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.