Vancouver Sun: Thursday, October 30, 2008
Masterpiece, a novel for preteens by Elise Broach, is a book that staff at Vancouver Kidsbooks are excited about right now. It's an art-history mystery in which an 11-year-old boy and a beetle named Marvin join forces, and store founder Phyllis Simon says, "It gives you the same emotional warmth that reading Charlotte's Web might."
Kidsbooks, which marks its 25th anniversary Saturday, is renowned for helping adults choose books that children will find riveting. Masterpiece doesn't look out of the ordinary and its author isn't a marquee name, but Kidsbook staff have read it, love it and are hand-selling it, as they say in the book trade.
"I don't care if it's the publisher's front list, mid-list, backlist, whatever," says Simon. "If it's a book we're crazy for, we really get excited and can, hopefully, make a difference."
The store -- the largest children's bookstore in North America -- brings children's writers face-to-face with their readers, often by asking publishers if the author is touring and finagling a detour from Seattle. It's the throbbing heart of a passion for children's books that pulses through this community, drawing in families, preschools, schools, libraries, teachers and groups such as the Vancouver Children's Literature Roundtable and Children's Writers and Illustrators of B.C.
Kelly McKinnon, who became Simon's business partner in the late 1990s, says putting the right book into a particular child's hands involves more than knowing his or her age. "The most important questions are, 'What did they last read?' 'What do they like?' 'What are they excited about?' That gives you a sense of where their [reading] level really is."
Forty staff members at three locations know to ask those questions and draw on one another's expertise to recommend books for newborns, toddlers and young readers, right up to older teens who devour adult material. Their help kindles a love of reading that not only gives pleasure but leads to success at school and in life.
Simon (who is married to broadcasting doctor Art Hister) opened Kidsbooks on Nov. 1, 1983, when the economic climate was hardly propitious for starting a small business. The original location was on West Fourth Avenue near Bayswater. ("People to this day remember the bad brown carpet.") It moved to Kids Only Market on Granville Island a year later and in 1987 landed on the 3000-block of West Broadway, "at this location, but one-eighth the size."
It has since spread slightly to the east and west to the corner of Balaclava Street, becoming a 5,000-square-foot space. A recent renovation has freshened and brightened it with white, lilac and lime green. Says McKinnon: "We put in almost 30-per-cent more linear feet of bookcases. We wanted to fit in more books."
Kidsbooks' small store in North Vancouver's Edgemont Village opened 14 years ago and its 2,600-square-foot south Surrey location is a year old.
It's not easy for any independent bookseller to survive, let alone thrive, in the big-box era, but this one benefits from serving what Simon calls "a niche that has mystique around it.
"You kind of know what your best friend would want to read, but a lot of people haven't a clue what [works for] an eight-year-old or a nine-year-old or a four-year-old."