The SCBWI has long supported independent bookstores who work hand in hand with children’s authors and illustrators to promote our books. The following interview with Patty Norman, Director of Kids Events for Copperfield’s Books and Children’s Specialist for Copperfield’s flagship children’s department in Petaluma, California, highlights the many ways a great indie plays a vital role in our success. After reading this, you’ll want to seek out the independent bookstore in your community and let them know that you’re an SCBWI member and you’re in their corner.
Can you describe Copperfield’s? Where do you fit in the universe of independent bookstores?
Copperfield’s is 40+ years old, and still owned by the same two people that started it. What makes us different, though, is that there are now nine stores, each in a small community throughout the North Bay area above San Francisco (Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties). Each store is really a part of its community– here’s no cookie-cutter approach–and so we feel like individual small indies.
What is your particular role in the store?
On the floor, I’m the kids person who will help kids find that biography they have to read or a book that they love as much as they loved, say, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. I love when non-readers come in and leave excited about a book. There’s a book for everyone, if you really listen to them (not their frustrated parents) and respect what they have to say. When it comes to kids events, I do everything from filling out the grids to booking the schools to being on site from start to finish, to reporting event details back to the publicist. Oh, and making the posters. And with the help of our Best Damn Events team, doing anything from a scavenger hunt to a paper mache life-size version of one of Mac Barnett / Greg Pizzoli’s rabbits–complete with tree house. It’s a gas. There’s very little we won’t try.
How are the children’s book events in your store generated? What makes you decide that an event is something you want to do?
Events are generated usually when working with the publicist from the publishing house–they let me know who will be in the area, and what their needs are, and we start there. In some cases, we reach out–if there’s a school-wide read of a certain title, we’ll ask the author if they’d be willing to come to the school, especially if we can tag on a few additional school visits. I always look at the book and topic and author and make certain I have a place where it can do well and an audience that feels right. I want the author to feel recognized and appreciated. Sometimes, we get a wild idea and just keep putting it out to the universe until we literally make it happen. We’re a little bit nuts and often unstoppable.
In your opinion, what constitutes a successful children’s book event?
I want the kids who hear the author or illustrator speak to be delighted. I want the teachers, if it’s a school visit, to feel it was valuable time spent for their students. I want the author to feel recognized and appreciated and energized by their interaction with the kids. I want parents to be supportive of the event and to purchase one of the author’s books. I want the publisher to be happy with the number of books sold and a hopefully-happy author. I want the bookstore to get enough sales that it’s worth their time for me to do the event. That’s a lot of wants: six, if I counted correctly. If I get at least five of them, I feel it’s successful.
Why do children’s book events matter?
There’s no way to know for certain who they’re going to matter to, but they definitely matter. Those moments when kids see themselves in an author or illustrator or book; when they realize that being a writer or artist is not out the realm of possibility; when you see their eyes sparkle and their hand shoot up in the air…it’s lovely. Do they matter to every kid? Maybe not. But they matter to most. And sometimes it’s the quiet ones, the ones who appear not to be engaged, that it matters to most of all.
What role does the independent bookstore play in community life?
We see ourselves as a hub for the community. Getting to hang out downtown with your friends is kind of a rite of passage for 11 or 12-year-olds, and we’ve heard it said more than once (in a cautionary parental tone) “now, if you need anything, you can go right to the counter at Copperfield’s.” We love that. I tell kids at school events that they’re always welcome in the store; they don’t have to buy a book to be in a bookstore, they just have to like books. They can do their homework, or make a wish list, or just look at books. I can’t stress that enough. Last week, a nine-year-old, still in her parochial school uniform, came up to me at the counter and said, “Can you help me with this math problem? I really don’t get it.” Fortunately (whew!) I knew how to do what it was asking, and we worked it out together. She skipped back to her friends, I heaved a quiet sigh of relief, and all of us at the counter grinned at each other. We love that, too. We feel we’re the anchor tenant for our downtown, and we take that responsibility very seriously.
How can authors and illustrators who are yet to be published benefit from and support independent bookstore events?
We have a lot of yet-to-be published authors and illustrators come in the store, reading new releases, doing their homework, asking questions and talking about their projects. We don’t profess to have a lot of answers, but we know a bit about the process and resources that are available to them (hello, SCBWI!) and try to encourage and steer them in the right direction. They can support us by remembering that we’re there to help, and that by buying their books from a local indie and not an online giant they’re supporting other debut authors, and no online discounted sale will ever replace the love and enthusiasm we have for books. Hopefully they will feel the love and support we have for the writing process and will return it in kind.
What is your interaction with the school and public library community?
We give educators a discount and we host annual Educator Nights (with wine and chocolate). We do so many events with schools; we hang their school logo shirts in our store, we have them do walking field trips and give book talks to their students. we help judge their poetry slams, we help them find books for the classroom or for school-wide reads, we post their students reviews, and we feature school librarians and their wish lists. It goes on and on. Schools and passionate teachers create readers; we want to support them in any way we can. As for libraries, we often send kids and their parents to the library. We have their card catalog online and can see what they have. We always have the library give a presentation at our Educators Nigh and we collaborate on events when we can. The library is a crazy-good resource that we want families to utilize.
How’s the children’s book business these days?
I think it’s pretty solid. There’s so much content, it’s hard to imagine not being able to find something to read. I love the diversity and variety of topics that are readily available. I’m a huge proponent of reading what makes you happy, and I feel (personally, not necessarily speaking for the store) that reading levels and AR tests are more hindrance than help.
Do you feel it is part of the bookstore’s role to promote diversity and social justice or provide opportunities to serve the underserved in your community?
I absolutely think we must provide as big a window and mirror as possible, making it possible for greater understanding and empathy from all of our customers. I had a friend from India work one holiday season at the store. He was envious of my job in a bookstore: “You are surrounded by people who think; who seek answers.” he said. “That’s huge”. As far as the underserved, I always feel there’s more we could do, and I finally took that one on myself. I’ve started a non-profit so when I take authors to underserved Title I schools, I can simply provide every student with a copy of the author’s book. It’s important for all schools to get author visits; I want every kid to be a part of the conversation. So I started the Bookstormer Foundation. My plan is to lift all boats: by purchasing the books at an extended discount from Copperfield’s, they get a little bit for each sale. Copperfield’s is a NY Times reporting store, so since they’re reportable sales, the author and the publisher are happy, and most importantly, the kids who need books most will get books! I started it this fall, and it’s off to a good start. I am still very much fundraising (that’s not a hint, it’s a direct appeal) and I have touring author visits scheduled through early spring. I hope people will check out BookstormerFoundation.com, and read the touching stories and examples there. It is making a difference.