Visual Arts

One for the books; Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid’s vision became ‘one of the most beautiful children’s bookstores in the U.S.’

Pete and Debbie Cowdin, owners of the Reading Reptile, at home with 4 of their 5 children, including (from left to right) Blue, 6, Clyde, 16, Violet, 12 and Gloria 14. Older sister Sally, 20, lives in San Francisco
Pete and Debbie Cowdin, owners of the Reading Reptile, at home with 4 of their 5 children, including (from left to right) Blue, 6, Clyde, 16, Violet, 12 and Gloria 14. Older sister Sally, 20, lives in San Francisco The Star

Originally published Jan. 30, 2011

It’s 4:45 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon at Reading Reptile, 15 minutes before Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid can turn the key in the dead bolt behind the last departing customer. It has been a long day, but the married owners of this avant-garde children’s bookstore rush to attend to remaining tasks.

In the exposed “backroom” area of the store, Pettid caroms between a sink full of suds and a makeshift drying table, her lithe dancer’s arms loaded with plastic plates and bowls -- the aftermath of a 5-year-old’s birthday celebration.

The party is over, but the dozen attendees, their siblings and the parents who have come to collect them show little inclination to head into the frigid twilight. Instead they linger, taking in the otherworldly atmosphere of this little shop of wonders in Brookside: the life-size papier-mâché heroes from children’s lit classics sprouting from the walls; the elaborate paintings of Babar’s adventures (from Jean de Brunhoff’s books) on the ceiling; the golden Cinderella coach that toddlers never tire of climbing in and out of; the coin-operated pony ride.

Behind a bakery case in the front of the store, Cowdin is serving a couple on their way to a dinner party. The woman asks for one each of the assorted “fairy-tale cupcakes.” The cupcakes, baked fresh daily in a tiny kitchen behind the store, are based on storybook characters.

“Cool. But we only sell Robin Hood in sets of two -- you have to give one away,” Cowdin says, adjusting his baseball cap and peering intently through his Buddy Holly glasses. “So if that’s going to be a problem ... “

They consider. The man says, “OK, one of each except Robin Hood.”

Pursuing their passions

Hosting children’s birthday parties and selling cupcakes with odd terms of purchase aren’t standard functions of a children’s bookstore. But the Reading Reptile hasn’t survived for more than two decades by following convention.

Instead, Pettid and Cowdin, like a couple of endearingly nonconformist characters in a storybook for the very young, run their business by pursuing their passions, staying true to their ideals and hoping for the best.

Theirs is a tale with no clear story arc but plenty of adventure and heart.

The store’s original mashup of artwork, performances, book clubs, young writer contests, an annual children’s literature festival and a stellar inventory of thousands of hand-picked titles has earned them a nationwide reputation among authors and publishers.

In 2005, the Reading Reptile received the prestigious Lucile Micheels Pannell Award for Excellence in Children’s Bookselling, which recognizes bookstores that excel at creatively bringing books and children together. Kristen McLean, former executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, isn’t surprised. “The Reading Reptile is one of the most beautiful children’s bookstores in the U.S. I hold it up as an example when I lecture of creating an environment people want to be in.”

Part of what makes the store unlike any other is the way it is intertwined with the owners’ family life. Pettid and Cowdin’s five children, now ages 20 to 6, have grown up in the store, spending nearly as many waking hours there as at home. All have been home-schooled at the store by Pettid for at least part of their education.

The kids always have felt as if the store is an extension of their living room, greeting customers as if they were welcoming visitors to their home. Regular customers, in turn, have distinct memories of the children.

They remember that Sally, the oldest, always had on a tutu, tights and ballet slippers. Always. Today she dances with a ballet company in San Francisco.

And that Clyde had curly yellow hair and went through a biting period as a 2-year-old, when Pettid had to scoop him up and hold him anytime younger children were in the store. Today the 16-year-old writes music and lyrics and plays guitar in a band.

Gloria has always been, and at 14 still is, the girl reading in the red velour chair.

Violet, now 12, is the girl in the knitted multicolored hat, the one her mother made for her when she was 6.

Blue, now 6 1/2 , has been the unofficial greeter since he could talk. Regulars know he really, really likes Richard Scarry books and thinks everyone should read them.

To many longtime customers, the store is the family and the family is the store. The way the family came into being is an entertaining tale in its own right.

This story starts in New York

It seems fitting that Pettid and Cowdin both grew up in Omaha but met in New York.

It was the summer of 1987. Pettid was working at Eeyore’s, the most respected children’s bookstore in New York. Her entrance into the world of children’s literature was by accident, not design. She had come to New York five years earlier, straight out of high school, just another Midwestern kid looking for a job and a new life as far from home as possible.

Cowdin was in the city for just a day, visiting a friend on his way to a wedding in Maine before heading off to his first year of graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. At the friend’s apartment, he met Pettid.

The two spent several hours goofing around in Greenwich Village. The highlight of that first date was peeking into the window of Grandpa Munster’s (Al Lewis) restaurant.

That night they returned to the friend’s apartment, where the three slept on the floor in a Y-shaped formation with a crystal between their heads, hoping it would cause them to have the same dream. That didn’t happen, but a powerful attraction was at work in the room. In the morning, Cowdin proposed. He says the proposal was “half serious, half artistic gesture.”

Pettid said “yes” and meant it. She called her mother with the news that she was engaged.

For the next few months, she and Cowdin exchanged letters. In December 1987, Cowdin was expelled from Cranbrook as a result of a different kind of artistic gesture: For a sculpture project, he took two chairs designed by Cranbrook alum Eero Saarinen -- school property -- and cut them in half with a table saw. After that he disappeared for a while.

“It was like he dropped off the planet,” Pettid says. In the spring of 1988, Cowdin got back in touch with the news that he was living in Minneapolis with friends. Pettid went to Minneapolis to visit Cowdin for 48 hours on her way to Kansas City, where she had decided to open a bookstore because she couldn’t afford the rent in New York but wanted to be in a city bigger than Omaha. During the visit, Cowdin fell in love for real.

Pettid moved to Kansas City alone and opened the first Reading Reptile in a small space in Westport with nothing more than a $25,000 loan from her mother, a vision for what a great children’s bookstore could be, and a name. (Contrary to a popular assumption, the Reading Reptile was not named after the iguana that lived in the original store; Pettid and a couple of friends came up with it randomly.)

Three months later, Cowdin hitchhiked to Kansas City and moved in with Pettid. “I still remember seeing him hopping out of a truck with a black trash bag full of (stuff) in his hand,” Pettid says.

They married a year later.

Store = family

For the first couple of years, Pettid ran the store alone while Cowdin pursued a master’s degree in geology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and worked as a prep chef at Californos restaurant, next door to the store. (His boss there was Karen Geary, now a Reptile employee and the full-time baker of the fairy-tale cupcakes.)

After Sally was born in 1990, Cowdin began helping out at the store, since the couple couldn’t afford child care or an employee. Half out of boredom, Cowdin began to dive into the books.

“It was a grand awakening to see there was this whole history of children’s literature and to realize there are important and artistic picture books,” he says.

It was a turning point for the store and the marriage, Pettid says, when children’s literature became something they both loved rather than something she loved. But Cowdin’s awakening did not translate into wanting to spend more time in the store.

“Loving the books is not the same as working in a bookstore,” Pettid says. Cowdin loves the store most when it serves as an outlet for his creative expression and least when it involves day-to-day tasks.

Helping customers often falls to Marlys Waters of Fairway, a part-time employee who has worked in the store since Gloria was born 14 years ago. Waters, who has three adult children, was one of Pettid’s first customers. She hung out so often that after Sally was born she began answering the phone, and the relationship grew from there.

“Marlys is the reason we could have five children. Marlys is the reason I could home-school my kids,” Pettid says.

Even with Waters’ help, Pettid shoulders a tremendous load, with full responsibility for her kids’ home-schooling and the book-ordering side of the business, plus the birthday parties for 3- to 9-year-olds that have grown to 80 a year.

And that’s still not all. Cowdin says that while he created the first papier-mâché sculptures in the Westport store, Pettid has taken over and surpassed him in that art form.

“What Debbie does is visually incredible,” Cowdin says. “She makes the store magical. The store itself is a work of art.”

But Pettid views the art as secondary to her true passion: children’s books. “I have reps that come by and bring me galleys or proofs. Any book, if it’s under 60 pages, I read it before I buy it,” she says. “There is no point in having it if I don’t know what it is.”

Pettid also looks closely at the illustrations. “I like to know somebody took time on it. I want to make sure the character’s features look the same throughout the book, that a child isn’t going to turn the page and say, ‘That doesn’t look like her.’ “

Normally soft-spoken, Pettid becomes animated talking about the lack of respect accorded children’s books. “Just because a story is short and simple doesn’t mean it isn’t sophisticated. In a good children’s book there are a lot of things going on that aren’t immediately apparent.”

Bad books are easy to spot, Pettid says. “There’s lots of insipid, meaningless repetition. They are character-driven rather than concept-driven and they have no connection to a kid.”

Pettid won’t stock books she thinks are bad, but she will order anything on request.

Favorites for a reason

If you ask Pettid to name some of her favorite books, she unspools an endless strand of authors’ names because she assumes that you, as an educated person, will be familiar with all of them.

If you break in and admit you have never heard of a fair number of the writers and illustrators and you ask instead for specific characters she loves, here is what you get:

Frances, of “Bedtime for Frances” by Russell Hoban fame. “I love that she has a sense of humor. She’s a little sneaky. She can hold a grudge, but it’s endearing and true to how kids really operate. Hoban captures kids’ dialogue in a way that’s incredible. The framework of their sentences is a little bit off and charming,” she says.

Max the rabbit, from the series of board books by Rosemary Wells. “Max is very charming. He’s kind of naughty, and he has to deal with a sister who’s super bossy. The best characters are truthful and not fake-y. They make a connection to a kid.”

The George and Martha characters in books by James Marshall. “There’s a tenderness and charm in the characters. There is humor without being in your face.”

When pressed, she says her very favorite characters are the good friends Frog and Toad from the series by Arnold Lobel. Don’t ask why, they just are. “Frog and Toad,” she repeats several times, as if that is explanation enough.

Pettid also admits to a deep fondness for Scandinavian authors including Pija Lindenbaum, Toon Tellegen and Astrid Lindgren’s obscure stuff. “Her Pippi stuff is OK, but ‘The Brothers Lionheart’ is better.”

Pettid loves the Scandinavians because their words are carefully chosen, and the humor is gentle. Also, the illustrations are muddier, and the rooms are messy in an honest way.

Pettid’s beliefs about kid lit spill over into her daily life at the store. When parents come in with a child in tow and begin to tell her what Precious likes, she turns away from the adult and addresses the child.

Her own children get the same full attention. She has no qualms about interrupting a customer with a polite “excuse me” to see what her child needs. When her youngest son, Blue, was nursing it didn’t faze her when some Brookside patrons seemed surprised that she would lift her shirt and feed him while simultaneously ringing up a sale.

“My kids come first. If they are hungry I’m going to feed them, and it doesn’t even register with me if you are uncomfortable,” she says.

While Pettid is holding down the store most of the hours it is open, occasionally taking a Sunday off thanks to Waters, Cowdin comes and goes. Pettid says he does the “grunt work” of keeping the books, paying taxes and dealing with authors and publishers. She understands that he feels trapped by the store at times and needs outlets for his boundless creativity.

When the children were younger, Cowdin, who earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art and political science from Carlton College in Northfield, Minn., created live performances based on children’s books that vaulted the Reptile into extreme hip status locally and nationally.

Jon Scieszka, the Brooklyn-based author of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” a Caldecott Honor book, has visited countless children’s bookstores around the country and overseas and says no store has made a more profound impression on him than the Reading Reptile on his first visit in 1990.

“They were still in ‘dangerous Westport’ as they used to print on all their brochures,” Scieszka says, laughing. “Pete wrote and staged a puppet production of ‘The True Story of the Three Little Pigs’ (by Scieszka) that was original and phenomenal. The kids were out of their minds loving it.”

When Scieszka visited Kansas City to speak at the 2008 Reading Reptile’s annual DNA Children’s Literature Festival, he had just been named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book. The ambassador title gave Cowdin a license to ramp up the absurdity when he introduced Scieszka to an auditorium full of educators and librarians.

“Pete had warned them that they would all have to stand when I entered in a procession led by an oboe player and that they were not allowed to make eye contact with me or ask me questions directly. They had to ask the oboe player, who played the question on the oboe, and then I would answer,” Scieszka says. “Pete and Deb and their kids are crazy in the best book-passionate, connecting-kids-with-reading kind of way.”

More projects

Now that the offsprings’ schedules are full of events outside the store, live performances are less frequent. So Cowdin has been pursuing individual art projects, some under his pseudonym, A. Bitterman.

A project Cowdin has planned received Rocket Grant funding from the Charlotte Street Foundation. He wants to install a National Parks-like interpretive kiosk and raised walkway in the front yard of his and Pettid’s house in Brookside that explains the history of the site, the current dwelling and notable fauna (squirrels, pets and family members).

“I’m interested in how our relationship to nature has gotten distorted. We perceive nature as something we visit rather than something we inhabit,” Cowdin says.

Cowdin also has written a children’s book that was published this month by Simon & Schuster called “Fortune Cookies.” Because the store demands so much time, the book was five years in the making.

The idea of being able to substantially augment income from the store by writing more books is enticing, but it’s a Catch-22. To write a book for older readers that he has in mind, Cowdin would have to totally disconnect from the store for several months. Even though the store is doing OK, it has never generated enough income for him or Pettid to take three months off.

“People ask how we’re doing and it’s like, ‘We’re OK, but we need your business.’ Sometimes people don’t make the connection between the joy they find in the community and spending their money locally. Since the recession hit, walk-in traffic is the same but walk-in purchases are down by a third. There is serious, profound debt,” Cowdin says.

Publishing industry indictment

At the 2005 Book Expo America in New York, Cowdin delivered an acceptance speech for the Pannell award that was basically a 20-minute indictment of the publishing industry. Cowdin blamed publishers for obliterating independent booksellers by intentionally overproducing books to supply superstores and then creating a discount market that made customers feel stupid if they bought a book at list price.

And in fact, from 1995 to 2001 a staggering number of independent children’s booksellers went under. Former ABFC director McLean says at its peak in 1993, the trade association had 600 members, all children’s-only booksellers. Today membership has dropped to 250, and half those are general booksellers with robust children’s sales.

How did the Reptile survive? Pettid and Cowdin aren’t sure.

“There is no business model,” Cowdin says. “You need to not have a fear of heights. We don’t take a lot of money out of the store. We pay ourselves a wage, but it’s not high.”

The Reptile’s goal in all things would be dismissed by business experts as useless because it is unquantifiable: Do the best you can.

“I felt like last year was a really good year for the store because more people came in and said, ‘Wow, the store really looks good.’ But I’m completely in the dark as to the finances,” Pettid says.

Some things the owners know they are doing “wrong” are intentional. For example, since school sales account for more than 50 percent of sales, a “better” business would hire someone to go after those big sales, Pettid says. A better business would also hire someone to keep the website updated. “But we don’t want to hand over those things,” she says.

Pettid and Cowdin have never second-guessed themselves about starting the business. Sometimes they get discouraged but that comes from exhaustion more than outside events.

The most difficult period, Pettid says, was when the couple sold their house in Hyde Park in 2001. The house they purchased in Brookside was uninhabitable, and while they gutted it they lived in the third floor of local author Lisa Campbell Ernst’s house.

“We had four little kids and we were living in somebody else’s house. It was insane,” Pettid says. Around the time they were getting ready to move into the new house, they found the Brookside store location and had to move and rebuild Reading Reptile, shelf by shelf, artwork by artwork.

“We were very aware of the danger that when we opened people would say they liked the old store better,” Pettid says.

McClean says the independent bookstores still in existence, like the Reading Reptile, are well positioned for the future. “The large chains have huge overhead and expensive retail locations; they had to turn a lot of books to pay those costs. Independent stores can be much more nimble. Their square footage cost is much lower. That is certainly an advantage,” she says.

The Kindle doesn’t scare Cowdin at all. “Digital books are destroying the superstore model, thank God,” he says. “Anyone can sell digital books, it’s a download, not a product. And publishers are fixing the price of digital books. Price-fixing is very un-American, but it’s great for independent bookstores.” Cowdin thinks that if e-books cost the same everywhere, customers will buy from the more-knowledgeable seller.

That would be the Reading Reptile, Scieszka says. “They have read deeply everything in the history of children’s books. And they get a genuine thrill out of connecting a reader with a book they might love that they wouldn’t have known about.”

Even though the future looks promising, Pettid and Cowdin aren’t jumping for joy because they’ve never focused on the bottom line.

“We make decisions about the store with a view to having a good life as opposed to having a store we can sell for a lot of money,” Pettid says. “We try to figure out how we can go to work and have fun and go home and feel satisfied.”

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