SARAH TILTON was having a difficult time finding age-appropriate reading material for her son. Four-year-old George was curious about stained-glass windows, church organs, grandfather clocks and violins, but each time Tilton attempted to buy books about these un-toddler-like subjects, she struck out.
"I have a shelf full of duds," says Tilton, a stay-at-home mom. "I pick out books that look good to me, and I get them home and we read them, and he never picks them out again."
Like a lot of parents who want to instill a love of reading in their children but know almost nothing about kid literature aside from the titles they read when they were young, Tilton has made a lot of $15 mistakes venturing beyond the classics and bestsellers into the vast and ever-expanding landscape of unfamiliar titles.
Thanks to the magic of a boy named Harry, the number of children's books released each year has increased dramatically, from about 9,000 in 2000 to 22,000 in 2004, according to bibliographic information provider R.R. Bowker. That's a lot of books for time-strapped parents to wade through in their pursuit of the good stuff. But there is help, and lots of it, at independent children's bookstores. In the Los Angeles area, there's a wealth of kid-specific booksellers dotting various neighborhoods -- stores with tens of thousands of titles and well-read staff members who can redirect shoppers' aimless wandering to specific titles based on a child's age, interests or difficulties, whether it be snails, tornadoes, Hinduism or same-sex parents. And the perks don't stop at selection and guidance.
On the kid side, there are the usual author and illustrator meet-and-greets, but there are also dress-up parties, craft workshops, singalongs and story times. For adults with children in tow, there's the calm that comes from being in a child-friendly environment, where the clerks won't glare when little Blake or Katrina melts down. There's also gift wrapping, as well as customized book baskets and book-of-the-month plans. Some stores even have recycling and donation programs, so shoppers can bring back whatever books their kids haven't mangled and know they'll land in the hands of other children who'll enjoy them.
JADE JAMIESON has been sitting on a well-worn couch at Children's Book World for more than an hour, making her way through piles of picture books precariously stacked at her feet. There are hardcovers about the lost boys of Sudan, AIDS in Africa, Anne Frank and more than a dozen other titles dealing with social justice and multicultural issues for the elementary school crowd.
A student teacher whose third-grade pupils are predominantly Latino, Jamieson was "specifically picking books that are speaking to their struggles and to their families. What's really neat about this bookstore is they have that. Most bookstores, it's really for the middle-class white kid," says Jamieson, 28, who researched the area's independent bookstores and visited many of them before landing at the West L.A. shop.
Diversity is key at Children's Book World, a store with 80,000-plus titles shelved in niches that include world folklore, comparative religion, chapter fiction and "issues," such as death, divorce and emerging sexuality.
"We live in a multicultural society and we're enriched by it, especially in a town like Los Angeles," says Sharon Hearn, a former teacher who retired her red pen to open up shop almost 20 years ago. "We want the store to reflect our values and what we think will serve the community."
It's a philosophy that's made the children's bookstore one of the most popular in the city, frequented not only by parents and teachers but some of the biggest names in kid lit. J.K. Rowling, Judy Blume and Eoin Colfer are just a few of the heavyweights who've swung through the store for signings. Later this month, author Louis Sachar will stop in for a talk and autograph session in support of his "Holes" sequel, "Small Steps." In March, the store will host an off-site event with "Magic Tree House" author Mary Pope Osborne.
Considering each author's stature and the hundreds-strong crowds they are likely to draw, you'd think some backroom deal had been struck between the authors' publisher and the chains, preventing them from appearing at an independent store such as Children's Book World.
Not so, says Melanie Chang, director of publicity for Random House children's books, which publishes both writers.
"What we look for in a bookstore when we're thinking about where we're going to put an author for an event is fabulous connections with the schools and the educators and the libraries and the librarians in the community," she says. "It's spreading the word of mouth in the school community that really, really makes a difference."
Children's Book World isn't the only store that fosters those connections and community ties. Most kids' bookstores are nestled in quaint neighborhood shopping districts that draw nearby schoolteachers and families. It's the proximity that draws their customers in -- but it's the service, expertise and familiarity that keeps them coming back.
MAUREEN Palacios and her two daughters were regulars at Once Upon a Time for a decade until, faced with the Montrose store's imminent closure in 2003, Palacios gave up her 20-year human-resources career and bought it.
"We came in every week. This is all we knew," said Palacios, who now runs the store with help from daughters Jessica, 11, and Amelia, 10. Both girls are voracious readers, devouring about a book a day and writing reviews, which are tucked into the display copies like bookmarks.
The handwritten reviews are one of several homey touches to the store. Silhouette stencils decorate the walls, and most of the 13,000 books on hand are displayed on antique tables.
Once Upon a Time doesn't hold many author readings, but it does throw other book-related events. Last Halloween, the lights were out, and so were the sleeping bags, as kids munched on s'mores and told creepy stories, flashlights held to their chins. Over the summer, there was a weekly pajama night, during which staff and kids alike dressed in their jammies and read stories out loud.
The PJ parties and ghost tales were the brainchild of Palacios -- a woman who gives her age as "39 and holding" and whose spirit is more kid-like than her daughters'. Clearly, she loves what she's doing for a living.
That's part of what keeps Once Upon a Time and other kids' bookstores going. It's tough to run an independent store, even though children's books are one of the strongest-selling segments in the book industry. In 2004, children's books were a $1.8-billion industry. In 2006, the segment is projected to be worth nearly $2 billion, according to the Book Industry Study Group. Although most of the sales action is with chain bookstores and big-box retailers, the independents are also claiming their share.
"We've never not made money, but I take a very small salary in order to say that," says Jodi Shapiro, who founded Adventures for Kids in Ventura 27 years ago. "You can't have a greedy lifestyle and do this."
According to Shapiro, who is also the founding and current president of the Southern California Children's Booksellers Assn., it isn't just the chain bookstores that hurt independent children's stores but school funding cuts and competition online.
Shapiro says 20% of children's bookstores' sales come from teachers, who, because of federal and state budget cuts, are no longer buying as many books for their classrooms and school libraries. As for the Web, independents simply can't compete with online booksellers, such as Amazon, that offer discounts the independents can't afford and convenient, oftentimes free, shipping direct to your door.
But, as Shapiro points out, "Amazon doesn't wrap a birthday present on a Saturday morning on your way to the party. Stores need to be there to do that sort of thing, but you can't stay in business just on Saturday birthday parties."
IT'S approaching 11 a.m., and the strollers are rolling in at Storyopolis. It's the usual assortment of Gracos and Maclarens, infants and toddlers, mommies and nannies. They're all here for story time -- a free weekday event that gives kids and their caregivers an excuse to get out of the house, snuggle up in soft, candy-colored chairs and listen to someone else read out loud for a while.
On a recent Thursday, it wasn't long before an out-of-tune rendition of "Wheels on the Bus" was echoing through the roomy Studio City store, which specializes not only in kids' books but illustrators' art. The walls are chock full of original pieces and prints from the likes of Mo Willems, Nicola Bayley, Mark Teague, Tim Burton and other masters of paint and paper. More than 130 artists are represented throughout the store, which, with its art gallery, occupies a unique niche in the L.A. kids' bookstore scene.
This weekend marks the store's 11th anniversary. Among the many big guns who are coming out to help celebrate: illustrators David Catrow, Scott Nash and Michael Hague, and authors Megan McDonald ("Judy Moody"), Clive Barker ("Abarat") and Cornelia Funke ("Inkheart").
A bestselling author with three books in various stages of Hollywood development, Funke hardly needs to participate in an event like Storyopolis' anniversary. But the German author, who moved to Los Angeles in May, has been making the rounds at the area's children's bookstores.
"As a big author, you can always help the independent stores to exist by doing an event," says Funke, who will do a short reading and also sign books this weekend. "It's a tough job to be a bookseller. For me, it's always special to do something for an owner of a store who I know has worked hard to keep their business."
For Michael and Claudette McLinn, it isn't business that's kept the doors of Bright Lights Children's Bookstore open in Inglewood for the last 14 years.
"It's our passion," Michael McLinn says of the store, which is open only on Saturdays and specializes in books by African American writers and illustrators.
McLinn, who is 63 and retired, and his wife, who works as a school librarian, don't make any money. But it's important to them that there is a place for people to find a wide variety of Afrocentric children's titles.
When McLinn was growing up, he says, "We just didn't have that many books available for our population."
Now there are thousands, though many are out of print. It's Bright Lights' mission to snatch up as many copies of African American children's books as possible before they're no longer available. Right now, they have about 18,000 titles, half of which are out of print.
Adventures for Kids in Ventura doesn't carry many out-of-print titles, but, like most independent children's bookstores, it is very strong in backlist -- books that were published before the current season but are still in print. Backlist makes up the majority of the 68,000 titles the store keeps on hand -- both the classics and lesser-known treasures, like the ones owner Jodi Shapiro selected for Sarah Tilton.
Based on Tilton's descriptions of her son's interests, Shapiro selected "The Philharmonic Gets Dressed," "Mole Music," "Who Is the Beast" and about 10 other titles.
"If my son expresses an interest in something, I want to encourage that and go with it," Tilton says. "[Shapiro's] books, we've had them all of two weeks. I've been doling them out slowly.
"Every one has been a hit. We read them every night."
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Where to go
A Whale of a Tale
This 18-year-old community bookstore carries more than 80,000 children's book titles. It also sponsors occasional dress-up events, including the upcoming wedding party in celebration of Kevin Henkes' "Lilly's Big Day."
Story time: 10-10:30 a.m. Wednesdays
Where: 4199 Campus Drive, Suite A, Irvine. (949) 854-8288; www.awhaleofatale.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.
Adventures for Kids
With 27 years under its belt and 68,000 books on hand, Adventures for Kids is one of the area's longest-standing and best-stocked children's bookstores. It is also one of the few that sells books online.
Story time: 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays
Where: 3457 Telegraph Road, Ventura. (805) 650-9688; www.adventuresforkids.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thu., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., noon-3 p.m. Sun.
Bright Lights Children's Bookstore
Though limited in its hours, Bright Lights has a wealth of children's books, mostly from African American writers and illustrators. About half of the 18,000 titles are out of print. Readings and signings, which have been on hiatus, will resume in the spring.
Story time: 2 p.m. Saturdays
Where: 8461 S. Van Ness Ave., Inglewood. (323) 971-1296
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.
This neighborhood shop is divided in two parts, one devoted exclusively to kids' books since 1992. About 10,000 titles are available. Join the book of the month club and store owner Sue Otto will select and mail a book for a child based on his or her age and/or interests.
Story time: 10:30-11 a.m. Saturdays
Where: 126 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 465-1334
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.
Children's Book World
This year marks the store's 20th year in business, and you can tell. It smells like books -- 80,000 of them. It also carries more than the usual suspects in kids' music and videos, as well as some educational toys. Services include book bundles -- gift-wrapped stacks selected based on children's ages and interests -- and the Children's Book Recycling Center. Bring in new and gently used books and the store will donate them to a literacy program.
Story time: 10:30 a.m. Saturdays
Where: 10580 1/2 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 559-2665; www.childrensbookworld.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.
Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop
Considering the store's inventory is 65% books, 30% toys and 5% music, Mrs. Nelson's moniker is a bit of a misnomer, but no matter. This luxuriously large 6,000-square-foot shop carries 35,000 titles, in addition to vintage and retro toys. The store also sponsors extracurricular events and readings, bringing in local, national and international writers.
Story time: 10 a.m. Tuesdays, 6 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. Saturdays
Where: 1030 Bonita Ave., La Verne. (909) 599-4558; www.mrsnelsons.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.
Once Upon a Story
This year marks the 10th anniversary of this cozy store, founded by a former teacher turned young mother turned retailer. Puzzles, puppets and other items to help young imaginations thrive round out its 15,000 titles. The "wish list" service works something like a bridal registry. Give the store a list of books for a birthday or baby shower, then send in friends and family to buy them.
Story time: 10:30 a.m. Thursdays
Where: 3740 E. 4th St., Long Beach. (562) 433-6856; www.onceuponastorybooks.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Once Upon a Time
The "family bookstore" label applies to the books this homey shop carries and to the manner in which it's run. Though most of the books are for children, the shop keeps a few on hand for parents as well. Since the ownership changed hands in 2003, Maureen Palacios has taken advantage of her two daughters' voracious reading habits; they often write book reviews and compile reading lists. Palacios delights in throwing in-store PJ parties and other storytelling events.
Story time: 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays
Where: 2284 Honolulu Ave., Montrose. (818) 248-9668; onceupona.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
San Marino Toy and Book Shoppe
True to its name, this 31-year-old shop is stocked half with children's books and half with classic toys. For Easter, the store puts together gift baskets of toys and books, hand-selected or pre-assembled.
Story time: none
Where: 2424 Huntington Drive, San Marino. (626) 309-0222; www.toysandbooks.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.
This large and colorful bookstore-art gallery switched owners three years ago and also locations, moving from West L.A. to Studio City. In addition to the 27,000 titles, the store represents the work of more than 130 artists, selling originals and prints from current favorites like Mo Willems to classics such as Nicola Bayley. It's also the place for book "bushels" -- think gift basket, but with selected books -- as well as story times, readings, music shows, artists' workshops, gallery openings and book recycling.
Story time: 11 a.m. weekdays, plus 3 p.m. Thursdays
Where: 12348 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 509-5600; www.storyopolis.com
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
This 6,000-square-foot shop started as a mobile book service and evolved into a free-standing teachers' educational store in 1998. The 80,000 titles are divided by school subject instead of age. And events tend to be craft workshops rather than readings.
Story time/crafts: 11 a.m. to noon weekdays
Where: 235 E. Badillo St., Covina. (626) 332-2979.
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.
Since this general-interest bookstore expanded in 1998, the children's section has doubled; it now carries about 22,000 titles. The play area gives a child something to do, and gives parents the ability to stay within sight and/or earshot. Activity-wise and for kids, there are readings and other events, such as this weekend's Fancy Nancy dress-up party. Services for adults include six- and 12-month subscriptions to a picture book of the month club. There's also a birthday club for kids 13 and younger; members receive a $5 gift certificate each birthday.
Story time: 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays
Where: 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 449-5320; www.vromansbookstore.com
Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.
Beyond the books
Children's bookstores do a lot more than warehouse books. There are readings and parties and crafts, oh my! A look at what's coming up:
Claire and Monte Montgomery ("Hubert Invents the Wheel"), 10:30-11:30 a.m., Children's Book World
Cornelia Funke ("Inkspell"), Clive Barker ("Abarat") and others celebrate Storyopolis' 11th anniversary, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Storyopolis
Fancy Nancy dress-up gala, 11 a.m., Vroman's
Megan McDonald ("Judy Moody"), Michael Hague ("The Book of Dragons") and others celebrate Storyopolis' 11th anniversary, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Storyopolis
A costumed Curious George kicks off a week of hangout time, through Feb. 3, Mrs. Nelson's
Louis Sachar ("Small Steps"), 23:30 p.m., Children's Book World
Toyomi Igus ("I See the Rhythm"), 11 a.m., Storyopolis
The Kids' Book Chat gives teachers and educators a peek at what's new in kid lit, 7 p.m., Vroman's
Paul Rogers ("Jazz ABZ"), 11 a.m., Storyopolis
Brian Jones ("You Can't Milk a Dancing Cow"), 11 a.m., Storyopolis
Cathy Howard ("Gina Bina Ballerina"), 3 p.m., Storyopolis
Valentine's party, 10:30 a.m., Vroman's
Valentine's crafts and cookies, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Thematic Attic
Valentine's Day crafts, noon-2 p.m., Mrs. Nelson's
Paula Yoo ("Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds"), 10:30-11:30 a.m., Children's Book World
Teddy Ruxpin in costume ("The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin"), 11 a.m., Storyopolis
Claire and Monte Montgomery ("Hubert Invents the Wheel"), noon-2 p.m., Mrs. Nelson's
H.B. Lewis artist's studio, 7 p.m., Storyopolis
Bridget Belgrave ("Zak"), 10 a.m.noon, Mrs. Nelson's
"Earth Dynamics" kicks off the new monthly series Science Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Mrs. Nelson's
Cat in the Hat in costume kicks off three days of Dr. Seuss readings for Theodor Geisel's birthday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Mrs. Nelson's
Pictures and stories with a costumed Cat in the Hat, noon-3 p.m., Thematic Attic
Gail Small ("The Spelling Bee and Me"), 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Mrs. Nelson's
Carol Hamburger-Beitchman ("The Star Pupil"), 11 a.m., Storyopolis
Patty Hall ("Jumpin' Up!"), 11 a.m., Storyopolis
Mary Pope Osborne and Will Osborne ("Magic Tree House" series), 4-5:30 p.m., John Adams Middle School auditorium, 2425 16th St., Santa Monica, sponsored by Children's Book World
Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell ("The Edge Chronicles"), time to be announced, Mrs. Nelson's
Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, 11 a.m., Storyopolis
Women's History Month drawing workshop, 3-5 p.m., Thematic Attic
DJ Dave dance party, 11 a.m., Storyopolis
Easter egg decorating, noon-2 p.m., Thematic Attic
Blue Balliett ("Wright 3"), 3:30 p.m., San Marino Toy and Book
Blue Balliett, 10:30 a.m.-noon, Children's Book World
Blue Balliett, time to be announced, Mrs. Nelson's
To plumb the expertise of L.A.'s children's booksellers, we asked three to recommend reading for a handful of hypothetical kids. Here's what they came up with:
For a 3-year-old boy,
who likes baseball and is dealing with separation anxiety from mom
A Whale of a Tale: "My Baseball Book," by Gail Gibbons; "Owl Babies," by Martin Waddell
Bright Lights: "What Will Mommy Do When I'm at School?" by Dolores Johnson; "Mommy, Don't Go," by Elizabeth Crary
Vroman's: "Casey at the Bat," by Christopher Bing (illustrator); "Wemberly Worried," by Kevin Henkes
For a 6-year-old girl,
who loves rabbits and just moved to Los Angeles
A Whale of a Tale: "The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes," by Dubose Heyward; "Going to the Getty," by J.otto Seibold
Bright Lights: "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale," by Mo Willems; "The Berenstain Bears' Moving Day," by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Vroman's: "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," by Kate Dicamillo (out Feb. 14); "City of Angels," by Julie Jaskol and Brian Lewis
For a 9-year-old girl,
who likes music and dancing; she has two brothers and wishes she had a sister
A Whale of a Tale: "Dancing Shoes" and "Ballet Shoes," by Noel Streatfeild; "Our Only May Amelia," by Jennifer L. Holm
Bright Lights: "Amazing Grace," by Mary Hoffman; "Dancing in the Wings," by Debbie Allen
Vroman's: "Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought)," by Kathleen Krull; "Ophie Out of Oz," by Kathleen O'Dell
For a 12-year-old boy,
who loves video games and African American history and politics
A Whale of a Tale: "Lionboy," by Zizou Corder; "The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm," by Nancy Farmer
Bright Lights: "The Glory Field," by Walter Dean Myers; "Bronx Masquerade," by Nikki Grimes
Vroman's: "Heir Apparent," by Vivian Vande Velde; "The Land," by Mildred D. Taylor