March 26, 2020

Once upon a time, in a sleepy little town nestled in the bend of a wide, beautiful river, there was a bookstore. Located at the end of the sidewalk and ringed by a vibrant garden with flowers in every color of the rainbow, this shop was just as colorful inside as it was outside. Across every shelf, tucked into every corner, were books upon books arrayed in jubilant rows that told tales of happy bunnies, scary pirates, valiant heroes, and everything in between.

And the children of that sleepy little town loved their little bookstore. Books in hand, they read happily ever after.…

A voracious reader, Sally Sue Lavigne loves wordplay. She’ll pepper her conversations with turns of phrase and subtle puns that reflect the literary soul behind them. It’s appropriate, then, that the name of her store embodies subtly brilliant wordplay. The Storybook Shoppe can be taken two ways, after all. The first, and most direct, being that it’s a shop that sells storybooks.

The second meaning comes from the dreamy sense of storybook charm that surrounds the place. You enter on a pathway cut between beds of beautiful flowers where fairies and gnomes would happily call home, approaching the quaint frontage of a store you could swear holds at least seven dwarfs.

And then you step inside something you thought had gone the way of knights and dragons—a small community bookstore. Long thought replaced by the mammoth big-box chains (which were themselves replaced by the online juggernauts), this bookstore makes you can feel as if you’re stepping into the sort of fantasy worlds that fill the store’s pages. To see so many books, and the precocious young readers who lose themselves in their pages, it seems like something out of a story.

In fact, The Storybook Shoppe is just one volume in the story of the resurging local bookstore. “Amazingly, I look at my newsletter from the American Booksellers Association, and there are new bookstores opening every week,” Lavigne said. “A lot of it is young families—they want their children to have that experience of picking up a book, feeling it, and responding to it. You can’t get that online.”

That tactile experience is central to the shop’s appeal. Tell the staff what you’re looking for, and you’ll be guided from shelf to shelf as your arms fill with books. Or, bring along a young reader and watch as they pick up a book, flip through its pages, and forget all about the tablet screens and video games that make up their general media consumption.

For Lavigne, the point is to get children reading by any means necessary. Even if it means they’re reading, say, The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. “Captain Underpants, you can put that in the hands of a reluctant reader,” Lavigne said (although she notes Pilkey’s much cleaner Dog Man series is now his most popular among young boys). “At the end of the day, the most important part is convincing parents and grandparents that reading, whether it’s a newspaper, billboard, comic book, or War & Peace, is reading.”

And while The Storybook Shoppe is one of just a handful of independent bookstores within 200 miles, it has carved out its niche with its beautiful location amid the reinvigorated finery of Calhoun Street in Old Town Bluff ton as well as its laser focus on children’s books. Beyond the picture books for the younger readers lining the walls around the shop’s lower half, there is an elevated loft where the young adult readership will find their next great read.

Even 20 years after he was first published, a certain boy wizard still casts a long shadow over the demographic. “Since Harry Potter, there’s been an acknowledgment that there’s a different reading group in that 9–12 age range. Even for 6- to 8-year-olds, there are so many more options now,” Lavigne said.

And she reads them all.

“I’m usually reading 12–17 picture books a week. With novels, I’m a slow reader, so I may only get through one,” she said. “But what I’m reading in December is what’s going to be on our shelves in March.”

If she’s on the fence about a book, she has an excellent set of backup readers for a second opinion. Everyone on her staff is either a former teacher or a librarian, and each is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to children’s literature. When one customer came in during a recent visit looking for a new book for a young reader obsessed with survival stories, Wendy at the front desk had four titles that fit what seems like a very narrow genre.

“The heart and soul of this business are the lovely women that work with me. Not for me, with me. They take as much ownership as I do,” Lavigne said. “They know the books. You can come in, and they’ll get little bits of information and be able to pull 12 books where your kid will love at least one.”

Throughout the year, The Storybook Shoppe hosts a slew of special events. Mondays are for storytime, with occasional visits from local authors, while regular special events run the gamut from the “Where the Wild Things Are” wild rumpus to charity drives. In November, for example, they do the “Llama Llama Red Pajama” party where they collect pajamas and books to be donated to CAPA.

“It’s really important for us to give back to our community. We have fabulous visitors who come from as far away as Australia, but my community is a place I need to be a part of,” Lavigne said. The annual Local Heroes Storytime brings out members of Bluff ton Township Fire District and the Bluff ton Police Department for a day of reading alongside kids in Dubois Park. At this year’s event being held on May 4, recognized as Star Wars day, Lavigne couldn’t help but sneak in one more bit of wordplay. “The police will be there, so the force will be with us.”

The Storybook Shoppe is located at 41 Calhoun Street in Old Town Bluff ton. Visit thestorybookshoppe.com for more details.

Written by Barry Kaufman

Culture

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