Bookseller Interview: Cathy Berner, Children’s-YA Specialist & Events Coordinator at Blue Willow

Cathy (in pink) with YA author Tera Lynn Childs

From Cynthia: In September, I had the pleasure of visiting two high schools in Pasadena, Texas, and Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, courtesy of Cathy Berner, the store’s children’s-YA specialist & events coordinator and Candlewick Press. See full report.

Today we’re talking to Cathy about book selling, the author-bookstore relationship, the future of books, and more!

What is your background in children’s-YA literature? 

Before I got this awesome job, I was a school librarian in suburban Chicago at a K-8 magnet school. I’ve always loved books and reading and rarely read books for grown ups.

What do you love about it?

I think children’s/YA lit is one of the richest fields in books these days. I love everything from picture books to YA novels and all that’s in between.

Books truly transport people to different times, places and situations. A book can change your life. I know I view life differently after reading certain books.

The one that comes most quickly to mind is Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper (Atheneum, 2010). She changed the way I see kids with disabilities. She forbids me to look away.

How did you come to be a bookseller?

I was at a Christopher Paul Curtis event put on by Blue Willow, and while I was waiting in line to get my books signed, I started talking to Valerie.

That was over six years ago, and the job has grown as my kids have.

Tell us about Blue Willow! What makes the store special?

Pete the Cat painted by James Dean at the shop.

Blue Willow is an independent bookstore at the heart of its community. Owner Valerie Koehler sets the tone, which is to love reading and to provide great customer service.

How about your involvement in the larger world of independent booksellers?

This year, I had the privilege of chairing the American Booksellers’ Association’s New Voices Committee.

The indie bookseller community is a great resource for booksellers and authors. It’s full of people who are passionate about books and believe in supporting their communities.

How is the store a center for your local book community?

We have a great group of local authors who come out and support each other as well as other authors we have coming to town. They’re active on social media as well as in person, and we just love them!

In what ways do you do outreach to educators and librarians?

We find great educators/librarians to partner with in school visits. We have annual educator nights, we keep them informed of authors we have visiting.

We’re happy to recommend books, to read books and give feedback on how to use them in the classroom, and to share our current favorites.

And we’ve partnered with educators and librarians in the greater Houston area to launch TeenBookCon and Tweens Read, festivals for teen and middle grade readers, respectively.

Could you talk a little about the special relationship between authors and booksellers?

Without authors, Blue Willow wouldn’t exist. We feel like we curate our collection for our customers. We support local authors and have a strong relationship with our local SCBWI.

How do you decide what events to include on your calendar?

We work with publishers to find the best fits for our store and our customer base.

What tips do you have for authors/illustrators doing bookstore events?

Check with the bookstore to see what format works best for them. This is not their first time hosting an event, so they generally know the best format to use in their store.

How about school visits?

At Blue Willow, we work very hard to find schools with librarians and faculty members who are advocates for reading and for author visits. We expect these schools to have prepared, enthusiastic, attentive students and staff. Meeting an author is a great opportunity, so this is not an unreasonable expectation.

Big picture, what five tips do you have for authors in working with/supporting independent booksellers?

1. Know your store. Learn about them and their community before you ask for something.

2. Link to IndieBound from your website. It’s easy to do! 

3. Understand that they need to make money in order to stay open. Many indies sell at full price, because that’s how they keep the lights on.

4. Use the expertise the store owner and employees have. If you are kind and respect their time, they will, more often than not, do what they can to help you.

5. Advocate for indie stores with your publisher. Let your publisher know that you want to support indies and – hopefully – they will too!

How is Blue Willow responding to the current economic climate?

We’re doing really well!

How is Blue Willow responding to the move toward e-formats in books?

We find ourselves asking our customers “How are you reading?” so we can let them know that they can purchase e-books through our website and continue to support us.

What do you see in the future of booksellers, especially with regard to children’s-YA books?

The picture book is not dead, and middle grade/YA fiction is one of the best places to be in literature today. ‘Nuff said.

Cynsational Notes

Authors/Illustrators: consider linking your official site or blog to that of your local independent bookseller and/or, in the U.S., IndieBound. Make an IndieBound widget featuring your books.

Tweens Read Book Festival will be Oct. 29 in Pasadena, Texas. Richard Peck is the keynoter.  Other participating authors include Crystal Allen, Michael Buckley, Kate Falls, Matthew Kirby, Lindsey Leavitt, Christina Mandelski, Lisa McMann, Jason Pinter, Allen Sitomer, Obert Skye, Clete Barrett Smith, and Andrea White.

4 thoughts on “Bookseller Interview: Cathy Berner, Children’s-YA Specialist & Events Coordinator at Blue Willow

  1. I love Blue Willow. Had my debut booksigning there and from the moment I walked into their adorable bookstore, they've treated me like a family member. And I mean that in a good way. 🙂

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