This summer, former teacher Chelsea Elward will embark on a new career as a bookseller when she opens Booked, a children’s bookstore in Evanston, Illinois, a city about 10 miles north of Chicago.
“My husband is from Minneapolis and we’re always going up there to see his family, and I love bookstores in general. When I went into Wild Rumpus [children’s bookstore], as soon as I walked in, I literally turned to my family and said this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I wanted my own children’s bookstore,” said Elward.
After that fateful trip to the animal-filled Wild Rumpus, Elward, who previously taught fourth grade at a boys’ prep school, e-mailed owner Collette Morgan, who was very helpful in answering her questions; since then, Elward has gone on to receive career guidance from other booksellers, including Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women & Children First, and Suzy Takacs, owner of The Book Cellar, both in Chicago.
Like Wild Rumpus, Booked will offer a large selection of children’s books accompanied by a small selection of books for adults, primarily the newest and hottest fiction and nonfiction titles to appeal to the commuters flowing through the two nearby train stations. Booked will also sell cards, book-related gifts like bookends, and Out of Print shirts and sweatshirts.
Elward, who grew up in the city, said she really wants Booked to serve as a family gathering place with activities for all, and a place that is as community-centric as Evanston itself.
“There are a lot of people in Evanston — over 70,000 — but it’s a very community-oriented city, just like Minneapolis, and that’s the type of bookstore I want. I want it to be where people gather during the day — for moms and dads, kids, babies,” she said. “It will be entertaining, but my mission is really [for the store] to be educational with fun attached to it, so everyone is learning while they’re having fun.”
Activities Elward is interested in featuring include book clubs for new parents where kids are welcome; a sign language class for babies; Drag Queen Story Hour, which Women & Children First has also hosted; daily story times; book clubs for elementary school students and middle schoolers; and a sober activity for teens every Friday or Saturday night. Author and local librarian Betsy Bird has also given Elward permission to host some or all of her events at the Evanston Public Library; Bird has connections with children’s authors as well, including Andrea Beaty, author of Ada Twist, Scientist (Harry N. Abrams).
Elward told Bookselling This Week that while it’s not likely she’ll have an in-store animal menagerie like Wild Rumpus does, she does hope to be able to bring in her poodle. In the meantime, there is the question of whether the city allows animals in stores, as well as potential liability issues.
“We’ll see,” she said. “When I ended my career as a teacher, I said my ideal next career would be a job where I can bring my dog to work every day.”
Before Elward found her current space, she had been scouting buildings for over a year, but because rent is so expensive in downtown Evanston, she couldn’t find anything affordable. But just two months ago, she stumbled upon a space for rent only a few blocks from her home, a former dry cleaners and shoe repair shop that clocks in at just under 1,000 square feet.
The Main Street storefront is currently undergoing a major demolition and renovation project to make the space ADA accessible and fully permitted. After she gets the keys in June, Elward said she plans to take about a month to set up. Luckily, she’ll have help.
“Everyone around me, either family or friends, has some kind of talent and has been helping me through this,” said Elward. “My husband does coding for a living, so he’s helping me with my website. My brother is a graphic designer, so he’s making my logo. Our family friend is a carpenter, and he’s going to make my bookshelves.”
Elward, for now her store’s only employee, joined ABA about a year ago to learn more about the bookselling business. Her favorite resource has been the Bookseller Forums, where she loves asking questions and getting responses from booksellers across the country.
“If there wasn’t ABA, I don’t know how I’d get through this. A lot of my questions have already been answered through the forums,” she said. “Every bookseller I’ve talked to has been super friendly and helpful and asks how they can help. This is a huge community I had no idea existed.”
Locally, Elward has joined a new Evanston-based group for women-owned businesses, which meets for the first time this month, and is spreading the word about her store to nearby kid-friendly shops. In late March, she will attend ABA’s Spring Forum in St. Paul, which is hosted in partnership with the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association.
“It’s just falling into place, which is how I know it’s the right thing,” Elward said. “I’m hoping for my magical bookstore in Evanston.”