Bookstore Interview – Barbara Saunders Sims of Storybook Village


Photo provided by Barbara Saunders Sims

Bookstores are magical places: shops where you walk in and are immediately presented with thousands of portals to other worlds. But we also hear a lot about the difficulty of maintaining an independent bookstore nowadays, with quickly changing technology and ease of online ordering. That’s why I’m excited to feature an interview with Barbara Saunders Sims, the owner of the thriving Storybook Village in Pentwater, MI.

Photo from https://www.storybookvillageofpentwater.com

Storybook Village has been named one of the Best Bookstores for Kids by Red Tricycle, and one of the Top 14 Best U.S. Kids’ Bookstores by Buzzfeed. The store not only offers a collection of books and related material, but also a host of special events, such as “Claymation and Storytelling,” where kids can bring their story to life with clay figures. If you find yourself in Michigan, definitely stop by. And don’t forget to look at all the ways you can connect with Barbara and Storybook Village below!

 

1. Tell us a little bit about your early career.

Prior to opening Storybook Village of Pentwater, seven years ago, I enjoyed a wonderful career in Education. My love of literature initially led me to earn a BA in English Education from The College of New Rochelle and I taught High School in NY for 5 years. When my own children were born, I became interested in Early Childhood Education and earned a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Development from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena.

For the next 30 years, I followed every opportunity (teaching was always the favorite) for professional growth and, in 1999, I was awarded the National Head Start Fellowship, selected one of ten NHS Fellows in the country to work with the top leaders and national advocacy organizations in Washington, DC, in the Early Education field. My work focused on fiscal and program collaboration of federal, state, and local programs for young children, specifically related to, Head Start, Child Care, and Pre-K services.

When I returned home to Florida following the NHS Fellowship, I was hired as the first Executive Director of the Early Learning Coalition of SW Florida, a landmark legislation designed to bring community early care and education agencies together around the state to jointly plan and target funding to support working families, prioritizing children with high risk factors in the SW Florida Region. This was an exciting grass-roots opportunity to build a new coordinated system of services for children and families and, although this was an immense challenge, I learned so much in the 10 years of my tenure and feel gratified that I was able to help my community come together to support the needs of our working families, especially those children with special needs and high risk factors.

 

2. How did you get into the bookstore business?

I continued to work for federal early care and education programs as a national consultant, when my husband and I discovered Pentwater, MI. We fell in love with the Village and the people who live here and decided to build my heart’s desire, a whimsical space for children and families where children can explore the limits of their imagination and build their emerging language and literacy skills through reading and storytelling as a shared experience. We named the store, “Storybook Village”, as this was how I described Pentwater when I first saw it! Phase 1 was built in 2011, featuring a world-class collection of award-winning books, puppets, dress-ups and other storytelling treasures to engage children and families in the art of storytelling. Three successful years later, we purchased the adjoining store and created a space where children can explore an array of imagination stations and create their own stories through tea parties, cars and construction site centers, knight’s castles and an array of doll houses and dress-up clothes! The crown jewel of the new addition is “Starlight Theatre”, where children can literally step inside a story and view hand painted illustrations of the book, Starlight Sailor, including a 12-foot tall Sand Castle, where children can perform puppet shows with our world-class collection of puppets and marionettes as well as participate in a wide array of creative activities in the theatre.

 

3. What have you found most challenging about the bookstore business?

I have always believed that you need to do something unique in a business, in order for it to be successful. It is most important to bring in your personal skills and expertise into the business, but most especially your passion! The “unique” that was needed in the children’s book business for me also tapped in to my passion, specifically, my love for excellence in children’s literature and knowledge about how young children learn. I knew that the book business made a significant turn with the internet search capabilities and those parents and other children’s book buyers that know what they want can quickly find their selections through Amazon and other quick search engines. Larger stores, such as Barnes and Nobles, have the world collection of popular books at their fingertips (plus coffee!) and so my thinking was to go in a completely different direction.

Our store was designed as a “hands-on” destination, where children and families can explore beautifully constructed books and storytelling treasures from around the world to stretch their imagination and build their language and literacy skills. Children and families who visit Storybook Village can see our beautiful collection of unique books, imaginative toys, and other storytelling treasures on display at their own eye-level in a variety of creative spaces (lighthouses, cottages, boat houses, gazebos, etc.). And, yes, they can touch and play with them as well! Believe it or not, the world did not come to an end when we invited the children to play! Parents are so happy to see their children so engaged in their selections and eager to purchase their favorites. We are always on hand to make suggestions for age-appropriate books that engage children in the art of storytelling with an array of puppets, toys, and story stretchers.

 

4. What is something that surprised you about the bookstore business?

One big surprise was that a reliable point of sale system is a must have! We waited about three years before investing in a POS system that is connected to our credit card and internet system. We had a lot of inventory by then and we needed to count and record every item and inventory it in the system. We have over 1,000 puppets in the store, including small finger puppets, so it would have been much better to have entered and tracked our inventory from the start. Now, we can run reports easier and check our stock as necessary.

Another surprise is that we need to change our products and age range as our customer needs’ change. For example, in the 7 years our store has been in business, the children of our recurring family customers have grown up! We turned the space we had for our office inside our store into a “Great Adventures” chapter book room this year. The older children just love it and look forward to visiting that room and having their own “space”.

Additionally, Pentwater is generally most active in the summer with visitors as it is a huge boating and beach resort community, nestled right on Lake Michigan. It is a perennial challenge to keep up sales after the summer! We encourage schools to visit for field trips in the Fall and I also give professional development workshops in the Fall, but we usually close after Christmas. I’d like to work with other merchants in the area who want to extend their business hours into the Fall and some of the Winter to come up with ways we can attract more customers to Pentwater. I’m hoping to also share the costs for advertising during the “off months”, which was another surprise at how costly it is!

 

5. What makes Storybook Village stand out?

The “personal touch” and high regard for “customer service and satisfaction” is something we give to all our customers and it is our badge of honor!! Our customers and especially their children remember us year after year and bring their friends and family and we just love that! Our store also has the distinction of being a family “destination,” where children are welcome to explore and enjoy our imagination stations and participate in hands-on creative theatre activities in the summer and by appointment in the Fall.

We also pride ourselves in keeping our stock full, as we are open every day for 10 months, and we keep our displays fresh and inviting. A few years ago, there was a teacher survey taken to determine the top 14 Children’s Book Stores in the United States. We were on the list, which came out in BuzzFeed! One of the reasons they stated that Storybook Village made the top 14 was that the owner had a background in early childhood development and education. I agree, that makes a huge difference! It helps me determine how to select the treasures for our store, how we engage our visitors and their children in play as they explore the materials, and how we help families select just the right gift for the special children in their lives.

 

6. What are some great kids’ books that you would recommend?

I love to discover new children’s authors, illustrators and superb new books, especially those in our Michigan area. One of my very favorites just came out this year and it has already won the Moonbeam Children’s Book Gold Medal for Best New Children’s Book Author and Picture Book. The author is also the illustrator and she lives here in Pentwater! Her name is Cyndy Callog and her work of art is called “A Windy Day…A True Tale of a Tiny Mouse Adventure.”

Cyndy illustrated her book with her incredible watercolor artwork, which will absolutely take your breath away! The book is literally a work of art and one of the most beautifully crafted children’s books I’ve ever seen. It is a work of non-fiction, which is rare in children’s books, and sends a beautiful message that children can relate to. Cyndy adds a new spin to this genre by telling the story from the viewpoint of the mouse as well as the people who rescued it on a very windy day—none other than Cyndy and her husband George. She distinguishes the account with a drawing of a red ball cap, when Cyndy and George are speaking (George always wears a red cap), and tiny mouse footprints, when “Nitro”, as they named the little mouse, is speaking. (Reminiscent of the years George was a race car driver).

The true story will touch your heart and soul and leave you with a sense of well-being and joy, knowing that life will always surprise you with unexpected events that can change your life as well as the lives of others…even a little mouse!

May I also add my book that I published this year? It is called, “Take a Closer Look” and I wrote the book as an inspiration for children to write their “own” book using characters they find and photograph in nature…the ones no one else saw because they didn’t take a closer look! The book is spiral bound, just like it would look if the child took their book to their local print shop to make copies. It even comes with a colorful magnifying glass because the characters in the book are all hidden in a wonderful variety of hiding places…of course, right here in Pentwater!

The main character is Scully, the Grey Squirrel, who is also the Mayor of Pentwater. He is taking visitors on a Sunrise to Sunset tour of Pentwater, introducing his friends along the way, but…you have to Take a Closer Look to see them! As this is the 150th Birthday of Pentwater, our Sesquicentennial, it is both a tribute to the “hidden” charms of Pentwater as well as an opportunity for children to explore the wonders of nature, both in our hometown as well as theirs.

At the end of the book, I write, “Now, it’s your turn!” and I listed all the things children and families need to find their own story characters and write their own book. I even give them a link to my website where the children and families can download a copy of the PowerPoint presentation I used to write my story. The presentation has empty photo and text boxes ready for them to fill in with their own special characters and funny conversations!

 

Here are the ways you can connect with Barbara and Storybook Village!

Visit their site.

Follow them on their Facebook page.

Last but not least, visit them in person!

Storybook Village of Pentwater
560 South Hancock Street, Unit 1, Pentwater, MI 49449
Phone: 231-869-3120; Email: info@storybookvillageofpentwater.com

 

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