Bookseller ends 38-year story
A. A. Milne, the man who created Winnie the Pooh, once wrote, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
This week, those words may be a comfort to the longtime customers of a beloved Grand Rapids children’s bookstore named after Milne’s work.
Pooh’s Corner — which has served as a landmark for children’s literature in the area for 38 years — is closing, at 1886 Breton Rd. SE.
The Breton Village store has begun a 20-percent-off sale on all items, and its popular Story Time will continue until the store’s final day on May 23.
“It is with great sadness that we announce the closing of Pooh's Corner,” according to a statement by the store. “Our booksellers have sold you the best in children's literature for decades, and we hope that you have cherished us as much as we have cherished all of you.”
For the past 11 years, Pooh’s Corner has been co-owned by Camille DeBoer and Sally Bulthuis. Both women will celebrate their birthdays the week after their store closes, with Bulthuis turning 60 and DeBoer turning 46.
The store has one full-time employee and five part-time employees.
DeBoer said they’re closing the store, because neither of the owners is prepared at this point in their lives to make the physical and financial re-investment in the business, which was trying to weather the changing book industry.
“We had to think about what we wanted to do next,” DeBoer said. “The industry changes rapidly in bookselling. Watching it change is frustrating. What we do is very, very rewarding, but there’s less and less opportunity to have success.
“If we wanted to re-invest, re-position it to better fit the changing retail climate, we had to think about what it would take. . . . It was better to gracefully quit the business.”
A changing industry
The closing of Pooh’s Corner comes during a time of change for the book industry, both nationally and locally, DeBoer said.
DeBoer said a sign of the times was Schuler Books & Music announcing the closing of both its downtown Grand Rapids and Alpine Avenue stores.
And while people say online buying changed everything, 80 percent of the daily sales at Pooh’s Corner were books.
Digital books are tailored more to the adult readers, particularly reading groups — meaning that children’s books are still physical and usually bought as gifts, DeBoer said.
DeBoer said the main problem in children’s literature today is that children are being exposed to a narrower set of options.
She added that both local and school libraries are in decline nationwide, and unless a book turns into a major blockbuster — like the “Harry Potter,” “Percy Jackson” or “Hunger Games” series — most kids never hear about it.
“Teachers almost don’t have time to read books that don’t relate to curriculum anymore,” DeBoer said. “If a ten-year-old boy doesn’t like (what’s mainstream), he’s labeled a ‘non-reader.’ . . . I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a child that doesn’t like to read. They just haven’t found the right book yet.”
This is where Pooh’s Corner came in, guiding children on what they may like to read based on their own experiences and personalities.
“The product we sell is available everywhere,” DeBoer said. “We are the only place you can come for knowledge — but if we were the only place you could get the physical thing, it would have made a difference.
“And I have to say that there are incredibly sad lovers of children’s literature this week, but there are other people who will just turn and buy the books somewhere else. . . . We’re just another retail store trying to figure out how to survive.”
After the store shared the news with customers this week, “People were lined up out the door, and they stepped in and just started to cry. We hugged a lot of people that day.”
The Pooh’s Corner Facebook page has also been flooded with an outpouring of comments by customers, expressing their sadness and love for the store.
“When I read your email I had tears in my eyes,” Jill VanderWoude writes. “Thank you so much for being the most awesome bookstore ever! Not only have you provided wonderful books and story times, but you have also been an extended part of my family. I will miss all of you so much. Such sad news. Breton Village will never be the same.”
DeBoer said she’s lost count of how many times a customer has come up to her this week and told her how much the store has meant to them over the years.
DeBoer will soon be looking for a job, hopefully in the book industry, but for now, she’s accepting the praise of a grateful community.
“People have said so many beautiful things. . . . It’s like we’re preparing for a funeral of someone we loved,” DeBoer said.