Tuesday, April 4, 2017
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.