Story Time in the City
Downtown Raleigh’s only children’s bookstore has created a diverse and welcoming sanctuary that’s also reflected in the books on its shelves.
by Corbie Hill
Photos by Joe Reale
Even on a cold day, it’s warm by the front window in Read With Me. At about noon, the sun’s high enough to shine over the tops of the downtown buildings, but still low enough to cast its rays directly into this children’s bookstore. And this is about when Ellie May, an easygoing yellow lab with a flamingo pattern on her collar, likes to wander over from Briggs Hardware next door for a nap in a sunny spot she has claimed as her own.
It goes both ways, Read With Me owner Christine Brenner points out. Her 6-year-old son Ethan really likes to go next door to Briggs. So the hardware store borrows the bookstore kid, while the bookstore borrows the hardware store dog. It’s one of many connections that make Brenner feel like she opened in the right place.
“I don’t know that we could have survived in another part of the city,” she says.
With Marbles Kids Museum half a block east and the science and history museums just three blocks north, Read With Me has placed itself squarely in downtown Raleigh’s family-friendly nucleus. Brenner’s seen her shop become a part of many family outings: They start at Marbles, come by Read With Me for a story and a craft, then grab lunch and head to the museums in the afternoon. This is downtown’s only dedicated children’s bookstore, and Brenner feels right at home behind its counter.
“My background is in teaching and English,” she says. “Most recently, I was an elementary school librarian. This is all the things I love and that I’m good at.”
The idea came about as Ethan neared elementary school age and Brenner thought about restarting her career. She considered returning to the school system, yet she’d long nurtured a dream of opening her own business. So when Ethan started kindergarten at The Raleigh School, his mom opened Read With Me. The shop has only been open since April, yet it’s already made a notable impact on this stretch of Hargett Street.
Evelyn Davis at Briggs Hardware sums up Read With Me’s value to downtown: “Children,” she says, her face practically glowing as she thinks about the youthful energy of the bookstore’s customers. “[It’s brought] lots and lots of children, and an excitement that we haven’t had without the young folks around.”
The bookstore has been “an instant success” for downtown, Davis adds. And it fills a special niche: There are not many places you can come and read with your children.”
Brenner attracts a loyal following by stocking a variety of children’s books, representing children of all backgrounds, and by scheduling story times and workshops in the Read With Me teaching nook. She wants her store to be a source of good reading material, true, but also a social center for local families. So Brenner also invites local artists to lead classes in the teaching space. “I like that it’s a space that’s not just about me and my books,” she says.
In story times and in the books she orders, Brenner works to be as inclusive as possible. Early on, she reached out to the LGBT Center of Raleigh to offer her store as a resource or a potential host for any of its events. Among the LGBT Center’s suggestions: How about a drag queen story time?
It’s tough for teens to grow up and have questions about their gender or sexual identity, Brenner says. She knows, too, that children of color need to see themselves reflected in books. Historically, there’s been precious little diversity in children’s lit. There’s data to back this up, Brenner asserts, and she wants to rectify the inequalities, at least within the walls of her shop. It’s important to her to run a store that reflects good values, and that means creating an opening, welcoming place for all families.
“That’s something I try to do when I pick all my books; I work to give people a place on the shelf,” she says.
Yet what about Brenner’s own son? She worried a little bit that Ethan would tire of the bookstore, particularly since he’s there so often. That hasn’t happened at all—Ethan loves going next door to visit his friends at Briggs Hardware, and he’s consistently thrilled by the books on the Read With Me shelves.
“I’ve seen him talk to other kids about books better than I ever could,” Brenner says. “’You should read this. It’s all about this and this and this.’ He’s a very good salesman, apparently.”
CHECK IT OUT!
Read With Me, A Children’s Book & Art Shop
111 East Hargett Street