Interview with Sally of The Curious Reader

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Last summer we had the great privilege of stopping by The Curious Reader during an unforeseen travel incident. It was perhaps the best decision of our entire trip. When in doubt, go to the bookstore! Immediately I was taken with the vast selection of curated children's books – titles ranging from picture books to young adult novels and everything in-between. Add to that the charm of a motorized train circling the top of the store, weekly storytelling, author visits, and a cozy ambiance, I couldn't help wanting to stay there all day. Clearly, The Curious Reader has earned the rightful reputation of being a unique children's bookstore. One that every neighborhood should be so lucky to have.

Now here's co-owner, Sally, telling us a little more about the day-to-day operations of running The Curious Reader.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and the process that led you to selling books full time?

When I was a senior in high school, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, which made college very difficult for me. I went to Wellesley College for a few semesters before taking a leave of absence (I never ended up going back). While I was at home, my parents insisted that I get a job, which I did, reluctantly. It was at a (now closed) children’s bookstore that I had loved as a kid, and it was unexpectedly life-changing. The first YA book I ever loved – The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart – made me realize that kids’ books could be just as intelligent and layered as books for grown-ups. I was hooked, and read all the literary YA I could get my hands on (I didn't discover the wonders of middle grade until Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me).

As I grew to love children’s literature, my job became more than just a way to make my parents happy; I became more involved in the store and learned a lot about the business. The owners were very nurturing and seemed to enjoy educating me and I dreamed of running my own store someday. However, in my eighth year working in children’s books, they decided to close the store, and I was panicked. Could I ever find such a perfect job ever again? Luckily, my father had just retired from his CFO job and was a little bored (he was also driving my mother crazy at home). He’d always fantasized about owning a bookstore, and convinced me that together we should give it a go. The spring and summer of 2013 were spent imagining and creating The Curious Reader, and we officially opened our doors in October 2013.

What does a typical day look like for you?

There’s not a lot of consistency to my schedule – the day is usually spent trying to address whatever issues may arise. We’re open six days a week (closed Mondays), and during the week there are a few regular events that can be expected: the store opens at 10 am; UPS shipments arrive around noon (my favorite part of the day!); I try to take a picture for an Instagram post between 3 and 4 pm, and post it soon after; the store closes at 6 pm. In between, it’s a bunch of small tasks like making sure inventory is up to date, helping customers, working on frontlist orders, reading blogs.

How do you decide what books to stock in the store?

I have reps for most of the publishers that I order from, and I do frontlist (new titles) orders about three months ahead of time (right now, my reps are contacting me to do fall orders). First, I go through the catalog (which has been marked up in advance by my rep) and create a first draft of an order, which my rep will then review before we have our appointment. She (most of my reps are women) will then offer suggestions for titles I may have missed, or adult titles that may be of interest to my customers. A good rep is worth her weight in gold – in particular, my Penguin rep really understands my tastes and what sells well in my store and doesn’t push me to order titles I don’t need (there’s usually a lot of books that don’t make sense for us and having a rep who doesn’t push these on me is greatly appreciated). When I’m building the order initially, I choose titles based on a few criteria: authors whose work I’ve liked in the past; subject matter; cover (it really does matter!); the book’s imprint and/or editor; pre-publication buzz; the author’s home; and what the rep recommends.

Blogs are also crucial – School Library Journal’s blogs, in particular, are great – Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production was the first kidlit blogger I ever loved – as well as Jules Danielson’s work at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I also try to keep up with industry reviews, particularly from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly (their tastes seem to match my own).

I always try to look into unfamiliar books recommended by my customers, and sometimes I’ll end up carrying them if they look right for the store.

There are also a few Instagram accounts that showcase reliably wonderful books, and I often find myself saving their posts to use for a future order. My favorites, in no particular order: @averyandaugustine, @picturethisbook, @bookbloom, @spikypenelope, @writesinla, @teeandpenguin, @hereweeread.

What books did you read as a child and what books do you tend to read as an adult?

When I was aged five to eight, we lived in England, and that's where I learned to love reading. Many car trips were spent with my nose in a book, oblivious to anything but the words in front of me. I read all the time - favorites were the great Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton's Famous Five series, horse books, Nancy Drew, The Once and Future King. I was not terribly discerning, which led to me reading things way before I was ready - yes, I could read Margaret Atwood or George Orwell in seventh grade, but I definitely should not have.

As an adult, I read a lot of books about kids books (particular favorites being Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature and A Family of Readers) and kids’ books themselves. I always feel guilty if I read too much that’s not for the store, which has led to the demise of Chris's and my Two Person Book Club. The last grown-up book I read was The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, which was absolutely beautiful.

What does it take to make a small book shop successful?

First and foremost, it's all about location. We're lucky to be in a well-educated, wealthy, and liberal area, where people are readers and the school systems are very strong. Our conscientious and supportive community can afford to shop with us and not at Amazon or other big-box stores (which can offer discounts but not knowledge and passion -- whoops, don't get me started on Amazon!). Being so close to NYC is also important; many publishers and authors are based in the city, making it easy for them to visit. In the store itself, shared vision and good communication is essential. Though there are only three of us at the store full time, miscommunication (or more often, lack of communication) can occur, so we've started meeting at least once a week.

Do you have any parting advice for aspiring bookstore owners?

Find the perfect location and do lots of research. Work at an indie bookstore, if possible.

Thank you so much, Sally, for taking the time to talk with us. If you ever find yourself in New York City, take the quick trip over to The Curious Reader or follow along on Instagram for daily doses of insightful reading recommendations.

What I Read: March

Monday, April 3, 2017

This series might be completely selfish, since it's really a way for me to track what I am reading throughout 2017. Do you track the books you read? If so, how? I have used Goodreads since 2008 and it seems to do the job well enough. However, I like discussing books with people, which is probably why I belong to two small book clubs. Have you read anything of note this year? Here's what I read during March.
  1. You'll Grow Out of It - Memoirs have long fascinated me and a couple people recommended this book as a humorous read. Unfamiliar with the comedic talent of the author, I went into the book unprepared. However, Klein's candor and deadpan wit riveted me from beginning to end. For some reason the bathing chapter was particularly hilarious to me. 
  2. Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods - I so enjoyed the first book in this series and was happy to reconnect with familiar characters. Plus it's always fun when I can read and share the same book with my husband. Take away: Beware of mysterious general stores that provide complimentary dental service. 
  3. In Such Good Company - This was my deliberate selection for Women's History Month. During my adolescence I was taken with the comedy of both Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. Something about red heads, I suppose. This book is a genuine behind-the-scenes look at the 11 years of people, sets, and costumes that made the sketches of television history. Burnett is both winsome and gracious in her recounting.
  4. Stella by Starlight - Another middle grade novel that has the aspiring writer protagonist, Stella, becoming acquainted with the difficulties of race, segregation, and injustice in her small town community. A quick and enjoyable read. However, one that I felt had her being the heroine more than was actually realistic. 
  5. Helping Children Succeed - This book did nothing for me. It felt pedantic and entirely replete with academic terminology loosely connected to real-life anecdotes. For a better parenting book, I highly recommend this one.

13 Easter Books We Love

Friday, March 17, 2017

Growing up, Easter was always my favorite holiday. Probably because I spent it with my big family (cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents) in Southern Utah. We celebrated with a weekend of hiking and dutch oven cooking and topped it all off with an outdoor Easter egg hunt.

Every spring those memories resurface and I feel immense joy for the traditions of my formative years. For me, Easter signals a season of renewal and feels like the start of a new year, more than any frozen January day. As with other holidays, we celebrate with books. So if you are looking for a few books to tuck into little Easter baskets these are some of our favorites.
  1. The Bunny Who Found Easter by Charlotte Zolotow - A lonely little fellow is in search of Easter. He trudges through the seasons and at last finds a companion. Together, along with their abundant offspring, they herald the arrival of the previously elusive holiday. A sweet story about how family makes life more enjoyable. 
  2. Bunny Bus by Ammi-Joan Paquette -  Full disclosure: this book ranks lowest of this list. However, the bright endpapers (vibrant eggs) and energetic illustrations are a lot of fun. Maybe don't rush out to buy this, but rather track it down at your local library. 
  3. Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood - You knew this was going to be on the list. Our affable narrator is back and full of inquisitive questions for our favorite cat. This time in an effort to convince Cat that the Easter Bunny has a really tough job and maybe Cat should help out. However, it seems a no-nap gig isn't what Cat really wants after all. 
  4. A Tale for Easter by Tasha Tudor - The sweetest cherubic children grace Tasha Tudor books and this one is no exception. Plus I like that the story starts off with a cheeky acknowledgement that we never really know when Easter rolls around, but hot cross buns the Friday before and a new dress generally signal its imminent arrival. 
  5. God Gave us Easter by Lisa Tawn Bergren - We have a couple of the other God Gave us books and while this one is on the longish side it's a nice way to explain some of the religious aspects of Easter to younger children.
  6. Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco - Of all the books on this list this one is my absolute favorite! When a group of young children decide to buy an Easter hat for their gramma, the one she's had her eye on, they must overcome having their good intentions misunderstood. Basically anything by Patricia Polacco and the stories she weaves from her own childhood, ranks high on my most beloved list.  
  7. The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward - Generations of children have loved this book, although I only read it for the first time a couple years ago. Essentially the gruff male bunnies all laugh when a lady bunny says she will grow up to be the Easter Bunny. Not only does she grow up to have a large family, she prevails and becomes the kindest Easter Bunny there ever was. Apart from any lesson or moral the book offers, it's a highly imaginative story that children both young and old can appreciate. Be aware that it is on the longish side for a picture book. 
  8. The Easter Bunny that Overslept by Priscilla & Otto Friedrich - This might be a little hard to locate, but it's worth the hunt. As the title suggests, the Easter Bunny is alarmed when he wakes up to discover that it's Mother's Day, not Easter. Undeterred, he tries to give away his eggs at the 4th of July Parade and then appears again at Halloween. With humor and endearing images this is also a personal favorite. 
  9. The Story of the Easter Bunny by Katherine Tegen - An old couple works together to dye eggs, make baskets, and create chocolate bunnies. All while their pet rabbit watches on. Soon the couple becomes too old to spread Easter happiness to the neighborhood children and the young bunny takes over the holiday duties. A fresh take on how the Easter Bunny came to be. 
  10. We're Going on an Egg Hunt by Laura Hughes - This lift-the-flap book is based on the old American folk tune and is beloved by the 2-4 year-old crowd. Count the eggs as you go and watch out for that sneaky wolf at the end. This is also a fun book to read before a child's first egg hunt. 
  11. Who Hid the Easter Eggs by Pirkko Vainio - After grandma has hidden the eggs for the annual Easter hunt an inquisitive bird is charmed by the colorful eggs and decides to relocate them to a new hiding spot. Luckily Harry, the squirrel, is able to set things right just in time. 
  12. The Easter Egg Artists by Adrienne Adams - Orson and his family are the artists tasked with decorating the beloved holiday eggs. However, sometimes it's difficult to contribute when everyone thinks you are too young or haven't developed your talent yet. Have you encountered Adrienne Adams books? They have a distinct 1970s style that still feels relevant today.
  13. Easter Eggs for Anya by Virginia Kroll - This religious account introduces children to the history of coloring eggs through the nineteenth-century Ukrainian tradition. With bright pastels and a sensitive protagonist, this book speaks of the new beginnings a risen Christ offers.

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