The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Elizabeth Bluemle and Josie Leavitt, newly arrived from New York City in ’96, opened it on something of a whim with 6,500 books; they now stock more than 30,000. The bookstore has won national bookselling awards, including the Lucile Micheels Pannell Award, for its bighearted, tailored customer service and community events. Here, Bluemle, who was a judge for the 2016 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature, gives us a store tour and introduces the pig that started it all.
How would you describe the Flying Pig bookstore to the uninitiated?
We’re a 20-year-old independent community bookstore started improbably in the mid-90s in a Vermont village of 3,500 people. Since that population base is around .007 of what a bookstore is supposed to have in order to succeed, we figured, eh, close enough, and opened our doors. It was a crazy dream. The store was founded by a writer/school librarian and a writer/stand-up comic, so you might imagine the atmosphere: friendly, relaxed, and full of happy book love on the shopping side of the checkout counter and cheerful with a side of comic chaos in the back office.
Our selection is about 65 percent children’s and YA literature and 35 percent books for adults. The Flying Pig has been a place where families of readers are born and grow up. We have had a baby take its first step in our store, hosted a wedding, said goodbyes to beloved elder customer-friends, and had the great fortune of meeting the babies of the babies who grew up coming to our store (aka Flying Pig grandchildren). We’ve donated thousands of books and tens of thousands of dollars over the years to local schools and organizations, have been lucky enough to win some awards and get a little national press, and have worked with countless teachers, librarians, and nonprofits to get fantastic books into the hands of young readers. What began with 6,500 books and a dream has turned into 30,000 books and a place in the heart of our small community. It’s been an unexpectedly enduring and rewarding ride.
If the Flying Pig were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets?
The temple of our esteemed flying pig, Hamlet Phineas Philo, would be so ecumenical as to outdo a Unitarian Universalist Church. Unconstrained by dogma, the Flying Pig is an environment where all are welcome and anything is possible. Our motto is “possunt quia posse videntur” or “They can because they believe they can”—which is the secret to how pigs fly and how humans accomplish their most difficult dreams. Our tenets spring from the valuing of diversity, quality, joy, liveliness, entertainment, curiosity, and knowledge. When you think about it, a bookstore is one of the few community places where there is truly something for everyone, of any age. The only other retail environments that can make that claim are grocery and drug stores, and those, while vital, rarely make you laugh and think in quite the same way as a bookstore full of ideas.
Which was your favorite event, and why?
This is a terrible question! she said affectionately. It’s like asking parents to name their favorite child. Events are all (mostly) loved and loved differently. We’ve had 20 years of visits by so many people we admire beyond reckoning—Christopher Paul Curtis, Kate Di Camillo, Katherine Paterson, Norton Juster, Grace Lin, the list goes on—and scads of authors and artists, famous and less so, who knock our socks off.
Our most ambitious, wildly fun “do” was a giant Harry Potter VII release party with a great white tent full of classes and owls and games and prizes, which drew 1,500 people to our parking lot.
A small moment that punched beyond its weight happened during Dav Pilkey’s visit, when a second-grader, hearing that his hero was dyslexic, poked his best friend excitedly, whispering proudly, “I’m dyslexic, too!” It was probably the first time he felt great about that, and the message of possibility Dav gave him and many other kids in the audience—just by sharing a challenge from his own childhood—will last a lifetime.
What trends are you noticing among young readers?
It used to be that only YA readers were aware of book-release dates. Now elementary school kids are coming in with hot-off-the-press title requests, so word-of-mouth and social media campaigns are hitting home. All young readers still want tons of fantasy and humor. Superheroes are big with the picture-book crowd. The graphic novel demand for ages 6 to14 is huge; it’s one of the bestselling categories in the store. We’ve seen an uptick in middle-grade–mystery requests. The 8- to 13-year-olds respond most strongly to books that touch their hearts and engage their deep desire for social justice and respect for humans and animals. And—they almost universally prefer the printed book to the screen. Of course, we get a self-selecting crowd.
What are some of the bookstores’ top current handsells?
The books we can’t stop handing to adults lately include Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, The Nix by Nathan Hill, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard, The Trespasser by Tana French, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, God’s Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher, The Shepherd’s View by James Rebanks, and perennial personal favorite, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
For kids, we’re on a spree with The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, When The Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Ghost by Jason Reynolds, Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier, The Reader: The Sea of Ink and Gold by Tracey Chee, and These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly.
What is your ideal busman’s holiday?
I’d want a month to spend in children’s book–and-illustration archives like the Kerlan Collection at the Univeristy of Minnesota, the E.B. White Collection at Cornell University, and the De Grummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. Paradise would be immersing myself in the sketches and scribbles, letters and thoughts of my literary icons. That would be touching magic.
Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor.