If Chauni Haslet's career were a children's book, she'd be the Little Engine That Could and chain bookstores would be the Big Bad Wolves...
If Chauni Haslet’s career were a children’s book, she’d be the Little Engine That Could and chain bookstores would be the Big Bad Wolves.
And the nearly 70 children’s authors and illustrators who agreed to come to her 60th birthday party and oh, sure, make free appearances at Seattle Public Library branches next Saturday? They’re all Cinderellas, hard-working, underappreciated artists who get a whole day celebrating their work.
“I wanted to really have a chance to acknowledge children’s authors and illustrators — they’re why we’re going to have the readers and writers of tomorrow,” said Haslet, who has owned All for Kids Books & Music in Seattle for nearly 22 years. “Everywhere I go, people associated with children are always considered second-rate. It’s time for children’s authors and illustrators to get their due.”
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The Children’s Book Celebration, which will send 66 authors out to nearly every library branch for book readings and signings, and All for Kids were both pulled together by the strength of Haslet’s personality.
“For an independent children’s bookstore to have survived and thrived for 22 years, that’s a huge accomplishment,” said Anne Irish, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children. “And it’s due to Chauni’s enthusiasm, expertise and professionalism. She’s one of the best. It’s not about her store; it’s about her commitment to what she feels is her purpose: getting literature to children and getting them to love reading.”
Haslet, who lives in Issaquah, bemoans the dumbing down of society and youths’ increasingly limited vocabulary. So let’s pull out the thesaurus to describe her: Ardent, vivacious, loquacious and tenacious.
A mother of three twentysomething children, she’s a self-described “fuddy-duddy” with opinions on everything from screen time (she refuses to carry kid videos) to music (she’ll take Raffi over Dan Zanes any day).
Known for her Harry Potter bashes (the last drew some 500 full-paying fans), she can dish about meeting “Jo” (“Potter” scribe J.K. Rowling) and Seattle musician Dave Matthews, who drew a self-portrait on the event-room door after seeking books for his preschool twins.
“She’s sort of the eye of the hurricane,” said friend George Shannon, the Bainbridge Island author of “Tippy-Toe Chick, Go!” and “Stories to Solve.”
Though a few out-of-town authors will travel for the celebration, most live in the Northwest. Many are Haslet’s personal friends. If each were paid their regular speaker fee, the day would cost in excess of $50,000.
“I consider this a gift to me, that I can pick up the phone and call 70 people and give them this harebrained idea and they nearly all said yes — for free,” said Haslet.
Featuring renowned poet Jack Prelutsky, National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti and Newbery Medal winner Karen Cushman, “it’s probably the largest number of children’s authors presenting on a single day in a single place for children only.”
Albeit on a grander scale, it’s just another example of how Haslet works to connect writers and illustrators with children and parents, Shannon said. “She really believes in what she’s doing — it isn’t just a business.”
She’ll donate proceeds from book sales that day to the Seattle Public Library Foundation.
Haslet “is truly a treasure,” raved Peg Kehret, the Wilkeson author of “Spy Cat” and “Escaping the Giant Wave.” “The first time I met her, I had published only one or two books for children and I stopped at the store to see if she might want to carry them.
“Although she had never heard of me, I was greeted with enthusiasm and genuine interest. … Chauni continues to encourage and support authors, the struggling beginners as well as the ‘old pros.’
“Like a grandparent who makes each grandchild think he/she is the most special, Chauni creates a personal bond with each author. I know I’m her favorite — but I suspect all of the others think they are!”
Haslet is a fan as well as advocate of children’s literature. She doesn’t get why parents are so eager to push “advanced” young readers into adult pop fiction. “The best literature being written today is written for kids,” she said. “When I look at the values I want to instill in this world, it’s kids books that inspire me.”
Independents vs. chains
When the Secret Garden Bookshop expanded to adults several years back, All for Kids took on the title of the city’s oldest bookstore solely for children. An Issaquah satellite location closed after eight years.
Haslet ignored advice to cram merchandise into her spacious space near University Village. “I wanted a store where families can push a stroller, where grandmas can sit with kids in their lap and read stories, where kids can giggle and talk in a play area and where the community can come and use it in the evening.”
There’s a community bulletin board, wooden play cabins and most famously, an author’s room with walls bedecked with the industry’s most illustrious names.
Visitors can check out a bunny drawn by Rosemary Wells, a porcupine by Jan Brett, a “Lilly loves All for Kids” by Kevin Henkes and this cheery note from Lemony Snicket: “The more books you read, the smarter you will be when you die.”
The space sums up what makes All for Kids different, says Irish of the Association of Booksellers for Children. “That is expensive floor space,” Irish notes. “A chain store looks at that as empty space with no merchandise. Chauni thinks of it as a way to do lots of community outreach.”
Haslet started out selling children’s music in a 300-square-foot “basement part of a basement.”
When she hoped to expand to a location six times larger, her potential landlord asked why he should trust she could pull it off.
“Because I’m a really determined individual,” Haslet recalls informing him. She got the space, later moving to her current spot 11 years ago when Barnes & Noble came to U Village.
“I told my husband, ‘We have to be more visible or we’ll die. And I’m not going to give in.’ ”
When she joined the Association of Booksellers for Children, there were 750 children’s bookstores; now there are less than 200, said Haslet, a past president.
More than a decade after the “big box stores,” Amazon.com, Costco and Wal-Mart hit independent booksellers’ sales, “I don’t think things are better, but I don’t think they’re worse,” Haslet said.
“Those who have survived are going to survive. A lot have gone by the wayside. My personal feeling is they just got tired of fighting. Because it’s a day-to-day struggle to keep doors open.
“That’s probably why I’ll be here until I’m 110: I refuse to let them get me.”
Loyal customers are key
She credits the store’s survival to loyal customers willing to pay full price for books in exchange for personal, knowledgeable service by experienced staff. “Authors see Chauni as a [community] focal point and librarians and parents see her as a great breathing resource,” Shannon said.
Haslet, who serves on the board of the Northwest Literacy Foundation, shudders that parents shopping at Wal-Mart miss “the wealth of children’s literature available, instead of the mass-market ‘merchandise’ put out by publishing companies.” When Medina poet Janet Wong prepared a list of 20 children’s poetry titles she considered overlooked gems, she was surprised to find All for Kids carried at least 15 of them. “At a chain store, I would have been lucky to find one or two of those books,” she noted.
“Lots and lots of people are represented on our shelves who would never be seen at a Barnes & Noble or Borders because they don’t sell fast enough,” said Haslet.
As Wong explained, “chain stores typically buy hundreds of a certain title, and a poetry book may not seem a ‘sure-enough sale’ to a buyer who must order a large minimum.” An independent bookstore, however, is more likely to take a chance and order one or two copies
“For every book, there is an audience,” Haslet says. “That’s why we can’t let the chains limit our options. The best thing I can offer is the right book for the right kid at the right time.”
Stephanie Dunnewind: firstname.lastname@example.org