This week, we have the pleasure of welcoming Alice Hutchinson, owner of Byrd’s Books, an independent bookseller in Bethel, CT. Alice has been involved in the world of literature for over 30 years, beginning with roles as buyer and manager for her mother’s New Age bookstore. Alice has held several leadership roles within the Bethel community, and holds a Masters of Arts degree in Teaching with a concentration in Young Adult literature. Byrd’s Books was founded almost 3 years ago, and expanded last year into a larger location. If you are in the Bethel are, you can certainly stop in for a visit, but online ordering is also available.
KDC: Alice, thanks for taking time to give us your insights into the book industry. Tell us what inspired you to open an independent bookstore?
AH: I believe a bookstore creates community, and it becomes a special place where people can support the arts. In our area, there was a vacuum when Borders closed, which I felt created a hole for the book community. There was an opportunity to fill that void, and I had a theory that people still wanted books along with their e-readers. I initially opened in a small location, and found that my theory was correct. So far, this community appears to want to support a brick-and-mortar bookstore, and we moved into a larger location to expand our ability to provide quality literature and book-related merchandise. People realize that when you buy from a local bookstore versus looking in person and then shopping online, you support a business that will then return more funds and involvement to the community itself. We put an emphasis on Connecticut authors, and actively support them through signings, consignment of self-published work, and other events.
KDC: What trends are you seeing now in both the publishing and consumer buying of children’s books?
AH: At Byrd’s Books, our most popular section is Connecticut authors, second most popular is books for ages 9-12, and third is books for 4-8 years old. Parents are looking for chapter books as well as books in a series that their children can get engaged with in order to improve their reading ability. We don’t carry most of the more populist book series (like those from Disney) – I strive to find series with more literary content like those from Kate DiCamillo. Bookstores are responding to the changes with education and the Common Core requirements, and the best way to do that is to carry great non-fiction including science books, good biographies of interesting people, and stories about people and topics that are fun and compelling. Non-fiction is on the rise, which is a good thing for literature anyway and fun to buy for.
KDC: How do you decide what books to buy for the store?
AH: We read Publisher’s Weekly, and we are very active members of the American Bookseller’s Association. We get advance copies of books from both the Association’s division Indie Bound and from publishers, and we do our best to review many of them to find those that are high quality and would be the right fit for the store. Most catalogs from publishers are on a system called Edelweiss, where reps add markers that allow us to see if books are trending on Goodreads, Publisher’s Weekly, or other sources. We do a lot of special orders for customers, which sometimes helps us discover interesting new books.
KDC: If a 5 year old and a 10 year old asked you for book recommendations, what would you tell them?
AH: I would ask them, “What’s the last book you read that you loved?” I listen carefully to how they talk about the book, and that will give me a jumping off point to find them books with similar topics or tone. At 5 years old, children often want chapter books but secretly are still interested in picture books. It also depends on whether they are reading, or they are being read to. If they are reading to themselves, you want to encourage their sight recognition of the words. At 8 years old, children are right on the edge between the 9-12 and 4-8 categories. If they are exceptional readers, you still may find good content in the 4-8 category because it is so wide. I will often take a strong 8 year old reader over to the Newberry section or introduce them to some classics like Mr. Popper’s Penguins, or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. These books are fun to read, and are an important part of cultural literacy. Often a parent will tell me what they want their child to be reading and that they are bright, but that does not necessarily translate into reading ability or maturity. Your average 11 year old with above average reading ability will come in and ask for books in the teenage section (like The Hunger Games), when there are plenty of great books at the 9-12 level that provide challenge without getting into the issues with social relationships and violence that a high schooler is better prepared to grapple with. Helping match a person with a special find is one of the great joys of book selling.
KDC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AH: As we discussed before, our online ordering capability allows you to get the book you want 24 hours a day. We also have a lot of great events coming up, including a children’s writing workshop in February with Gail Carson Levine, and in late November is an opportunity to support your community bookstore through Small Business Saturday. Like ours, many bookstores will be having authors selling books right within the store on that day.
Thank you Alice for your great perspective on the book selling industry. We appreciate your time.
Make sure to support your local bookstore and if you are looking for a place to order your next book, give Byrd’s Books a try!
From Joanna’s desk:
Attention Picture Book Writers! November is Picture Book Idea Month–or PiBoIdMo, for short.
Tara Lazar, who hosts one of 2013’s Top Ten Blogs for Writers, has organized this fun event for quite a few years. The basic premise is to come up with 30 new ideas for picture books, all within November. You could do one idea a day, or all 30 ideas on the last day of the month–that’s up to you. Each day, there will be a special post of encouragement from various peeps in the kid lit world–I’m especially excited about Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Ammi-Joan Paquette. There are books to win, even critiques from published authors, agents and editors. Katie participated a few years ago; this is my first time.
Registration is open until Nov. 7th. Sign up here.
Wish I could go to that Gail Carson Levine workshop–you should absolutely go, Katie. Have you read Ella Enchanted? One of my absolute favorites, Ella is such a memorable character.