Bookstore uplifts both literacy and diversity
By Mary Stamp
A few months after Janelle Smith opened Wishing Tree Books in the South Perry District in November 2019, COVID led her to temporarily close the purple, 100-year-old house she remodeled as a bookstore.
Running a bookstore was her childhood dream, so she wouldn't let COVID stop her from selling books to children and adults.
At first, she was able to run the store temporarily out of her own home, because she had set up a website before COVID, but then she missed doing sales with a personal connection that allows her to match people to books, as she is again able to do.
Now the store is able to allow browsing customers, limiting the number of mask-wearing customers. She also offers porch pickups.
Janelle's mission is to encourage literacy for children, to have families read together, to facilitate community cohesion and to promote diversity.
Matching people to books facilitates literacy and family involvement.
"Customers value our knowledge of the books. I'm always happy to help people find a treasure," she said.
She wants children to be motivated to read books to themselves or have their parents read to them over and over.
Janelle likes to spend time with customers to learn about their stories, their lives and their children's eccentricities. That helps her guide them to books that connect to their children's interests.
"We are here for the community. I love asking questions and learning about customers. Talking with customers is the fun part," she said.
Because Janelle also wants to create a community of readers through story times, book clubs and other groups, she renovated the garage in the back yard to be an event space. She was holding a few events—weekly yoga and mindfulness classes, family games and crafts, and even a creative monster writing workshop for kids—when COVID closed those events. She plans pop-up shops in the garage and backyard family game nights and craft days in the summer (COVID-willing).
"I keep reviewing my inventory to be sure it represents the mission, especially diversity. I strive to offer books where children can see themselves, be it the color of their skin, their gender, their religion, their culture or their dreams. Just as important, is having these books available to the community in hopes of creating tolerance for others," Janelle said.
Growing up in a loving, supportive family in Kennewick, Janelle spent time in her closet reading, and at 14 had lists of books she wanted to include in her future bookstore.
While studying at Eastern Washington University earning her first degree, she was given the assignment to interview someone doing a job she wanted to do. This led her to the Children's Corner Bookstore. She bugged owners Judy Hamel and Susan Durrie until they hired her. There she learned about customer service and the children's book industry. That bookstore, which opened in 1972, has since closed, but Janelle keeps in touch with Judy and Susan.
In 1999, Janelle studied for a second degree, elementary education with a major in reading. While going to school, she also managed the children's section of Auntie's Bookstore.
After student teaching, Janelle worked for three years with at-risk fourth to sixth graders in an after-school program funded by a school district grant. She taught kindergarten two years, but raising a son on her own, needed a consistent position, and the district was not offering continuing contracts at that time, so she started teaching in preschools, and then worked again at Auntie's.
Janelle then met and married Ivan, a graphic artist. After their son was born in 2007, she cared for him and then returned to Auntie's for three years, responsible for events and children's books.
Three years ago, with Ivan's support, she began her effort to start a children's bookstore. They began looking for a place to rent in the Perry District, where people came for the park, pubs, and great restaurants, and where there's a school—Grant Elementary. The single-family house they liked was not available at first, but two weeks later, it was for sale and was zoned for commercial use.
"As luck would have it, a fellow bookseller from Seattle's Queen Anne Book Company stepped forward and offered to invest in my dream," said Janelle. "Tegan Tigani and her husband Jordan are avid supporters of both the importance of independent bookstores and a sense of community.
"They purchased the house and shared the cost of renovating it into a viable business," she said. "It is a gorgeous neighborhood store now with a pretty stained glass window designed by a local high school student, who also painted the murals on the outdoor windows. It stands out."
On Nov. 2, 2019, Janelle opened Wishing Tree Bookstore at 1410 E. 11th Ave.
What values drive her to sell children's books?
Believing literacy is important, she wants children to be able to read and be read to, to read books that excite them, and to read books with stories that help them figure out life.
"A child's connection with a favorite book can carry on through life," she said.
Aware that some children do not have books at home, and some parents do not make it a priority to read to their children, Janelle wants to provide books even for people who cannot afford them.
So she hopes in five years to start a nonprofit to bring authors to schools and books into the lives of the less fortunate. With a nonprofit, she can apply for grants to pay authors to speak to children attending schools in low-income neighborhoods, and buy books for those who cannot afford them.
She has numerous outreach projects on her list, however COVID has made it difficult to move forward with many of them. They did continue their annual Wishing Tree Project this Christmas.
"It was successful in getting books to children in our community," Janelle said.
Wishing Tree Books is currently open for browsing from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays to Saturdays. They are closed on Mondays.
In May, it will be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursdays to Saturdays, and closed Mondays.
People may also shop online at the website, www.wishingtreebookstore.com
The store also offers porch pickups for no-contact purchases and are able to ship to family and friends elsewhere.
Masks and hand sanitizer are required and only a limited number of customers can enter at a time. Janelle is making an effort to keep her community and her staff safe.
While there are only a handful of books on COVID, such as LeUyen Pham's Outside, Inside picture book for children, she expects more books will come to help people make sense of these times.
Another book with writings on COVID, for adults, is by various authors and is called Alone Together: Love, Grief and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19.
Wishing Tree Books has a new partnership with the Northwest Passages to do a book group aimed at a younger audience—middle school through young adult. They have had two events. The next is at 7 p.m., Monday, April 19 with Sabina Khan, author of a new young adult novel, Zara Hossain Is Here. It will be online through NW Passages and the store's website.
For information, call 315-9815 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree,April, 2021