In this week’s A Word with You, we talked to Lily Tschudi-Campbell, buyer and marketing coordinator at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she’s worked since 2015. She also has an MFAC from Hamline University and is writing children’s books of her own. You can find her at @lilywritesstuff.
So . . . how are you?
I never know how to answer this question any more! I mean, good, mostly—I still have a job, my family is healthy, things are going about as well as can be expected. But that “can be expected” is a bit of a lower bar than it used to be, isn’t it? It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the ways our world is changing, by the vast uncertainty of the future, by the many new stresses that have been piled on top of our already-stressful lives. 2020 is turning out to be a heck of a year, and we’re only halfway through. *insert Jake Peralta screaming guitar GIF here*
Has the crisis affected how you buy and think about books?
Oh, absolutely. As an indie bookseller, I’ve always known that the experience of buying/selling a book in person, face-to-face, is completely different than buying/selling a book online, but operating like this has really driven that point home. As a buyer, there are books I would have purchased for the store in the Before Times that I no longer think we can sell without the option of handselling or physical shelftalkers. This feels especially true for books for adults, since as a children’s bookstore, our grown-up section is quite small.
Additionally, one of the things I love best about indie bookselling is the way you can see the effect of an individual bookseller on a particular book’s sales. We’ve seen certain books that will be selling consistently and well at our store, and then go into returns six months after their champion bookseller(s) has left. But now that only a couple of our staff members are on phones and no one is coming into the store (yet), the books we sell are skewed towards those people’s tastes.
In losing those things—the power of a handsell, the full breadth of our staff’s taste and opinions and knowledge—I think we’re losing a lot of what makes indie bookselling so special, as well as losing many of our opportunities to promote smaller titles from smaller presses. I haven’t really come to terms with that, to be honest. It definitely means we’re going to need to shift the way we do our business/promotion. I’m not sure yet what that looks like. For now, it’s just another little thing to grieve, among the many changes and losses our society is experiencing.
What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?
I’m hugely inspired by the folks who immediately found ways to help. During the recent protests following the murder of George Floyd in the Twin Cities, Moon Palace immediately stepped up to be a source of community safety and support. I am amazed by their generosity and strength. The Raven Book Store has been a force for good on the interwebs for some time now, and they’ve only increased those efforts in the past few months. The owner, Danny Caine, even purchased some books from us so we could color in Kansas (with a crayon—we are a children’s bookstore) on our map of places we’ve shipped to since COVID (an idea I enthusiastically stole from them in the first place). I can’t even tell you how supported that made all of us feel.
And I’m in awe of the fortitude Black booksellers/bookstore owners have shown in dealing with massive orders of antiracist books from (white) customers who immediately turn around and demand impossibly instant delivery of books (and which those customers will absolutely still need to read in a month). Places like Loyalty Bookstore and Frugal Bookstore, among others, have been dealing with this entitled nonsense with incredible grace despite the frustration they must be feeling. Plus, last but not least, a brand new bookstore is going to open in the Twin Cities—Black Garnet Books—which will be the first Black-owned bookstore in Minnesota. I can’t wait to see what they do.
What has the switch to virtual storytimes and events been like? Do you think the experience of being read to changes when it’s virtual?
It has been so, so strange, especially as a children’s bookstore. I think the experience of being read to virtually is hugely different than being read to in person, especially the younger your audience gets. Just like the transition to online schooling has been generally harder for first graders than for high schoolers, moving our storytimes to video has completely changed the experience, both for the kids and for our storytellers. Kids learn differently through a screen than they do in person. Storytime for the very young is absolutely a form of education. It teaches listening, sitting with a group (which is obviously gone), following simple directions, and early reading comprehension. And for the storytellers, it becomes impossible to react and adapt to the audience—there’s no way to tell if they’re confused, excited, distracted, all of the above. Virtual events are slightly easier, as their audiences are older, but it’s still quite different from the kind of book parties we used to throw.
Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?
We just recently started having staff Zoom meetings where we can talk about book world and regular world issues, especially race and racism, but also more generally about representation, which authors we choose to support (or not), what constitutes support (carrying a book on our shelves vs. recommending it vs. hosting events around it), etc. I’m really excited to see where these conversations go—I’m hopeful it will make it possible for the store to more accurately represent all of us, and not just those who run the social media, choose which books to carry, or own the store. And much as I miss seeing all of my lovely coworkers together at once, Zoom makes the meetings a little bit more accessible for those with other commitments. I’d love for these to become a regular part of us being a bookstore.
What do you hope for the future of bookselling, and especially children’s books?
I hope that we can keep independent bookstores going strong, in whatever form that takes. In some ways, this feels like another 2008—a year when we’re going to lose a lot of indies and where the rest will need to find ways to adapt and change to survive.
I hope we can keep doing the work on making books and publishing more diverse. The difference in the Diversity in Children’s Books Reports between 2015 and 2018 is far too small for what should have been possible in three years. That data doesn’t even address the ways that, while the characters in children’s books have become slightly more diverse, their authors barely have. That’s a conversation that the whole of publishing needs to get involved with, and that white authors, publishers, and booksellers need to do the work to advance, instead of relying on their BIPOC counterparts. Our industry needs to be better, and independent booksellers need to involve themselves in that conversation as well.
What are you working on and what are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.?)
I’m all over the place in what I’m working on, to be honest! Writing is coming slowly for me right now—despite the romantic (and nonsense) ideal of the struggling artist, stress is actually very counter to creativity. I have been working on my own version of Jane Mount’s Ideal Bookshelf artworks, though, which I’m finding a very soothing project that still lets me connect with books.
Reading wise, I’ve been working on our store’s summer reading bingo challenge. Some particularly stand-out titles have been A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow and The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (coming in August)—both are excellently written books about anti-Black racism and police violence, and one of them has magic! I’d pair those books together, along with a lot of the other antiracist books that have been making the news.
I also recently read Desert Notebooks by Ben Ehrenreich, which was an incredible creative nonfiction combo of personal essays, history, philosophy, contemporary politics, and nature writing. It’s an intelligent and compassionate look at the way our world seems to be falling apart around us (though it does not mention COVID, as it was written before that began). And it’s been very hot in the Twin Cities lately, so I’d pair all of these books with some mango popsicles so you can have something cool and sweet while you read about hard times!