlight: Hanging Out with the Eight Cousins

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.

Raison d'etre

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.

Enjoying the Alphabet Throne

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.

Game Night at the Eight Cousin

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.

Elise Broach talks about how the writing dovetails with the illustration

Tom Angleberger signs books for his readers

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





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.