I just got back from a family trip to Denver, and by “just” I mean a little over a week ago, but it takes a mom at least that long to catch her breath after surviving the packing, the airport, the late bedtimes and days without naps.
We spent four days in the Mile High City with my younger sister, Allison, who has lived in Denver for five years and is an expert on just about everything the city has to offer. We ate some phenomenal meals at several of the Denver’s most lauded restaurants, saw an stunning exhibit of Chihuly glass at the Denver Botanic Gardens and successfully completed a mountain hike with the kids in tow.
While seeing the sites and enjoying delicious food are always important priorities when we travel, discovering a city’s indie literary scene is typically my personal prerogative.
On past trips to Denver, I was introduced to Tattered Cover, one of the largest independent bookstores in the United States. It has three locations, including one in the hip LoDo (lower downtown) district. This particular store is housed in the historic C.S. Morey Merchantile Building, which dates back to 1896 and was once deemed “the most elegant business house in the West.” Its soaring ceilings, wide staircases, century-old brick and gorgeous wood support beams make the modern-day store the epitome of warehouse chic. Two stories are a filled with endless wood shelves chock-full of the best books in print today, with recommended titles elegantly displayed and accompanied by staff synopses. I could easily spend days on end perusing the offerings and reading in this book lover’s utopia.
When it comes to children’s books, though, Denver boasts another literary gem. Hidden in a strip mall on the city’s southeast side, The Bookies is inarguably one of the very best children’s book stores in the country.
Earlier this fall, I was researching stores for the trip we’re planning to New York sometime in the next year. In the process, I discovered this list from BuzzFeed Community, which compiles the “14 Absolute Best U.S. Kids’ Bookstores,” as voted on by teachers in an online poll. Listed at #10 was The Bookies.
As a one-time journalist (trained at the world’s best J-school – MIZZOU-RAH!), I have my doubts about the authoritativeness of any list generated on BuzzFeed (I’ve seen plenty that are full-blown ridiculousness). But the list DID include the Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis and Reading Reptile in Kansas City, two bookstores I know for a fact are among the best in the business.
With that in mind, we found our way to The Bookies with just enough time to pop in for a look before dinner on our second day in Denver. One step in the door, and I was like a kid on Christmas morning. Never before have I seen such an expansive and comprehensive collection of board books, pictures books, chapter books, teaching supplies and wonderful toys. Twenty minutes, let alone 20 hours, would never be enough to do this store justice.
That afternoon, with the clock ticking on our dinner reservation, we came away with a hastily selected chapter book for each of the big girls, one truly wonderful board book for Flora and a determination to return. Which we did. The next day. And the next day. And if floo powder really existed, I’d be there right now.
Here’s what makes The Bookies exceptional. Not only do they have one of the most thorough collections of children’s literature in the United States, they also have some of the most helpful, friendly and knowledgeable employees you could ask for. Give me a picture book section that isn’t dictated by Disney princesses and I can easily find books that both meet my high standards and entertain my girls. But discovering new chapter books for Eloise and delving into Charlotte’s preferred genre of graphic novels makes me feel like a fish out of water. That’s where my new best friend Ryan steps in (although I don’t know if Ryan knows he’s my new best friend).
Ryan is an ever-smiling, 28-year-old youth literature expert who can just as easily talk to children as he can their book-obsessed parents. He told me he had worked at The Bookies for a year, and it’s apparent that he’s one of the lucky few whose job mirrors his most passionate interest.
Ryan just so happened to be the store’s go-to employee for graphic novels, so I commandeered his help, leaving other customers in my wake. I told him I have absolutely no familiarity with graphic novels, that Charlotte is drawn to them and I needed help finding selections that weren’t too dark. Ryan was off and running, and, man, did he hit it out of the park on his first at bat. I set Charlotte up in a corner of the store with more than a half-dozen of his recommendations, including:
“Cleopatra in Space, Book One: Target Practice,” by Mike Maihack
“Babymouse #1: Queen of the World!” by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
“Sidekicks,” by Dan Santat
“Explorer: The Lost Island,” a collaborative volume directed by Kazu Kibuishi and created with the help of several other comics greats
“Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitude,” by Jarrett Krosoczka
“Squish: Super Amoeba,” by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
“Binky to the Rescue” by Ashley Spires
“Zita the Spacegirl,” by Ben Hatke
Meanwhile, Ryan and I continued on our stroll around the store, this time in search of chapter books with these criteria: must be outstanding, preferably not part of a series and appropriate content for a 6 year old who’s capable of reading nearly anything in the store. Here were some of Ryan’s suggestions:
“An Elephant in the Garden,” by Michael Morpurgo
“A Tangle of Knots,” by Lisa Graff
“Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes,” by Jonathan Auxier
“Wonder,” by R. J. Palacio
“Princess Academy,” by Shannon Hale
“The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate,” by Jacqueline Kelly
“The Lemonade War,” by Jacqueline Davies
“The Land of Stores: The Wishing Spell,” by Chris Colfer
And anything by Gordon Korman, including “Swindle” and “The Hypnotists.”
And that’s how we spent two hours on our second trip to The Bookies.
But here’s the problem… I hadn’t even hit the picture book section yet. So my dear, indulgent sister returned with me for a third time the next day while the girls fit in a quick nap before we had to head the airport. I power shopped like it was Black Friday, and 45 minutes later I had a sack full of new picture books and board books about which I couldn’t be more excited.
So, the girls might not have ended up with any souvenir sweatshirts, but they’ll be enjoying our loot for the next year, at least. And the best part was, nearly all of our selections were available in paperback, and The Bookies offers a 15% discount when you pay in cash, so the pocketbook didn’t suffer TOO badly. We did push the limits on the airline’s bag weight limits on the way home, though. I felt like a narcotics smuggler as I was stuffing the girls’ rolling carry-on bags with all of our books.