Interview with a Bookstore: Big Blue Marble
Committed to Reflecting the Diversity of its Neighbors
Big Blue Marble Bookstore opened in November, 2005. Owner Sheila Allen Avelin had long dreamed of opening a community-center indie bookstore, like the bookstores that shaped her childhood and young adulthood in D.C. Living in Madison, WI while her wife completed a graduate degree, Sheila went to work at Avol’s Bookstore to build her understanding of the business end of the book business. When they moved back to Philadelphia, Sheila chose the Mt. Airy section of Northwest Philadelphia because it was a neighborhood of people with a “shop local” ethic and a community she wanted to live in and raise a child in, as well as a few doors down from a long-established food co-op that would drive foot traffic to the store. She and her wife moved into one row house, and Sheila began work on the bookstore in the neighboring home. Her daughter Zivia was born the spring before Big Blue Marble opened, and has grown up in the store.
Big Blue Marble is a lesbian-owned (and often lesbian staffed) general-interest store with a feminist, progressive slant. They specialize in children’s books, literary fiction, SciFi, Poetry, and YA, with strong showings in African-American nonfiction, history, contemporary politics, and cookbooks. The core of Big Blue Marble Bookstore’s mission is to serve its diverse neighborhood. In every part of their business, from the books we stock to the events we plan, they seek to represent the diversity of their neighbors.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Sheila Allen Avelin (owner): A hot tub and a deck full of trees and hammocks.
Jennifer Woodfin (manager): More display space, and room for many more books to face out. I’m a bookseller, and I always want more books, more fun and clever little gifts, more customers
Jennifer Sheffield (web manager): More events space so we can host authors who attract larger crowds.
Elliott batTzedek (events manager): A reading room for tweens and teens, with all the great chapter books and novels and comics and graphics and lots of furniture for slouching and reading. And a second room for writing classes.
Mariga Temple-West (bookseller): A big bright spacious staff lounge! And lots and lots of space for all kinds of creative displays. Displays shuffle the stock, and books sell better than when they’re just sitting on the shelf.
Jane Easley (bookseller): For kids and teens, I would add more middle grade and YA historical fiction. As a school librarian, I learned that some kids and teens read primarily historical if they can get their hands on it. I would include titles that are available in paper that are not necessarily new (not just their latest), by perennially favorite authors like: Avi, Nancy Farmer, Celia Rees (for girl pirates), Ann Rinaldi, Pam Munoz Ryan (Esperanza Rising), Mitali Perkins, and new authors, of course.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Jennifer W.: We make people love Mt. Airy!
Micah Sheffield-Woodfin, age 5 (book and toy tester/recommender): We have a kids section with all the books I like and things that I like to play with.
Jennifer S.: We engage with our community, far beyond simply selling books.
Elliott: We host events and discussions that are urgent for our community and provide experts and activists who help customers understand complex issues. While we have plenty of readings of fiction and poetry, we also have authors, teachers, and leaders talking about the most important topics in our community: Palestine/Israel, global climate change, Syria, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the history of how Black artists used plays about lynching to support and strengthen Black communities during decades of terror, to name topics from just the last few months.
Mariga: We are really good at pinpointing exactly what a particular customer wants, not just what the store is trying to sell.
Who's your favorite regular?
Jennifer S.: I once spent hours and hours preparing for a book talk featuring picture books with diverse families, including multi-racial families. Only one person showed up–but she was so engaged and excited that she demanded I create a written list and then bought every book on it.
Elliott: I keep track of parenting wins, such as the father whose four-year-old daughter was examining our display of censored books. “Do you know what these are?” he asked her. She shook her head no. “These are all books you will have read someday.” Also, a mother whose three-year-old was playing with our wooden toy castle. The girl was holding a piece with two sides, a floor, and a curtain across the third side. (It’s supposed to be a shower, though why a castle set has a shower is beyond any of us.) “Do you know what this is?” Mom asked. “A voting booth,” said the child with confidence. The three-year-old had already gone with her moms to vote!
Jennifer W.: We had one customer who was in early childhood education and would completely swoon over picture books and tell us stories about the children she worked with and developmental psychology. Another favorite customer of mine was an elderly man who had hearing aids and a microphone linked to the hearing aids that he would hold up to me when I spoke. The conversations were very slow, but he ordered a such a range of smart and challenging books that I came to know him as a profoundly thoughtful person.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Jennifer S.: The day the children’s book section downstairs suddenly flooded when outside drains clogged up. A customer screamed for us when the water rushed in, and we went running for help to the co-op next door. They came with a pump and hoses and buckets and shovels.
Elliott: The evening a neighbor came to launch his short story collection and 70 people showed up. We had standing room only on the first and second floors and the staircases. He kept bringing more of his books in boxes from his car as we sold product that hadn’t been received and left the Booklog mess for the next day.
Sheila: Deciding to open a business and have a child in the same year. My daughter was born in the spring and the store opened in the fall, and I strongly advise against doing both of those things at once!
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Jennifer W.: As a young teen my parents had given up on keeping track of what I had read and wanted to read, so they gave me book money instead. I took my $30 to the bookstore and it was glorious—$30 bought a huge pile of mass market paperbacks, and I spent hours picking exactly what I wanted.
Jennifer S.: My memories were always libraries, not bookstores—the room full of books neatly on shelves in order and the endless range of stories.
Micah: Reading all the books and playing with toys.
Elliott: My small towns and the ones surrounding it didn’t have bookstores, so I grew up in the library. My first visit to a bookstore was a Christian bookstore 20 miles away which I coaxed my mom into driving me to because I was in desperate need a map of Narnia and they sold such things.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Jennifer W.: Coming to the bookstore and buying the books, pestering the bookstore owner about what she should be carrying. After that I’d be in a hammock, reading.
Sheila: With my actual skill set I’d be an office manager staring at databases all day. In my dreams, I’d be a textile artist living off the grid and baking my own bread.
Jennifer S.: I’d be editing and proofreading and wondering how I could get a job at a bookstore.
Jane: I am a librarian by training, and I’m devoted to the concept of free access to content. I see this as the other side of the free speech coin. I would like to continue to do more library work along with my bookstore gig.
Elliott: I have BAs in Literature and Creative Writing, an MS in Women’s Studies, and an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation. Where but a bookstore would I possibly be working?
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Elliott: The biggest unpleasant surprise has been watching parents make a complete mess in the kids’ section and then just walk away. Kids make small messes–it’s the parents who open packages and break apart sets and spill coffee and then leave.
Jennifer W.: At my first bookstore job I had to be there really early because we sold the paper, and we made most of our money on porn magazines, so I found myself stocking titles I couldn’t believe existed. Here at Big Blue Marble we’re feminist and family-oriented, and open at 10 am, so both those unpleasant surprises have gone away.
Jennifer S.: The best surprise has been the connections the staff and community builds with authors. Authors have become as much a part of the life of the store as the readers and staff.
SLIDESHOW: Big Blue Marble Bookstore Staff Recommendations
Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia, PA.