Of Bears and Books

of bears and booksThese days, independently owned bookstores are an endangered species. And independently owned children’s bookstores? Those are as rare as unicorns (and some may argue, just as mythological). It is with great joy, then, that I share a very special children’s bookstore situated in the little town of Hopewell, New Jersey.

deskThe Bear and the Books is an utterly charming space bursting at the seams with books, imagination, and consideration for those journeying on the paths of early literature. At the store’s heart is owner Bobbie Fishman. Bobbie managed the children’s departments of two local bookstores for 14 years before opening the Bear and the Books in 2013.

Why did you decide to open the shop?

I love what I do, and I believe that children need to see good books, not necessarily the books that are being marketed heavily by the publishers and – therefore – press. Children are taught what they are supposed to want by the media, which I believe is all tangled up in marketers’ ideas of what will sell. Good books are not written to be “something that will sell.” I just want good books to have half a chance in children’s minds. I’ve often said that my job is reading children’s books in the bathtub and then getting out and talking to people about them. The conversations I have with customers about children’s books are what I’ve come to love – those conversations are what I think I have to offer. (Otherwise, I’m quite shy.)

A number of months after I left my previous job, when I was trying to figure out what was going to come next in my life and I had been thinking I would do something completely different, this space in my town was looking available. It was affordable enough for me to think about taking the risk of opening a shop. I’m afraid I was too attached to these books to leave them.

cozy cornerHow did you decide on the name of your shop?

The bear was the bear left in Micawber [a former local bookstore] by my friend Liz Flemer who worked there before me; she put it there for children to play with, along with a few other toys. It got dragged around and slobbered on and put to sleep in its sleeping basket again and again. When Micawber closed I took the bear home with me until Labyrinth [a current local bookstore] opened – where it continued its role. When I left Labyrinth, so did the bear. We’ve shared all our time in bookstores together, and when I knew I would open this shop I realized that the bear was a constant. What would be in the shop? The bear and the books.

the bearWhat do you love about children’s literature?

I don’t think my love of good children’s literature is much different from my love for any good literature: it has the power to surprise us and rattle us at the exact same moment it is reaching a deeply familiar place inside; it is words and art that work to show us that we are human – that we have sympathy for and interest in so much of what happens. I actually think books remind us that we are good people and that being a person can be fun sometimes. For even the youngest readers of the simplest picture books, I think this is true: They can feel “I am part of a world I can converse with and laugh with and have feelings for. This is being human, and this is very interesting.” And what you learn about yourself when a book makes you cry could be one of the most important lessons in your life.

Who designed the interior of your store?

Mostly me, but I wouldn’t call it designing; rather, it was “making it up as we went along,” and I had the best of help from three wonderful carpenters, who knew even better than I did how to make it up as we went along: Chris Thacher, Phil Rayner, and Walter Varhley.

large tableWhat’s your philosophy on bookselling?

I guess I just see it as matchmaking: trying to figure out what can please someone. With children, I want to know what they’ve been reading or hearing that they love and I take it from there. Oddly, although I do try to go close to something the child likes, I realize a goal is to move them a small bit away to something different; and it is often when I make what I think is an out-of-their-line suggestion, that is the book they will go for. Children are often more flexible and more widely interested than they want to admit – or perhaps than they know.

What is Bear Mail Books?

Bear Mail is a plan one can sign up for to have books chosen by me for a particular child and mailed to the child at regular intervals, usually one each month. Most Bear Mail customers sign up for a year’s worth of shipments, but I will do it for any span of time, and some customers have books sent every other month, or 2 books a month. I try to send books that not everybody knows.

How do you select the books for the recipient?

I find out what I can about the child: How old? What’s he or she been hearing or reading that she likes? Are there older siblings in the house? Do they want books that will be read to the child or that the child will read? I have to confess that after a while, I have made up a version of the child in my head and I will sometimes consider a book and think: “I’m not sure Helga will like this one,” and then I have to laugh because I’ve never met Helga.

front windowCan you name a few of your favorite books?

Amos and Boris by William Steig
An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden
Gone Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
A collection of poems by Margaret Wise Brown called Nibble Nibble, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, NOT the supposed reissue by Harper (illustrated with great stupidity by someone else and only being the illustration of one poem)
Many Moons by James Thurber
An Extraordinary Egg by Leo Lionni
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

Many thanks to Bobbie Fishman for letting us roam her shop, and for providing the photo of The Bear and the Books sign!

350 for 50

pen frameEvery year, our library has a writing content called 350 for 50. We challenge kids ages 6-16 to write a short, 350-word story that includes a sentence of our choosing. This year, the sentence was  “The image blurred, then darkened.” Our judges select winners from three age categories and not only do the young authors get published on our website, blog, and print publication, they enjoy a $50 shopping spree at Labyrinth, our local bookstore!

It is our great delight to present this year’s winners. The artwork for each piece was created by Princeton University student, Aliisa Lee.

Every Day is a Bad Hair Day

Lucy McCulloch, age 9
Bordentown, NJ

Bad Hair Day artwork by Aliisa LeeI am Meddie. I am in 5th grade at Blockwood Elementary School and I am considered a complete freak by most of the girls in my class. The same girls, who for the past six years have tormented me because I wear an enormous hat to school. If they only knew the truth hiding under my hat.

It all happened one day during a chaotic indoor recess. As usual, the room was divided into four corners containing the “bookworms”, “the artists”, “the fashionistas” and “the gamers”. I took my usual seat with the artists and began to draw cartoons.

From across the room I heard a loud commotion. I looked and saw a boy named Quincy stick out his tongue and make the “gag me with a spoon” action. I didn’t know what was going on, but I saw all eyes in the room turn and look at me. Quincy had a note in his hand. Before I could even ask what was going on, our teacher Ms. Birdfitch, swooped in a grabbed the note from his hand and read it out loud. “Dear Quincy, I love you.  Love, Meddie.” The whole class broke out into laughter. Ms. Birdfitch told everyone to get quite and take a seat.

The note was the last straw. I rushed out the door, and ran down the hallway. I slipped into the bathroom and stumbled to the cold tile floor. Those girls had done it again. But this time it wasn’t a silly name, it was a lie!

I got up to wash my face and looked in the mirror and that is when it happened. I looked at my reflection, but it didn’t look like me. The image blurred, then darkened. I felt my insides getting colder. I couldn’t hide my anger or true self any longer. I took off my hat and let my snakes coil around my head. Finally free from the hat, I walked unafraid back to class. I opened the door to horrified faces.  “Call me by my real name from now on.  I am MEDUSA!”


Neha Aluwalia, age 13
Plainsboro, NJ

Memories artwork by Aliisa LeeThey had been one of the last to escape. A few more weeks, and the ship would have been stopped-and the Jews would never have made it to America.  However, with luck on their side, the newly-wed couple Deborah and Joseph Rubenstein took a crowded, smelly ship to America, and wrapped their faith and hope around them like a warm blanket.

Upon arrival of New York City, things were not at all what they expected.  For one, they were detained at Ellis Island for many days, and the mixture of languages, smells, and sickness were very overwhelming to the lonely couple who understood little English.

When all the papers were finally set straight, Deborah and Joseph used what scant money they had, all their families’ life savings, to rent a room in a crowded apartment complex.

While Joseph went to work at the docks, Deborah stayed at home and began to befriend the neighbors. She became good friends with a man named Leroy Caldwell, a handsome and curious journalist. He was interested in what happened to the Rubensteins, of the events that brought them to America.

The two became so close that Leroy asked Deborah if he could interview Joseph and her about being Jews who escaped from Nazi Germany. After a plethora of conversations about a myriad of war-related topics, the article was almost ready to go.

The one thing that was missing however, was a photograph. Leroy arranged Deborah and Joseph together, pillars of hope in the darkness, and hit the button.  Flash! The camera spit out a photo.  The image blurred, then darkened.
“Grandma? Grandpa?” asked the small child perched on her grandparents, squinting at an old photograph, “Is that you?”

Pointing to the young couple, indifferent to their poverty and content, the elderly woman replied, “Yes child. That was me and your grandfather, living out our families’ dreams. We only had each other, but we made the most of what we could.”

The child agreed to this statement by snuggling next to her grandmother and falling asleep, leaving Deborah, Joseph, and the memories together.


Roshni Mantena, age 15
Princeton NJ

Therapy artwork by Aliisa LeeShe’d learned later, that its name was Ischemia. She was suffering from ischemic loss of vision, caused by a blockage of the artery supplying blood to the eye. It was the most common reason for sudden visual loss, and left untreated even for a few hours, it could leave permanent damage. The last fact, she knew too well. At first, she’d blamed her parents. If they’d returned home, even an hour earlier. Then, it’d been her grandfather. Genetically inherited, artery blocking cholesterol. Finally, it’d been God. You sent this my way. Her bitterness had consumed her, pushing away her friends,  family, boyfriend. She walked in the school hallway alone, whispers of that blind girl trailing behind her, but she wore them proudly like armor, deflecting whoever attempted to get close. It’d gotten old fast, the loneliness tearing holes deep in her heart, leading her here.

It’d been half past eight and her parents still hadn’t returned home from their dinner party. The summer sky had long since faded into hot, sticky, darkness, and her clothes clung uncomfortably to her skin. She was too lazy to change into pajamas, the horror movie flickering on the TV screen in front of her just interesting enough to keep her from leaving her comfortable place on the couch. The air shimmered, the image from television slightly distorted, from the heat, she told herself. Another minute passed, the beginnings of a headache pounding at her temples. She rubbed her head; dark spots appeared in front of her eyes, the characters onscreen swimming in her vision. The image blurred, then darkened. She could still feel her heart drumming loudly in her ribcage as she screwed her eyes together, squeezing them shut tightly before opening them again. Panic in the form of bile was rising in her throat as she rubbed at them frantically, trying to coax them back from the nothing-ness to no avail. She scrambled blindly for the phone, hands shaking.

She inhaled sharply, running fingers over the raised bumps, feeling out the words. Palm flat, pride swallowed, she pushed the door open into therapy.