An Ode to Book Shops, and a Farewell to One

Note to you, reading this: When I started writing this and pressed save on the draft, that was an unusual thing for me to do. I normally write quickly and post quickly, snapshot of a moment. I save my editing for almost everything else I do, not blogs and reviews. This time, I wanted to make sure I got everything clear, it’s a thought particularly dear to my heart. And then– another shooting, the school shooting at Uvalde. The fact that it’s “another one” alone is bitter in my mouth while I write. I was pregnant with the Changeling during Sandy Hook, I’m nursing the Spriggan during Uvalde. The names we give for quick reference to murdered children. And my first instinct, always, is “I need to go to the book shop.” Only my book shop, my safe haven (and why it matters I articulate below), is closed now. The Children’s Book Shop was particularly dear during every painful time (after news of my two lost pregnancies, for example) because I felt so surrounded by ultimately hopeful wisdom, not sugar coated (kids don’t like that, they prefer the bear to eat the rabbit because that’s what bears do), but also with a clear view of justice and kindness making the world better. So read on, and care for books and those who curate them.

I remember my first book shop, and the first purchase I made there from my own money. The book shop was Tidewater Books in Sackville, New Brunswick, and I’m deeply grateful the town community has supported it so well and it’s still around. I’ve called a few times recently to make purchases by phone for friends still there, and every time I hear the owner’s voice on the phone I have a mental image of myself at age 8 carefully choosing a pen with lilac ink for myself with allowance money. Later, when we were moving to Toronto, I went there to buy a book to bring with me for the travels. I wanted the book, but also I wanted the book to come from there, to visit there, to have a piece to take with me on the road because Tidewater Books mattered to me.

In Toronto, I met many book shops. The earliest one that sticks out in my mind is Mabel’s Fables, where I had my first job interview. They were extremely kind. I had zero availability to work there, despite my boundless enthusiasm which I guess I thought would bend the time-space continuum, and so somehow I was still applying and they still granted me an interview. We had a lovely talk about books, how to select them, and how to handsell them, and I retain a strong affection for that beautiful shop where I first felt like I had a voice about literature for children.

Later, I came to love Type Books, which now has three locations. My closest friend from school in Toronto worked there for years, and this was the shop where I was challenged and expanded my ideas of what books could be. There I started to articulate when books didn’t feel they’d reached their potential as opposed to when a book felt like it simply wasn’t right for me– that I wasn’t the audience.

In a nutshell, these shops were classrooms and friends for me, as much as libraries and schools were, but with more nuance: these shops were curated. The owners and managers selected what was there and where it was shelved or displayed.

I feel like in this Big Data world, the idea of curatorship has taken on a loaded meaning. Being selective isn’t a bad thing, and we have libraries and order forms and other shops for further reading. But if you have a massive database or the entire Library of Congress to choose from, where will you start? Whereas I love knowing that if I’m looking for a book with a given vibe, but I’m not sure which book would hit the spot, I know where I can go and who I can talk to. Which is very much why the idea of children’s book shops continues to matter to me: Not every adult, no matter how excellent and profoundly beautiful or whimsical or thoughtful or irreverent their taste, knows how children read or enjoy literature. Those who do, do.

A few months ago, Terri at The Children’s Book Shop here in Brookline told me she had to close the shop. It’s gone now, though not before I got many last books from her. I went to her inventory sale and bought an armload. I wrote notes on postcards saying this was a farewell gift purchased from her shop and stuck them in the books. I’ve been slowly slipping the books in Little Free Libraries around Brookline.

And I think back as I do. I remember being pregnant with the Changeling when I saw her shop for the first time, and I went in and felt like I’d found my place. The first books I bought were the Moomin books, thrilled to rediscover these old friends. Then I found, stunned with pure joy of discovery, The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon. And bit by bit, as I found old books that feel cozy and wild, I found new wild and cozy books. Terri introduced me to Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, Yuyi Morales, Carole Boston Weatherford, Peter Sís, and so many more. We would chat about book history and new books, and she’d listen to my thoughts with genuine interest and share her perspective rooted in a knowledge that went back farther than mine, even as she updated her mental database with new books.

I only started writing here because I needed a place to talk to people about books I found there and it seemed easier to find a place to throw my words than to move into the shop.

Since I fell so deeply in love with that shop, I started thinking more about curatorship, more about why it’s so important. And here’s what I think: curatorship isn’t limiting any more than choosing the speaker or perspective for a story is limiting. When Christian Robinson chose to illustrate Leo: A Ghost Story in shades of blue, he was not rebuffing the colour red. In fact, he’s using the limitations of colour to explore a whole world in deeper thought and joy and feeling. And red gets full play in other books, such as Oge Mora’s warm and vivid illustrations to Everybody in the Red Brick Building! This is why, in fact, any community will benefit more from having a selection of small independent book shops over either one giant one, even if that one giant one has more books than all the others combined– or, of course, simply being told to shop online.

Does that sound selfish, grasping, unrealistic, or absurd? Well, it might not always be attainable, but I still think it’s true. My family benefits enormously from shopping for produce at one shop but the selection of fish is better at another and we aren’t called naïve for that.

Terri’s shop suited me because it was geared very seriously towards children not as sweet poppets to be patronized, but as full people to nurture with entertaining and intelligent books. When I read Dear Genius, Leonard S. Marcus’s wonderful collection of letters written by Ursula Nordstrom, I couldn’t help thinking how she’d have enjoyed Terri’s shop. (I told Terri how I loved that book and thought of her and she said, “I really should read those letters again! I remember one where she–” There’s truly no book about children’s literature you can bring up that she hasn’t read. When I found Canadian books she hadn’t seen, I always felt a bit victorious.) Certainly Terri stocked classics and new books, both, but that’s a narrow way of approaching it. Terri really focused on having judicious options the way a good parent keeps an eye on what their kids might need to eat now. Hmmm, after eating only chicken for four days the kid is contemplating a meltdown? Thank heavens you carefully anticipated this and have pasta to pull out! Uh oh, kid refused a snack and is now past hungry and can’t focus enough to eat anything– the time has come to give the kid a cookie and after that, you’ll have a calmer kid who can contemplate real food. Terri knew what you meant if you wanted a snack to read before diving into a rich but delicately spiced meal, or if you wanted a hearty stew with good potatoes.

Terri had excellent options for all appetite issues. Her specialty, however, was in the generously wicked, the dangerously cozy. Think of Sophie Hatter, suddenly an old lady, wrapped in her shawl as she heads on adventure while longing for an armchair by the fire. Think of Fox giving a surprise birthday party for Chick, and everyone is having a marvellous time, though it’s not actually Chick’s birthday as it turns out. Think of Pokko only stopping her drum to reprimand the fox for eating a rabbit. All gems, all loved for the sheer realism of the true imagination, which is something children’s books excel in at a much higher level than most (though certainly not all) literature for adults. We need more of this.

I will not starve for books. I’m deeply fortunate to live walking distance from the wonderful Brookline Booksmith. Right across the river we have more options: Porter Square Books, the Harvard Book Store, there’s Frugal Bookstore, too, over in Roxbury.

But one story, one vivid and valuable perspective, rooted in one of the most entertaining and intellectual perspectives on children’s books I’ve encountered, has come to a close. I feel grateful to have spent nearly a decade learning from those shelves. I’m sorry we’ve turned the last page. And I encourage you, wherever you live, to try to make friends with any book shops you meet. It’s an enriching experience.