How to Take Your Child to the Bookstore: Part One

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

A child reads in the aisle of The Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, MA.

This January, I started working part time at a local independent bookstore in my area. It's my first foray into retail since I worked at a school uniform store in my hometown, but this time I'm a little more knowledgeable (and much more enthusiastic) about how I'm spending a few extra hours outside the classroom. I was hoping for an opportunity to get more books into my hands—and therefore into yours!—and see what children are loving these days. Being there while families are shopping, though, has shown me something just as valuable: sharing the power of the purchase with children.

Child-sized furniture at The Novel Neighbor in Webster Groves, MO.

Lately, many of the bookstore patrons have been children who received gift cards or spending money over the holiday season. During one weekend afternoon, a father and his two sons shopped around for a little while; I overheard some conversation about which books they already had, what they might be interested in, what they might want to save for next time. The two boys, both in the neighborhood of three- to six years of age, finally approached the register with hands cradling their painstakingly selected books. Their father stepped back while I scanned their books, only popping in to help the boys choose the correct bills from their brightly-colored wallets. Once they had tucked away the change and secured their latest reads back into their hands, the two boys triumphantly walked out of the store, overjoyed with their purchases.

I admired the way this parent had handled this family outing. Not only had he supported his children in selecting a book, he also gave them an opportunity to practice what it looks like to buy it for themselves. In fact, this parent's effort was a reminder that I shouldn't default to addressing the adult on the other side of the counter; a child is an equally (if not more) valuable reader and patron.

With all this in mind, I wanted to develop a guide to making a successful trip to the bookstore with children. With the help of other booksellers and my own (limited!) experience, I put together six tips to get you from your home library to the bookstore and back again, most likely all in one piece. Let's build some lifelong readers and support local bookstores, okay?

1. Before you go, help your child set a budget.

It's easy enough for an adult to get swept up in all the choices available at a bookstore. In the words of Henry Ward Beecher: "Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore?" Weak, indeed!

So, before heading out, make a plan. How much spending money does your child have, or how much are you willing to help out? With the amount of money your child has, can you help predict how many books or other items he may be able to buy?

In the words of Henry Ward Beecher: "Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore?"

Beyond a budget, consider what kind of books your child might have in mind. Does your elementary-aged child maybe want to snag the next book in her favorite series? Can your teen find the book that her book club is reading next? Does your preschooler have a truck obsession and need a new book to replace the well-loved—er, tattered—one? There are so, so many books on the shelves; having an idea in mind can keep you and your child from being overwhelmed by options. (Didn't we ever learn from those endless trips to Blockbuster? No? Just me?)

Making your trip to the bookstore with budgeting and book-buying expectations can prevent disappointment, but it can also serve as a way to make space for "next time!"

2. Ask for help.

Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA.

I'll advocate for this till my face turns blue. Book people want to help you find what you are hoping to find, and they're usually pretty good at it. (This is also true at libraries, at which you can find some of the most well-read people in your community.)

Even if the bookseller working that day isn't as knowledgeable about picture books, there is someone on staff who is; look for Staff Picks as a starting point. From there, encourage your child to tell the bookseller some titles she likes, an author she has enjoyed in the past, or topics she's interested in. Especially if you're new to the bookstore, a bookseller can at least help you find the right section where your child may find just the thing.

Sarah Holt, the Children's and Teen Specialist at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, MO, shared a story with us about the long-lasting effects of not being too scared to ask for help:

One of my favorite young customers has been conducting all his own interactions with us since he was a toddler.  He and his parent would look at the shelf, and if they didn't find what they were looking for, he would come to the desk and ask one of us to order it.  He was also sent up to pick up and pay for his own orders.  He's had a store account since he was two.  Mom or Dad always had clearly coached him in what to do and were just behind him in case there was an issue, but his interactions with us were his own, and now that he's an early chapter reader, there are a few people on staff following his reading and making suggestions for new books.

Some bookstores even involve their patrons in helping others choose books. Page & Palette in Fairhope, Alabama, invites elementary- and middle-school readers to select an Advanced Reader of a yet-to-be-released book and, when they've finished, write a short review that will serve as a "shelf talker" when the book is published. Anderson McKean of Page & Palette has noticed that this practice has gotten their younger patrons excited about reading and sharing books with other customers.

3. Honor your child's choices.

We all know that there are bad books out there, and sometimes children may just want the shiniest, sparkliest book on the shelf. They may want a book about bugs that's almost exactly like ones they already have. Comics may strike their fancy at the moment, or they may set their sights on what seems to be an un-funny book of jokes.

While you think you might be nudging them in the direction of better books by firmly saying "no" to one of these options, you could actually be slowly nudging your child away from reading in general. So often, children's reading is dictated by adults; how must it feel to choose and purchase a book all by yourself?

Of course, provide parameters; it's fair to nix a choice for content that's inappropriate for your child or that glaringly steps beyond your family's values. Within those parameters, though, let your child see how it feels to have agency in what they read. Give them the freedom to choose, but also don't be afraid to guide them in making a wise choice.

4. Let your child make the purchase.

This is critical to support a child's sense of autonomy, especially for elementary-aged children. Even if the counter is a foot above your child's head, let them learn the skill of making a purchase on their own. It's akin to ordering their own food at a restaurant or asking for their own movie ticket on other family outings. All of these experiences encourage the child to speak at full volume and with confidence, slowly moving out of the security of family and into the unknown social world.

This could also be something you prepare your child for before arriving at the shop. What do you say when you hand your book to the stranger behind the counter? What might the bookseller ask? How are you planning to pay? Will you need a bag, or will you carry the book with you?

When your child makes the exchange himself he gains confidence in navigating the greater community and takes ownership of his ability to participate independently.

5. Become a part of the bookstore community.

The Children's Bookshop in Brookline, MA.

Don't let your trip end when you walk out with a book in your hand. Take the flier for events, sign up for their frequent buyer program, and maybe put in an order for the next book by your favorite author. Check the schedule for story times so that you can meet others who make books a regular part of their children's lives, too. Some bookstores may even have book clubs for families or young independent readers.

There are few, if any, bookstores that don't offer more than one avenue to keep readers talking to one another and coming back for more. Instead, independent bookstores take advantage of the nature of reading and create spaces for building community, empathy, and hospitality. Show your child that bookstores provide more than just books: they provide connection.

And, as the Hokey Pokey tells us, that's what it's all about.

What are your tips for a successful trip to the bookstore with your family? And which local indie do you love to support? Share with us—we'd love to know!

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