We all love to delve into a good story and get lost in an entirely new world, but imagine if you were surrounded by stories, characters and beautiful illustrations all day, every day? Well, that’s exactly how mother-and-daughter team Maureen and Jessica spend their time. Why? They own Once Upon a Time bookstore in Los Angeles, USA, which also happens to be the oldest children’s book shop in the country.
What’s it like to talk to customers all day about your favorite novels? Is it fun, games and fairy-tales all the time? Let’s start at the beginning…
Describe your job in five words
Maureen: Dreaming, doing, reading, curiosity and diversity.
Jessica: Books, magic, imagination, discovery and family!
What sort of things do you do day-to-day?
Maureen: Lots of box-moving! I also spend a lot of time visiting schools with authors and talking with young readers about books.
Jessica: There are two main things: talking about books and moving books! We love talking to everyone who comes in about their favorite books, what they want to read next, and maybe even what book ideas they have that they might want to share one day. The second part is a little harder, but still fun. It feels like a constant Tetris game, making all the new books fit into the store!
How did you become bookstore owners?
Maureen: Growing up, my children Amelia and Jessica used to visit Once Upon a Time Bookstore on the corner of Honolulu and Ocean View almost every weekend. One day Amelia said, ‘Mama, we have all the books at the store. There aren’t any new ones!’ I asked one of the booksellers why. They said they were probably going out of business at the end of the month. This was shocking, and both of my daughters were distraught!
About 10 days later, I received a call from a reporter from the LA Times, wanting to speak to Jessica about a letter she wrote to the editor.
‘What letter?’ I asked, not understanding why a grown man would be calling my nine year old!
He said a handwritten letter about Once Upon a Time had been faxed to the editor. I had no idea that Jessica had sent the letter! It ended up being printed, and Jane Humphrey (the founder/owner of Once Upon a Time) started getting inquiries about the shop. She even saved the letter and asked Jessica to sign it, before asking me if we wanted to buy the shop! My husband and I decided to put in a bid to buy it. I knew there were other bids too, but a few days later, Jane called us to tell us we’d won. We’re celebrating the store’s 53rd birthday in the fall!
What’s the coolest thing about your job?
Maureen: I think the best thing about our job is being a part of our young reader community and sharing hand-selected books.
Jessica: For me, the best part of being a bookseller is being able to read books before they are available to anyone else. We get special Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) so that we know about all the new and exciting books coming out in a few months. Sometimes we even get manuscripts for books so far in advance that they don’t have covers yet! It feels incredibly special to hold and read something very few other people have read yet. We also get to share our thoughts and opinions with the publisher.
What do you think makes a really good story?
Maureen: A strong narrative, a character (or characters) that you want to root for and a problem that the character has to overcome. For picture books, the illustrations are all-important, especially the cover art!
Jessica: I love stories that draw me in and take me somewhere new, or let me experience something I haven’t experienced in my life. My favorites are books filled with magic, dragons and new worlds, but I also love books about kids who come from different places all over the world, or from the past or future. It is so magical to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
What are your favourite books?
Maureen: My favorite books are Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry; Bark, George by Jules Feiffer; All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon; Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt; and Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic by Armand Baltazar.
If you didn’t work in this industry, what other career path would you have chosen?
Jessica: I have a background in science and love sharing information with people. If I wasn’t working with books every day, I think I would like to work in science education.
What advice would you give someone who dreams of having a career like yours?
Maureen: You must have a huge imagination, design/marketing expertise and social media skills to be successful. If you have a real-life store, you must figure out how to get folks across your threshold. Making your store stand out as the place for fun, interactive events and the place for readers to discover great books should be your mission.
Jessica: Read as much as you can, and then share what books you like best with your friends and family. Try keeping a journal of your opinions. What made a particular character stand out? Did you have a favorite line? How did the ending make you feel?
Want to find out more about the Once Upon a Time bookstore? On October 14 2018 (14:00-15:00 PDT), the store will be hosting an event to celebrate the release of our new book 101 Small Ways to Change the World!