Peter Reynolds, a renowned children’s author and illustrator, was on a national tour this spring for his most recent book, “Be You!”, when the pandemic struck and the country began to shut down.
He hurried home to Massachusetts to decide what to do about his own book and toy store, The Blue Bunny in Dedham Square.
“We have a saying that when the going gets tough, the creative get going,” Reynolds said.
While the shop was shuttered under Governor Baker’s stay-at-home advisory, Reynolds held virtual author events and continued to sell books online. He also began filming a weekly read-aloud and art activity that kids could watch through the bookstore’s website.
Earlier this month, after several weeks of offering appointment shopping and curbside pickup, the store fully reopened. And after a summer break, Reynolds plans to resume the weekly readings and art activities in September.
“We love getting kids reading, but we also love for kids to write their own stories,” he said. “My read-aloud sessions always include art activities.”
Maybe it’s the suspension of summer travel. Maybe it’s the demand for diversions to keep young kids busy while Mom or Dad wraps up yet another teleconference meeting. Or maybe it’s because parents are especially eager for kids’ activities that do not involve screens.
Whatever the reason, independent bookstores in Greater Boston are benefiting from a surge of new interest and attention. And what better time to celebrate than on National Independent Bookstore Day, to be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 29?
Normally, Independent Bookstore Day takes place the last Saturday in April, explained Samantha Schoech, the San Francisco-based program director for the annual event. Like so many events that would have fallen during the nationwide spring shutdown, it was rescheduled. But the more than 600 independent bookstores that typically take part in the celebration may find that customers are more eager than ever to cheer their existence.
“We’ve seen a real surge of support for independent bookstores lately,” Shoech said. “Some stores have seen huge increases in online shopping; and now that they are allowed to welcome customers again, parents are bringing in their kids. Bookstores have become essential businesses.
“It’s still a very difficult time for any kind of independently owned local business, but it’s been encouraging to see the support on the part of the public during this time.”
Kathleen Crowley, co-owner with her husband, Chris Abouzeid, of Belmont Books in Belmont, focused on how to keep kids reading and creating during distance learning and summer vacation – not only for their regular cadre of Belmont shoppers but for the greater community who may not typically shop at the store. Crowley and her staff designed a Read It Forward book donation program modeled after one started at a Connecticut store.
“We distributed books through school lunch programs and through Boys & Girls Clubs in Arlington, Belmont, Waltham, and Watertown, for kids from pre-K through high school,” Crowley explained.
Meanwhile, Belmont Books staff also selected advance reading copies — books provided to retailers prior to publication — and damaged books to simply leave on a bench outside the store for local readers to help themselves.
“Indie booksellers are proving to be essential heroes during the pandemic, using their unparalleled knowledge to suggest the right book at the right time for each young reader,” said Elise Supovitz, executive director of independent retail and Canadian sales for Candlewick Press, a Somerville-based children’s book publisher.
“Especially in this uncertain year, it’s been an honor for us at Candlewick to collaborate with indies on such endeavors as our popular Find Waldo Local initiative to encourage local shopping, which took on a digital form this year, and Belmont Books’ exemplary Read It Forward program, which brings books to readers in need.”
Many Boston-area bookstores recognized the special role that they could play for children, first when school buildings closed and then during the summer when camps and family vacations had to be put on hold. Paul Swydan, owner/operator of The Silver Unicorn Bookstore in West Acton, noticed an interesting purchasing pattern that changed from spring through summer.
“When schools first shut down and no one was sure what online learning was going to look like, we saw a lot of workbooks and instructional books being purchased,” he said. “Once online learning took hold, parents no longer felt they needed to purchase instructional workbooks and turned instead to activity books, expressing a great interest in anything kids can do without a screen. And then after the school year ended, we started our summer reading program, by which if kids do eight hours of reading over the summer and fill out a form, they receive a $5 gift card and are entered into a raffle.”
Unlike some summer reading programs, said Swydan, Silver Unicorn emphasize hours of reading over number of books, to encourage kids to read at their own pace.
For Arwen Severance, owner of The Bookstore of Gloucester, social media helped keep the shop on the radar of young readers and their caregivers.
“While we were closed during the shutdown, we filled our front window with workbooks, sticker books, educational games, puzzles, and general children’s books, and we posted pictures,” she said. That strategy attracted online orders. Additionally, Severance and her colleagues put together packages with activity books, games and puzzles that they then delivered throughout Cape Ann.
“We distributed a lot of workbooks and nonfiction of all kinds. Coloring books, atlases, books about the ocean and dinosaurs; how to find things in nature. Graphic novels have been popular, too,” she said.
And with school starting both virtually and in-person throughout the region, bookstores are now looking toward how they can supplement teachers’ efforts.
At The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, Swydan is planning a lineup of fall programming, including virtual book launches for local children’s authors scheduled on the public schools’ early release afternoons.
“This will be the first time we’re doing virtual events for chapter books,” Swydan mused. “For us and our customers, it’s one way of being together while being apart.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.