Sue Cowing for Mixed-up Files: It’s always a pleasure to hear of a new bookstore opening, more proof that the Indies are holding their own and are on the rise. Just this month Drew Cohen and Scott Seeley opened The Writer’s Block Book Shop in downtown Las Vegas.
It’s an ambitious enterprise— book seller, book manufacturer, publisher, writer’s workshop, literacy educator, and artificial bird sanctuary! Today we’re talking about this dynamic store with co-founder Drew Cohen.
MUF: Congratulations on your grand opening. Please tell us what inspired you to open a store in Las Vegas, and describe the atmosphere you are creating in this store.
Drew: When my husband Scott and I moved to Las Vegas, there were noindependent general-interest bookstores. So it felt like something that was direly needed, particularly in a city as large and as dense as Vegas. From the start, we were also concerned with education. We heard a number of alarming stories about how writing was taught (or, more to the point, not taught) in Vegas-area public schools.
Scott’s background, as the co-founder and former Executive Director of 826NYC—a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that provides free writing classes to students—was such that we knew that whatever we opened would include an educational component. To that end, we’ll be providing free creative writing classes to students aged 6–18 in the back of the store.Partly because ofthe classes, we wanted the entire store to feel like a workshop; not just a place where books are sold, but also a place where they are made. The name of our store—The Writer’s Block Book Shop—reflects this. It’s not merely a store, but a shop, with tools, and a letterpress, and exposed wood. One of our staff is usually seated at work bench at the entrance. Our goal has been to create an atmosphere similar to Geppetto’s workshop, where everything is constantly evolving and there are projects scattered around the store.
MUF: Please tell us about a unique feature of your store, the Artificial Bird Sanctuary and Adoption Program. Any connection to Kate Samworth’s book Aviary Wonders, Inc?
Drew: Scott and I really enjoy blending artificial outdoor objects into The Writer’s Block. We installed a streetlamp in the middle of the space, and have a corridor of fake trees separating our classroom area from the rest of the store. So the artificial birds felt like a natural next step. As booksellers, we’re constantly seeking to be inventive about our non-book merchandising; we want to carry things you can’t get anywhere else. The birds, which are individually named and tagged, and then given unique bio sheets, were an opportunity to provide customers with a product they’d never seen. And because adopting an artificial bird involves reading a vow and a bit of ceremony, it adds some theater to the process—which people enjoy.
Aviary Wonders, Inc. is a favorite of mine! We didn’t get the idea from that book, but we certainly get excited whenever we encounter a bird-related piece of literature.
MUF: How do you select the books to carry in Writer’s Block? How do you help them find their readers and vice versa?
Drew: I do all of the book-buying myself, with plenty of input from our staff and customers. Everything we carry has passed through my hands, and I take a lot of pride in that fact that nothing that we carry is arbitrarily selected. Honestly, it’s a fairly uncoordinated process: I read a lot of book blogs, scan book reviews, bestseller lists, plenty of publisher catalogs. For children’s titles, I find Elizabeth Bird’s blog via the School Library Journal to be unmissable. We carry a lot of art books, so publishers that put an emphasis on presentation—Candlewick, Abrams,
Enchanted Lion, etc.—always take precedent.
We put a lot of work into our in-store displays. I try my best to make sure that any new books we’re excited about get highly visible shelf-space, and will sometimes resurrect some backlist titles to create display around a theme. This month, for example, we’ll be pairing Candlewick Press’s exquisite adaption of Les Misérables for elementary school readers with Penguin’s reissue of the original novel, both of which fortuitously released during the same month.
MUF: As Middle-Grade authors, we have to ask, what titles old or new, fiction or nonfiction, do you find yourself recommending to readers eight to twelve?
Drew: It’s a little mature, but the Golden Compass series is a standard. We find that younger readers enjoy the novels for their elements of fantasy and adventure, but that the books still offer plenty of higher concepts to engage the older or precocious middle-graders.
We love the Penderwicks series. It’s sweet and broadly appealing, but it also deals candidly with some of the frustrations of being part of a large family—and also the unique joys of having siblings.
Anything by Gail Carson Levine. We love her strong-willed protagonists, and her books that are about writing fly off of our shelves. There are so many adult titles about the process of writing fiction, so it’s refreshing to be able to recommend similar titles to younger readers.
Lastly, we’re big fans of some of the more self-aware and cheeky titles for middle-graders. Perhaps it’s partly because we have a store rabbit, but Jon Scieszka’s and Mac Barnett’s Battle Bunny is a big favorite.
MUF: Do you have events planned that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
Drew: We’ll be putting a tremendous amount of work into our free creative classes, and many of these will be focused on middle-graders. (And, let’s face it, middle-graders are often the most fun age group to work with!) Our calendar will be going live in a few weeks via our website (thewritersblock.org). Right now, we’re discussing a workshop that relates to bird classification, and another for composing poetry. We’ll be doing an improv class in the next few months, and are also hoping to partner with some local audio-engineers to create some radio pieces with our students. Our plans are still being finalized, so I’d recommend that folks who are interested sign up for the mailing list at our website.
MUF: Many independent bookstores have mascots or pets, but it’s most often a store cat. How does your rabbit do with all those chewing temptations?
Drew: We love cats, and have three of them at home. But they can be temperamental, and we were also worried that it might upset people’s allergies. A bunny felt like a good compromise—it’s more dramatic than a mouse or guinea pig, but it’s still low-key enough to prevent issues with biting or scratching. Our
rabbit—his name is The Baron—is extremely good natured, and loves having his ears petted. He came from a shelter that was filled with noise and dogs, so he was already used to people passing through and lots of activity. We keep him in a large cage for most of the day, but let him out for 5-or-so hours in the morning to stretch his legs. All and all, I think he has a pretty good life. And since he isn’t let loose in the store, he doesn’t get the chance to eat all of our books.
MUF: If a family from out of town visits Writer’s Block are there family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they can get a snack or a meal after browsing? And if they can stay awhile, what other unique activities in the area would you recommend for families?
Drew: There is a lot for families to do and see in downtown Las Vegas. Container Park is an essential destination: it combines outdoor dining options with dozens of boutiques, all of which are housed inside of repurposed shipping containers. There’s even an awesome toy store, Kappa Toys, that specializes in fun products for people of all ages—the selection really cuts across generational lines. It’s just a few blocks from The Writer’s Block.
For families who are staying longer, I’d recommend they check out some of the beautiful wildlife destinations. Vegas is known mainly for the Strip, but there is an incredibly diverse ecology in and around the Valley. Red Rock Canyon has a number of trails that can be hiked; it also has a scenic drive, perfect for when the temperature is too high. If you’ve ever wanted to explore Mars, Red Rock’s landscape gives you a close approximation. And on the other end of the spectrum, Mount Charleston is leafy and cool, and makes for a refreshing day-trip during the summer months.
Thank you so much Drew!
Readers, doesn’t this shop make you want to visit Las Vegas and go directly there for a day of browsing and magic?
It seems most of the people opening new book shops today do it because they just think there ought to be an independent bookstore in their town. Luckily for us, they make that dream come true.
Sue Cowing is author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012, Harper-Collins UK 2014)