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What's in Store?

Profiles of Two Children's Bookstores

By Janet Collins

Volume 18 Number 2
1990 March

Meet Charlotte Stein of Parry Sound Books in Ontario and Carl O'Neill of Choice for Children Books in Nova Scotia. Stein specializes in books for handicapped children and O'Neill literally reaches out to those who can't come to him.

Children's books -- for the most part they are creative and wonderfilled things. And children's bookstores are nothing less than literal treasure-troves of sparks for the young imagination. There are, however, a few entrepreneurs who feel there should be an extraspecial something on their shelves.

Cape Breton's Choice for Children Books is a perfect case in point. When owner Carl O'Neill first set up shop, he cut his overhead by working out of his home. It was part-time employment for the substitute elementary school teacher. But business was not exactly beating a path to his door. That didn't discourage Carl O'Neill. Instead, he found a solution -- take the store to the people! And that's exactly what he is still doing.

Since last summer, a converted van has been the storefront for Choice for Children Books. The books-on-wheels service travels all over Cape Breton Island visiting schools, day-care centres, book fairs, and anywhere else people may be who want to buy books.

The service is a vital one. As O'Neill points out, there are only a couple of bookstores in Sydney; the next closest is in Halifax or Antigonish. Such distances are enough to limit the size of most Cape Bretoners' libraries.

As the name implies, Choice for Children Books focuses on retailing a variety of books appealing to children aged pre-school to teen. About fifty per cent of the stock is Canadian. For O'Neill, these Canadian books have special appeal. "Their illustrations are fabulous ... so colourful ... (and) they talk about things that interest Canadian kids." The teachers and parents who visit the van are equally impressed by what they find -- many titles aren't carried by the local stores and the large number of Canadian titles is a welcome addition.

When he first began teaching in 1972, O'Neill found Canadian children's books were few and far between. Now, Canadian children's books are coming into their own. With more to choose from, he is certain to keep as many on hand as possible.

If Carl O'Neill's "store" sounds unusual, take a look at the "special" book selection in Charlotte Stein's bookstore. Parry Sound Books is a typical storefront business with the usual selection of children's books but the "special books for special needs" are what sets this store apart from the competition.

In 1988, the Steins moved from Toronto to Parry Sound in central Ontario, where they established the community's first bookstore. Charlotte Stein had worked in the retail book business while attending university and found the experience invaluable. It is her experience as a mother, however, that helps determine which books occupy the store's shelves.


One of the Stein children is physically disabled. In the early years of caring for the child, Charlotte was discouraged by the books she was encountering. Many contained out-of-date information while others showed disabled children in a less-than-dignified way. As a result, Stein found herself scouring more than a hundred publishers' catalogues for anything relating to children with physical disabilities. She only retained those books that were useful for her own reference or appropriate for her children to read. Her personal library thus began to grow.

She learned soon after that her situation is not unique. Other parents have similar difficulties finding appropriate information to help them understand their children's needs as well as books that their children would enjoy reading. That was how Parry Sound Books acquired its selection of "special books for special needs."

Because of her own experience, Stein had originally focused on mobility disabilities, especially those involving hospitalization and treatment centres. She "assumed agencies such as the CNIB and those for the hearing impaired had a wide variety of resources available" for people seeking bibliographies or wishing to buy books in those areas. To her surprise, no such bibliography or service exists. (The CNIB does, however, provide a national library service for registered users.)

Parry Sound Books is attempting to fill this gap. For example, if the store receives a "special book" request for a child with a particular disability, Stein will keep an eye open for something appropriate. Stein cites a book in braille and print as well as another in sign language and print as examples. She admits, however, that she doesn't feel she has the knowledge to make expert choices for children with visual or hearing disabilities. Friends who are parents of children with such disabilities as well as experts in the appropriate fields help fill the void.

Such careful attention to the needs of "special" children and their families has paid off. The store now boasts a wide variety of books in the "special" section that can be enjoyed by children, their parents and professionals. The few "textbook" editions stocked are also easy for lay people to read.

Nevertheless, the majority of book sales are a result of Parry Sound Books' substantial mail-order service. In a community too small to support a bookstore, it ensures access to print material where none existed before. The mail-order service also allows interested individuals from outside the Parry Sound area to draw on materials from the store's selection.

Those who know Carol O'Neill and Charlotte Stein agree that reaching out to young readers, whether in Cape Breton, Ontario or beyond, is indeed "special"!

For more information on Cape Breton's books-on-wheels service, contact Carl O'Neill at Choice for Children Books, P.O. Box 745, Trout Brook Road, Sydney, Nova Scotia B1P 6H7 (902) 562-0559.

To order your copy of the Special Books for Special Needs catalogue (available at a cost of $1.00) or for further information about Parrie Sound Books, contact Charlotte Stein at Parry Sound Books, 41 Church Street, Parry Sound, Ontario P2A 1Y6 (705) 746-7625.

Janet Collins writes for Feliciter, the CLA newspaper.

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