WENHAM — Tucked into the back of a cluster of retail and office buildings in Wenham's tiny downtown business district, Banbury Cross Children's Bookshop is the kind of place you need to look for in order to find.
For 25 years, that's what parents and grandparents have done, journeying to the little bookstore at 162R Main St. in search of a better brand of children's literature. There are the old classics, but also new favorites such as “Gone Away Lake” by Elizabeth Enright and “The Book Of Three” by Lloyd Alexander. For older kids, fifth grade and up, there are newer books such as “Blood Red Horse” by K.M. Grant and “Heart of a Samurai” by Margi Preus.
The tradition is winding to an end, however, as the independent shop plans for a June 15 closing by selling off its stock, furniture, and fixtures.
“If I was younger and hadn't had this great 25-year run, I'd probably be willing to do some of the things that other independent booksellers are doing, maybe leasing or renting a smaller shop footprint or carrying sidelines,’’ such as toys or other items, said Patricia Purdy, the bookshop’s owner and a former children's librarian at the Wenham Public Library (which has since merged with Hamilton’s library). “I've always been driven by my mission to provide really great literature for kids.”
For years, Jo-Anna Lloyd, an English and media teacher at Beverly High School, would stop in on Thursdays, on her way to her home in Ipswich.
“It's the best bookstore in the world,” she said. “I'm heartbroken she's going away.”
Though Banbury Cross withstood the competition from big-box stores, the popularity of online bookseller Amazon.com and changes in consumer habits are ultimately what did in the small business. While generations of area parents and kids supported the store, it failed to attract as many new parents in recent years, and sales have halved from the levels of 10 years ago, according to the owner.
“I've had a great run,” Purdy said. “I was in business during the most wonderful time for children's literature back in the ’90s, when teachers taught reading by using beautiful picture books, beautifully illustrated with great language.”
Books are a prepriced item, so Banbury Cross could never compete with larger retailers on price, Purdy said. Instead, her shop offered a thoughtful selection and expert advice.
Many of the store's staff members share Purdy's background as a children's librarian, and a commitment to children's literature. They would share their interest in books, starting with those that introduce young children to the world through rhythm and rhyme, great illustrations that complement the text, and the sound of a parent’s voice reading to them.
“What I'll really miss is being able to go into her store and tell her what my child is reading — or she already knows — and have her give us a recommendation,” said Linda Rich, a former reading teacher and Wenham parent of three who has purchased books from Banbury Cross for 18 years.
At age 8, her daughter “has an incredible library, and I owe it to Pat,” said Lloyd. “It's really reflected in her use of vocabulary and her love of reading.”
“We read all of the books,” said Gwen Holt, the shop’s manager, who is also a librarian and has taught children's literature at Salem State and Endicott colleges. “We can match up reading levels with what we think children will enjoy, as we'd do in the library.”
In separate interviews, Purdy and Holt both said that sharing their love of books was the most enjoyable part of the job. Purdy jokes that Holt has singlehandedly kept the picture book “Ginger” (by Charlotte Voake) in print by recommending it so often.
“There are so many wonderful stories out there which sometimes get lost in the shuffle, and one-on-one you can get kids excited about them,” Holt added in a later e-mail. “When someone comes back and tells me they, or their children, really enjoyed a book I recommended — well, that's a great feeling.”
Rich said she still expects to keep her children reading quality books, but also expects to work harder to find them. She will miss having Purdy as a resource.
“I feel sad that it's closing, but happy for her, and for whatever she chooses to do next,” Rich said.
Purdy is looking back on her experience with satisfaction, and looking forward to the future. She's considering teaching adult literacy classes, but says she isn’t sure what her plans are.
Meanwhile, Holt, the shop manager, has a plan, at least for the short term.
“It will be interesting to have more time to read adult books,’’ she said, “after 30 years of reading books about mice and things like that.’’
Corresction: An earlier of this version of this article had the incorrect location of the bookshop in the headline.