Melissa Bourdon-King, a former store manager at Mabels' Fables, opened Once Upon a Bookstore in Kelowna in 2019. The store is a family affair, with both her mom Marlene and her daughter ("bookstore daughter") offering their contributions. Melissa spoke to CIBA about how she curates her store, her connection to her community, and more.
You worked at Mabel’s Fables before moving to Kelowna and making the decision to open your own children’s bookstore. How did your experience at Mabel’s Fables shape your vision for Once Upon a Bookstore?
Mabel’s Fables was such a wonderful first job to have—that I stayed for 12 years! I was really mentored and allowed to grow and share ideas there. I think that knowing that stores like Mabel’s exist—ones that are so personal and represent and reflect those that contribute to them—helped give me the confidence that I could start my own store.
The store is in a lovely, light-filled space with a second-floor mezzanine. What were your priorities when you were initially looking for a location for the store, and how did you know you’d found the one?
I knew that I needed to be in a highly walkable area with lots of foot traffic, and I knew that Kelowna was limited in terms of those kind of neighbourhoods. Mosaic Books is well established in the downtown core, and I didn’t want to impede upon what they had been doing successfully. I started where I knew best (the neighbourhood around my daughter’s school), but was met with a lot of hesitancy from landlords about opening a bookstore. When I discovered a building that was still being built—which meant it wouldn’t be ready for me for another 8-10 months—I had a gut feeling it would be the right fit. The corner unit was the only one that hadn’t been spoken for, and I knew when I saw the design and the amount of light that would come in from the wall of windows that it would be a perfect spot for me. My current landlord is great, and I am so appreciative that he took a chance on me when others were hesitant.
Being connected to your community in Kelowna is a core value for the store. Though the pandemic has likely altered plans, how have you been able to forge relationships with local families?
This has truly been the biggest learning curve, and one I am still navigating. Social media has absolutely played a role, and I cannot discount the value of positive word of mouth. For me, developing personal relationships is essential in creating the kind of business I want to run. Personally, I can be terrible with remembering names (especially now with face masks), but I will remember the books that you (or your children) bought and be able to help you build your library.
Due to popular demand, you’ve recently added Manga to the store. In addition to responding to requests, how do you curate your children’s selection?
One of my core beliefs is a commitment to stocking widely diverse titles—that goes from having authors, illustrators and stories from ethnically diverse backgrounds, and it also means making sure that I cover a diverse stream of interests (bugs, space, horses, architecture) and topics, so that when someone comes in the store I am confident I will be able to find something that matches.
A perfect example is last week when a woman was shopping for picture books for her 5-year-old. We have had a VERY windy spring, and this little girl was feeling nervous about windy days. Her mom was wanting to find some stories to reassure her. I was able to help her find some non-fiction books, and a lovely story all that had positive and informative representations of the wind.
It takes me a long time to order frontlist (new) titles, because I comb through making sure I have all my bases covered.
As a children’s bookseller, do you feel a responsibility to stock and promote anti-bias books? How do you manage this responsibility?
I have felt this responsibility since I was 16/17 starting out at Mabel’s Fables. It is amazing how often casual bias creeps in for people. It requires daily work to a) check my own bias and not make assumptions about the kinds of books people will want and b) gently challenge people’s ideas about what children will or won’t like (gender comes up most frequently).
So much is about making the customer feel comfortable so that they trust what you are recommending.
Your carry a selection of adult books in the store, selected by both you and your mom, organized into intriguing categories like, “It’s a Puzzler” and “Not Just a Love Story”. Tell us how you determine what to include and what other categories you’ve showcased.
We also have “In Those Days” (History) “Page-turners” (Thrillers) “What-If” (Dystopian) and “Stories to Take You Away”. Our adult section was starting to grow, and just shelving the books by author last name was not working so well anymore. My mom and I decided to play around with the usual genres. Thus our categories were born. We’ve read many of the titles we carry, and if we haven’t read it we read the backs and check out online reviews to see where it might sell best, and what the best fit for a category is.
You’ve been able to offer outdoor programming while following local health guidelines. Tell us about your outdoor craft corners and how the community has responded.
The “Outdoor Craft Corner” was inspired by a bookstore I follow on Instagram. They were doing this cute craft at a local market where they were planting flowers in old teacups, and I thought “I want to do that”. I’m very involved with Girl Guides of Canada, and am no stranger to crafts- so it seemed like a natural fit.
People were so desperate to do have access to activities with their kids, and we did very well with the first batch of events in the fall. Now that the weather is nice again, I have relaunched them and this time around I’m trying to pair the events with books. We just did one this past weekend where we made “wood” and “knot” from Canadian author Tiffany Stone’s picture books Wood Could and Knot Cannot. It was a lot of fun.
The store also sells a collection of children’s toys, stationery, and craft supplies. Of these items, have you had any surprising best sellers?
Our bestselling sideline items are the mini bath bombs from a local mompreneur. They smell so nice and are the perfect size for littles having a bath. Moms come in just for more bath bombs sometimes. I love that the bookstore can be a place to support other local businesses as well.
What is your favourite thing about the work that you do?
I’m a traditionalist. My favourite thing after 18 years as a bookseller (and I’m not that old) is to put a book in someone’s hand that I know they will love forever.
Please share your favourite children's book!
Well, this is basically impossible, but I will do my best: