Sue Cowing for Mixed-up Files: This month we’re talking with Leslie Hawkins, the intrepid founder/owner of Spellbound, the only children’s book shop in North Carolina (www.spellboundchildrensbookshop.com/). Rather than close her doors during the late bad recession Leslie downsized her shop temporarily, moved it downtown, and partnered with an art gallery. But now the shop is doing well and she’s ready to grow again and move to a site still close to town but with easier parking and more room for activities. We’re especially glad to feature Spellbound this month, because they’re in the midst of a $18,000 fund-raising campaign with Indiegogo that could make all this happen, and the deadline is May 15. For more details, see: http://bit.ly/GrowBks
MUF: Leslie, If you do make your goal in the Indiegogo campaign by May 15th, what are your plans for Spellbound’s future?
Leslie Hawkins: Spellbound will expand back to “pre-recession size.” We’ll have a bigger inventory and more space for events. The space will be both bigger and more efficient, as we plan to build an event room that can be closed off to allow private events to take place during store hours. This is something many customers have been asking for, room to have birthday parties, workshops, etc.
MUF: And if you exceed that and make your “stretch” goal you will keep your downtown store as well? What have been the benefits of sharing space downtown?
Leslie: Well, the many opportunities for cross-promoting, of course. Zapow gallery and Spellbound have expanded each other’s customer reach; we bring more families to the gallery (which has plenty of art that appeals to all ages) and being housed in the gallery has brought in more teens and young adults to see Spellbound’s book offerings.
The biggest benefit has been the capability to share customer service hours. Lauren, co-owner and curator of the gallery, has a masters degree in illustration and is a bona fide kidlit nerd like me, so my customers are in good hands even when I’m not at the store. We have each benefitted from having more time to work on behind-the-scenes business tasks by sharing the customer service workload—and not having to pay each other!
I have, so far, been the only full-time Spellbound staff member.
MUF: You’ve been in a smaller space for awhile, so you’ve probably had to be more selective in what you carry. How do you decide? What wouldn’t you do without?
Leslie: Since being so downsized was only ever meant to be temporary, I have tried to keep the full range of offerings—baby books, early readers, etc.—on hand but yes, necessarily smaller inventory. If this becomes our smaller, satellite location as I envision, the inventory here will be geared more to comics and graphic novels, illustration-heavy books, and teen fiction, to tie in with the core audience for the gallery.
I mostly have relied on a combination of proven sales for backlist—not national bestsellers, necessarily, but what has been consistently in demand here—and my own instinct for frontlist. What do I love? What will I be enthusiastic about? Most of my regular customers come to Spellbound to see what I love and recommend. It’s not the size of the inventory but how it’s curated.
Some titles that I would never want to do without include the Indestructibles baby books from Workman; Betsy Snyder’s board books; the Ivy and Bean series; Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty books in any format; 39 Clues, Sisters Grimm, and Mysterious Benedict Society series; Kristin Cashore’s Graceling; works by Hope Larson, an Asheville native who has found major national success with her graphic novels; and A Wrinkle in Time, my personal favorite and the very first book ordered for our stock when Spellbound opened in 2004. And, of course, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!
MUF: What kind of atmosphere do you try to create in your store no matter where you are? How do you help books and readers find each other?
Leslie: I always want the bookstore to feel fun and welcoming, and for the staff and books to seem very approachable. The main ways I help connect kids to books are listening closely, asking good questions, and always staying tuned in to my younger self and what would have intrigued or excited me about a book at a certain age. Whether helping a kid, a parent, or both, genuine enthusiasm is by far the best tool in my bookseller toolbox.
MUF: Tell us about your bookstore dog. Can children read to him/her?
Leslie: Sadly, Seymour passed away last summer (at 17 years old). He was great company for staff and customers alike. He was very quiet and liked to accompany people around the store as they browsed. He did not, however, enjoy being dressed up, as I learned when I tried to put a Santa hat on him for a holiday ad in the local paper years ago. And yes, he loved being read to!
I am almost ready to adopt a new canine friend from the local animal shelter. My hope is that when I find the right match for me, it will be a dog that will enjoy spending days in the bookstore as much as Seymour did.
MUF: Do you and your staff have particular favorites, fiction or nonfiction, new or old, that you’re recommending to middle-graders right now?
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis
The Last Dragonslayer: The Chronicles of Kazam by Jasper Fforde
The 13th Sign by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb
The Fourth Stall books by Chris Rylander
When You Reach Me continues to be a hot handsell… and I love that it almost always proves to be a “gateway” book, bringing customers back for A Wrinkle in Time if they haven’t already read it.
MUF: We notice Spellbound is among the bookstores who have a book club for adults (like us) who like to read children’s fiction. What’s the book for May?
Leslie: In May we’ll be discussing There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff.
MUF: Your current downtown neighborhood looks lively. If some of our readers visited Spellbound from out of town, would there be family-friendly places where they could get something to eat after browsing? Are there other attractions in Asheville that families wouldn’t want to miss?
Leslie: Oh, yes! Chai Pani is a great family-friendly Indian restaurant directly across the street, with an ice cream store located conveniently next door. Early Girl Eatery, just around the corner, is my go-to place and I frequently recommend it to visitors with kids.
We have a kids’ science museum and a group of working art galleries called the River Arts District, where you can watch artists paint, throw pots, blow glass—you name it! And then there are literary attractions like the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and Carl Sandburg’s home. Perhaps the best attraction is the eclectic variety of shops and galleries and street performers you’ll run across as you walk through downtown. Following the Urban Trail is a good way to make it into a game for kids.
MUF: Thank you Leslie for taking the time to talk with us us about your shop and your dreams for its future. We’re sure that wherever children and their adults visit you, they’re going to be Spellbound!
Readers, if you’ve been Spellbound already or are glad to know about this shop, please let Leslie know here. And if you would like to help Spellbound its return to it’s former size or more, please go to http://bit.ly/GrowBks between now and March 15 to find out how. One of the gifts you receive in return for a donation may be one of these charming locally-designed stuffed bookworms–a great present for an avid reader!
Sue Cowing is the author of puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog, Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012.