There are booksellers who fall into bookselling when their other plans don’t work out or when they happen to see a Help Wanted sign in a store one day—and booksellers who choose it, who know from early on that they want to make a career out of putting books into the hands of other people. René Kirkpatrick chose bookselling in 1978 and has been slinging books ever since. She got her start at the University of Oregon Bookstore, was the long-time buyer for the iconic (and now closed) All for Kids Books & Music in the University District in Seattle and she’s now the children’s author, book and school events coordinator for Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. She’s helped connect thousands of kids with thousands of books over the years, and is, not surprisingly, an excellent source of recommendations, a go-to bookseller when other booksellers need recommendations for their kids (Thanks René!). She blogs here about what she reads and what she sees out her window.
We asked her a few questions.
There are so many NW book people who started out at the UO bookstore in the seventies and eighties (Thom Chambliss, who’s the Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association; Kristine Kaufman, who owns the Snow Goose Bookstore in Stanwood; Larry and Karen West, who owned the Book Mark in Eugene for 30 years; Cindy Heidemann, who reps for Publishers Group West; Cheryl Maze, who was the long-time trade manager at OSU bookstore, among many others). What was it about the UO at that time that was such an incubator for career booksellers? The UO bookstore at that time was filled with people who loved books and people. It really was a special place. We were all taught the basics of bookselling and given a chance to be artistic, and we learned to be truly good at customer service. We could move up in the business, go to shows and learn more, meet other booksellers. It was the best time to be in the book business. Eugene had, what, twelve different bookstores in those years? Such a luscious venue for books.
The thing about UO at that time was that we were trained to be the best at what we could be. We had managers that modeled the best behaviors; they were willing to share what they knew and encouraged us to try new things, things that might lead us to more responsibility. I was allowed to take an entire year of children’s literature classes because I was becoming a children’s buyer and it was a good way for me to be a better one.
Are you saying they actually paid for you to take children’s lit classes? Like a minor in children’s bookselling? Hard to imagine that happening right now. And yet, you’ve probably helped foster hundreds of book lovers through the years. The investment clearly paid off. I took three terms of children’s lit classes with Barbara Kiefer, one of the best-known children’s lit teachers around. At the time, Jim Williams, the manager, was really invested in making the store the best it could be. He even paid for an introductory computer class and class in graphic arts for me so I could make posters for the kids events and be a better window designer. I wasn’t in school at the time, the classes were all adult ed things, but I like to think they made their money back by the time I left.
What would you be doing if you weren’t bookselling? I would be teaching something. I have a degree in elementary education from U of O. I would have loved to be in the children’s literature department or to have been a children’s librarian. Books and kids and stories. There’s nothing better than that.
There have been sweeping changes in the book industry during the last 35 years, but, I wonder, how much has changed in the day-to-day of what you do? The biggest change in my personal bookselling experience is how much I spend sitting at a computer. I spend a lot of time “talking” to people about authors and events. Connecting people and books is still the primary thing I do, it’s just done in a different way.
Young adult literature has exploded in the last few years. How does it change the work you do, or does it? I’m pretty excited about it! There seem to be more people who are open to asking about what would be best to read out of the section than before, more who are sharing the books their kids are reading. More who are shopping for themselves and not sharing with their kids.
I think people pick up YA because they are short, great stories well told, familiar emotionally, and can thoroughly involve you in a story in a hurry
Have you always read YA? I’ve always been a reader of the genre. I like reading about characters whose lives change. The characters in YA have major changes in their lives and their emotions are everywhere; I find I learn a lot about myself as I read along. I like a book that picks up and goes and gets where it needs to in fewer words than adult books do. Most YA is better edited than other genres because you have to say what needs said in many fewer pages.
What’s your favorite age group to work with, and will you recommend a few recent books for that age group? I like all the age groups—YA especially, but the middle readers are probably the most important. If you lose a reader in 5th grade, you lose them for a very long time.
Middle Readers (2-5 grades): Clete Smith’s Aliens on Vacation; The Penderwicks series; Almost anything by Peg Kehret; Mike Lupica, Dan Gutman for sports; David Patneaude’s Someone Was Watching. I love the classics I remember: The Moffats, Homer Price, The Pink Room, Horse in the House. AND A Wrinkle in Time, still one of my favorite books to reread.
YA: Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride; Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes; Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card; this new book that hasn’t come out yet called The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.
Will you name a few of the books that you’ve returned to for handselling again and again through the years? I love Bonny Becker’s Bear books and I love to handsell them because they are so much fun to read aloud. Homer Price is a little old-fashioned but it is so darned funny! Someone Was Watching for any boy who can’t find anything to read. If you’ve got a teenage girl who loves sports, Dairy Queen is one of my favorites. Someone who likes fairies? Laini Taylor’s Silksinger books and the Disney Fairy books (yeah, I know, but they’re good), and Melissa Marr and Cassandra Clare have great series, and Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Booraem. It depends on who’s standing in front of me and what they’re in the mood for.
When you have a little downtime, what’s your favorite section of Third Place to hang out in and why? I like the kids’ department. I don’t do the buying, so I don’t always know what’s in the store. I love to wander the shelves and pull together a small stack of books to peruse. I get such a thrill when I see something I’ve heard of but haven’t seen yet. I also love the sidelines section and the science fiction section. Science fiction has pretty much always been my first love. The combination of YA and science fiction is the BEST!
What’s the last best book you read, and will you handsell it to us? The last best book I read is The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. I am having a really hard time with this book; I don’t want to share it because the more I talk about it the more I lose the immediate joy of having discovered it. I like being one of a very few people who have read this book. I physically carried it with me for days after I finished it, just so I could look at it every once in a while and remember it. It is the utterly perfect book for me: horses, mythology, oceans, love, longing, loneliness. A world created so well that I swear I could smell the dung and salt, feel the rain and cold. Amazing. It reminded me of The Green Grass of Wyoming and A Ring of Endless Light, both books about growing up and away, loss, horses, family and with all with a serious sense of place.
You’ve met and worked with a lot of NW children’s authors. Will you tell us about some of the most memorable? You know, the most memorable are the ones I became friends with. Children’s authors are so great, they don’t have huge egos; they tend to write while working and raising kids, so they’ll come by and say hello while they’re picking up eggs. That is just so cool! The idea that everyday people write books that change lives and worlds is something children really need to know.
Peg Kehret is pretty amazing. She has worked so hard for so long and has an astonishing collection of state charms, one for each of the books that have won a State Children’s Choice Award. She’s written a biography about her life with polio, and books for every possible reader. She gives great events and is an inspiring speaker.
Will you create a dinner for us with some of your favorite NW children’s authors? Only authors? A dinner with authors would include George Shannon, Jack Prelutsky and Gloria Rand, among all the other authors for their great good humor and ability to prove that children’s book authors and sellers are not the sweet and retiring folk they appear. There’s a little sarcasm to offset the sugar. I see us at Chauni Haslet’s house, candlelight, good food (mmm, Beecher’s Mac & Cheese), seated around her table (which always has enough room for everyone who comes), dipping in and out of her patio area, lighting on the window seats surrounding the island, having just one more drink, enjoying the company and the laughter.
But, the other dinner I would like to be a part of would be in a local pub filled with all the NW children’s booksellers: playing Banagrams, talking about books. It would be a pub filled with tall tables to lean on, low lights, lots of paper and pens for listmaking, a smattering of pub food and beer, the camaraderie that comes from being a group of people who have known each other for so long. And the authors are a part of this here, too, since what we do is so intimately connected with what they do. Doesn’t that sound like fun?