In a world too full of heartache, can I really feel this sad about a store closure?
Let me check. YES. EXCUSE ME, BUT DUH. Yes, absolutely yes. It’s not even a question.
Well, then. I suppose my gut is yelling what my brain resists. I can indeed feel melancholy. We aren’t grading heartache on a curve, here. Each experience occupies its own space.
The retailer in question is The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. It’s the oldest independent children’s bookstore in the Boston area and one of the oldest in the country. It opened in 1977, and has kept kids reading and thinking and laughing and imagining for 45 years.
Because the pandemic and other factors have combined to make the business unsustainable, we are losing a gem. A few weeks ago, the owner, Terri Schmitz, announced that the store will shut down forever on Saturday, April 30. Which just happens to be Independent Bookstore Day. Which just happens to make me want to cry a little more.
The Children’s Book Shop is my favorite store on earth.
How could it not be? This shop practically raised my children.
We were lucky. Our apartment was a short walk away from this almost-900-square-foot home away from home, and we made that short walk a lot.
We were loyal because this is no ordinary store. Schmitz and her staff know children’s literature inside out and sideways, and they celebrate the unique weirdness and wonderfulness of every individual child.
Typically, as soon as we set foot in the shop, Schmitz or one of her staff members would look up, smile, and say something along the lines of “Oh, hi! Just so you know, right over here we have three new books on [insert topic that is the current focus of my kids’ obsessions].”
And I witnessed them have this same sort of conversation with customer after customer after customer.
Even more impressive? It wasn’t merely subject matter they considered. Remembering that my guys would go particularly nuts over books about, say, trains or baseball or presidents is perhaps not that phenomenal. But remembering nuance? That’s special. In our case, the shop understood the precise subset of humor and wordplay my sons (and I) found uproarious, and would point us in great witty literary directions over and over again.
See, they didn’t just sell books. They guided us towards our own discoveries in ways that strike deep and resonant chords. What this devoted attention does for a child’s spirit is immeasurable. Kids feel known, respected, nurtured, encouraged, and empowered. The planet is a more excellent place for children and for everyone, the more there are places like The Children’s Book Shop that shower them with such love. For what is love if not pulling a person aside and saying, “As soon as I saw this book, I thought of you!”
You might be thinking that the shop sounds mighty similar to a top-notch children’s room at a public library. And you are correct, and that in itself is high praise. Of course, this was a business, and Schmitz wanted to sell books, and she did, and successfully. But her background is in libraries. That’s part of why she and her staff created the environment I’ve often thought of as “Read first, pay later — or not, it’s all good.” They genuinely welcomed browsers and curious souls to the store, to soak up the joy within the pages. Purchases might happen at such time as the purchasers were ready. It’s a beautiful vibe.
Picture books and board books and chapter books and fact books and novels and graphic novels and poetry anthologies and easy readers and narrative non-fiction and biographies and reference books and so forth and so on… The Children’s Book Shop offered a full range of ways to get lost, and then found, in words and pictures.
However, and this is key, the store only carried the best. For decades, curation has been central to the mission. Before placing orders, Schmitz read every book the publishers offered, and if a book did not meet her quality standards — no matter whether it might make a splash in mainstream markets and sell well in chain bookstores — then she did not choose it for the shelves of The Children’s Book Shop. In this haven built on relationships and trust, that integrity made a difference.
No doubt some of you are tempted to inform me that perhaps I should get some perspective. You may be rolling your eyes and reminding me that it’s-just-a-store/retail-is-difficult/halls-of-commerce-come-and-go/and-excuse-me-by-the-way-perhaps-you’re-aware-that-other-vastly-larger-issues-need-attention.
But this one shop, this cozy, mind-expanding, glee-inducing, compassion-reinforcing, language-enhancing, art-appreciating resource, has served as a companion on the reading journeys of generations. It’s changed lives for the better. The loss hurts.
Another reason for the pain? There’s been more in the mix than reading and shopping. The store’s attributes are legion: the annual Children’s Book Shop poetry contest for the K-8 set, the popularity of which was off the charts; the author and illustrator visits that children will never forget; the brilliant changing window displays that offered the most heartwarming part of the streetscape of Brookline Village; and I suppose I can mention now the freebies the staff would sometimes slip to the clientele, such as our family’s treasured “Stinky Cheese Man” cardboard monument, and an advance review copy of an eagerly-awaited installment in the “Artemis Fowl” series, and a cassette (a cassette!) of dark and hilarious songs by the nucleus of The Magnetic Fields called “Tragic Treasury” to accompany the beloved collection, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
For what is love if not pulling a person aside and saying, “As soon as I saw this book, I thought of you!”
It’s been years since my own kids were “in the demo” for The Children’s Book Shop, but I’ve kept stopping by our old stomping grounds to buy gifts for others. Every time I’ve stepped inside, some mysterious maternal muscle memory has always sent me straight to the sections my family used to check first. Somewhere in my middle-aged brain, I can almost hear my little guys chirping “Mama, look! The new 'Captain Underpants'! And a baseball encyclopedia!” I feel a pang, and then utter bliss, because of what we were so fortunate to have shared.
That’s a little like how I feel right now. I’m misty-eyed. OK, fine, the type of “misty-eyed” that I suppose would be more accurately phrased as “sobbing.” But I’m grateful to a store that is a community and a hallowed refuge. The Children’s Book Shop has enhanced the experiences of countless humans with story after story, until — and even beyond — the final page.
May we all live happily ever after. The End. Now, let’s read it again.