In 1984, Kelly Kyle opened Narnia’s doors and brought stories to Richmond’s children. Now, the store’s new owners, Jenesse Evertson and Jill Stefanovich, are building on that legacy of bringing great children’s books to readers of all ages. Last week I sat down with Jenesse and Jill in the sunlight coming through bbgb’s front windows, and we discussed their first four months of ownership and the store’s future.
“How would you summarize your first four months,” I asked, and Jill and Jenesse chuckled.
“The idea that we could own a children’s bookshop: that is heaven,” Jill said. “It is an amazing thing. I look forward to coming into the shop every day and I hate to leave every day. It is the hardest thing I’ve done since having children. It is a hard business.”
Neither ventured into book selling before taking the plunge with Narnia, but when owner Kelly Kyle was ready to retire, they couldn’t let the store go. “Kelly Kyle started Narnia with her friend Charlotte,” Jill said. “They built something that was so powerful and had so much meaning, and so to be able to take something that has been around for 26 years and now build on it and take it further is amazing. They built a beautiful legacy. A testament to that is the outreach of people who have come to us in our first couple months to thank us. [They] walk in the door and say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’ They couldn’t imagine Narnia closing. We couldn’t imagine living in this city without Narnia…I’d have to move.”
Together Jill and Jenesse took over the store, and like its founders, they are close friends. They finish each other’s sentences and each praises the other’s accomplishments while downplaying her own. A word sparks a shared thought and releases a spring of ideas. “Jill and I are really close friends, so you have to add a different dimension,” Jenesse said. “Now we are not just friends, we are business partners.”
“Children’s books aren’t just for children.”
The friends at bbgb, old and new, share a love of children’s books. “We love children’s books from the baby board books to the young adult books,” Jill said.
“We love them all,” Jenesse agreed.
“And our staff, Diane Black and Julianna Reid, love them all,” Jill said. “We just hope people who come in here feed off that and love it too. We are a shop for babies all the way through high schoolers and adults.”
Jill has a stack of middle grade and young adult fiction on her nightstand at home, and she is recommending two of the titles to her own book club. “They are amazing books for everyone,” she said.
Jenesse nodded. “Children’s books aren’t just for children.”
“bbgb can be whatever you want it to be.”
I’ll admit, it took me most of the last four months to stop calling the store Narnia. The name, borrowed from C.S. Lewis’s mythical stories, conjures a world of adventure and imagination that hid behind average doors and book covers. I thought no other name could rival it in my favor, but I was wrong. The store’s new name creates questions, awakens imaginations, and gives everyone a chance to make the store their own.
“Our name represents our mission,” Jill said. “We do get lots of questions about where that came from. For us, there are really three names and many more from many of our customers. The first is bring back great books. That is something that Narnia has always done and that we will continue, so whether it is great old books or making sure we have great new books–those that are interesting, classic, quality–those are the books we want our customers to be exposed to.
“The second is buy a book, give a book, and that comes from our establishment of a foundation that is going to help us give away a book for every one we sell.”
Readers’ imaginations also decide the name. “The third – we all have a different [one],” Jill said.
“It is the fun bit,” Jenesse said. “bbgb can be whatever you want it to be. That is the bit that allowed people to establish a sense of community with us and feel like their place was in the shop. A lot of kids will say ‘boy book, girl book.’”
Jill laughed. “My kids say ‘bright blue guerilla butt.’ We had a little boy, and his is one of my favorites because it is so him: ‘bugger, bugger, gooey bugger.’”
I couldn’t resist the name game, which gave rise to this post’s title. Though less vivid–and gross–than buggers, the name reflects bbgb’s ability to build a community of readers, all of different ages. This community nurtures a love of books that lasts from zero to adult.
“Buy a book, give a book.”
The bbgb foundation is still in development, but Jenesse and Jill are considering local organizations, like Read Aloud Virginia, that distribute age-appropriate books to children who do not have access to books at home. “Read Aloud Virginia is an example of an organization that gets books into the hands of kids who don’t have books of their own. So rather than us going to the family, we will leverage Read Aloud Virginia and donate as many books as we can for them to distribute,” Jill said. “Often times there is not one book in the child’s home, so we and [Read Aloud Virginia] want to make sure that if you have one book and it is your only book, it is a book worth having.”
“Books, books, and more books!”
“Books, books, and more books!” Those were Jill’s words when I asked about the background of bbgb’s staff. Both Diane and Julianna have long careers as booksellers. Diane worked at a bookshop in Fredericksburg before moving to Narnia 15 years ago. Julianna worked at Narnia 16 years. Jenesse and Jill expressed deep gratitude that the two experts stayed on to bring continuity and excellent customer service. “When you read anything about what sets the independent bookstores apart, it is the staff,” Jill said. “Diane and Julianna have read these books…Their memory is for what that child is reading and has read and what their grandmother bought for Christmas last year, so then [they recommend] what you need to buy this year. You can’t get that many other places. We are incredibly, incredibly lucky they wanted to stay with us and continue on.” People come in the shop and ask to speak with Julianna and Diane, booksellers they’ve known for years. Jenesse beamed. “That is what we want!”
Unlike Diane and Julianna, neither Jill nor Jenesse worked in a bookstore before bbgb, but they are parents and readers who made frequent trips into the store. “We both have a passion and a love for children’s books. We were both long-term customers here at the shop,” Jill said.
Jenesse has a master’s degree in children’s literature and a PhD in literacy. “For me,” she said, “it was a real opportunity to keep extending my teaching and bringing some collaborative things into the community through programming and writing.”
“Jenesse has the understanding of the books,” Jill said. “Everything she has done professionally has been around children’s literature and writing and reading. She has the knowledge of the books and the right books for the right person.” Jenesse also taught elementary school and college students. “She’s got the expertise,” Jill said.
Jenesse is also co-author of Pre-K-2 Writing Classroom: Growing Confident Writers, released last month by Scholastic. “It is based on research and is actually for teachers and for parents of young children who are interested in what their children are doing when they’re first writing and how to help them,” Jenesse said. “Mostly it is about the kids, because kids do amazing things when they write.” The book also focuses on drawing as writing, especially in the early years.
“Learn what young children can do as competent, confident writers when we create writing classrooms that support their developmental patterns and provide them with multiple opportunities to write for numerous purposes across the curriculum. The authors spotlight the children’s strengths in brief case studies to help you understand the significance of their efforts, and offer specific recommendations you can use to help your own students use writing as a meaning-making tool in various subject areas and settings”
Jenesse lives in London, where she scouts titles for the store, while Jill uses skills learned during her career in the corporate world to manage the home front. This balance is one of the many ways these entrepreneurs and friends complement each other and form a strong partnership. “I get to be the foreign correspondent,” Jenesse said, and Jill manages the other type of books–accounting and business.
Please come back Wednesday for part two, which looks at what’s new in bbgb, international titles, and upcoming events.
A big thank you to Diane, Jenesse, Jill, and Julianna.