I have copied an article reprinted in this past Sunday's New York Times about children's author Jeff Kinney opening a bookstore in his hometown of Plainville, Massachusetts, set to open on May 30.
The Bookstore Built by Jeff Kinney, the ‘Wimpy Kid’
If anyone knows how to sell books, it’s Jeff Kinney.
Over the last eight years, Mr. Kinney has built one of the most popular and lucrative franchises in publishing. His middle-grade series, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” the fictional illustrated diary of a middle-school misfit, has more than 150 million copies in print, in 45 languages. The series has spawned three feature films that have earned more than $225 million worldwide at the box office.
His fans still want more. Mr. Kinney is finishing the screenplay for a fourth film, working on two animated TV specials for Fox and furiously writing jokes for the 10th book.
But lately, Mr. Kinney’s attention has wandered elsewhere.
“If my whole life were ‘Wimpy Kid,’ it wouldn’t be very fulfilling,” he said during a recent interview. “I don’t want to be designing ‘Wimpy Kid’ pillow cases for the rest of my life.”
Now, in a risky and ambitious next act, Mr. Kinney will start selling other people’s books. He’s opening a bookstore, called An Unlikely Story, in his adopted hometown, Plainville, Mass., about 40 miles south of Boston. And while he doesn’t want the store to resemble a “Wimpy Kid” theme park, he’s willing to use the popularity of the series to draw in customers. Mr. Kinney will work at the cash register and in the cafe on occasion, and he plans to teach a cartooning workshop at the store.
He’ll keep a studio on the third floor, where visitors can catch a glimpse of him at work, drawing on the 23-inch tablet that he uses to create his cartoons.
“We’re hoping my notoriety as a children’s author will be a draw for people,” he said. At the same time, Mr. Kinney says he’s wary of leaning too heavily on his brand and wants the store to outlast him. “This is not going to work if it’s just a shrine to my books,” he said.
Mr. Kinney, who made more than $20 million last year, might have become a patron rather than a practitioner of the trade, like the novelist James Patterson, who donated more than a million dollars to 178 bookstores around the country last year. But he wanted to leave a physical mark on Plainville, a former manufacturing town that is home to about 8,200 people.
“I wanted to add a bookstore to the landscape,” he said. With this foray into retailing, Mr. Kinney is joining a handful of authors who are injecting cash and a dose of literary celebrity into what seemed a dying trade. The novelist Ann Patchett came to the rescue of the Nashville literary community when she opened an independent bookstore there in 2011. Other authors who moonlight as booksellers include Larry McMurtry, Louise Erdrich, Garrison Keillor and the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Many small bookstores nationwide, surprisingly, are holding steady and even thriving. After years of decline, booksellers have rebounded lately as print sales have stabilized, and their ranks are swelling. Last year, the American Booksellers Association counted nearly 2,100 member stores, compared with about 1,650 in 2009.
Ms. Patchett, the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, said she had expected her store to be a financial drain. Instead, Parnassus has flourished, so much so that the store is expanding with a mobile book van. Ms. Patchett has used her clout as an author to persuade prominent writers like Elizabeth Gilbert, Donna Tartt, David Sedaris and Michael Chabon to give readings at the store.
When Mr. Kinney visited Nashville last year for a “Wimpy Kid” event held by Parnassus Books, he grilled Ms. Patchett about her business.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Just between us, how much money did you lose the first year?’ ” Ms. Patchett recalled. “And I said, ‘Jeff, I made money.’ ”
Mr. Kinney says he doesn’t expect to recover the millions of dollars he sank into the construction of the store, but he wants to create a sustainable business, one that could have a ripple effect and help revitalize the town. “Hopefully, we’ll break even,” he said, adding optimistically, “or even make a profit.”
Plainville, Pop. 8,200
Mr. Kinney, who was born on an Air Force base in Maryland and grew up in a suburb of Washington, has lived in Plainville for the last 12 years, with his wife, Julie, and their two sons, ages 9 and 12. He’s easy to spot riding around town on his red scooter. A tall, energetic, boyish-looking 44-year-old, Mr. Kinney coaches soccer and still works at his day job as the creative director of Poptropica, a story-based gaming website he created in 2007.
The Kinneys settled in Plainville because it was the one place that met all their criteria. They were looking for a town near her parents in Worcester and close to Boston, the headquarters of Funbrain, a company where Mr. Kinney worked. They drew a Venn diagram on a map of New England, and Plainville was in the middle. They took to the town immediately. They considered moving to a bigger city when the first “Wimpy Kid” book became a breakout best seller in 2007 but decided against it.
“We like the size of it,” he said. Instead of leaving, they moved into a bigger house.
With the bookstore, Mr. Kinney is extending his roots in Plainville.
“Obviously, the man could live anywhere in the world, and he chose to live in Plainville,” said Joseph Fernandes, the town administrator. “The real fortune for Plainville is that Jeff doesn’t have to rely on how much money he makes running a bookstore to feed his family. Without Jeff Kinney, I don’t know how well a bookstore would do at that location.”
The store’s playful name is meant to evoke tall tales, but it is fitting in other ways. The arrival of a bookstore is an unlikely turn for Plainville, a town incorporated in 1905 that was once home to manufacturers of jewelry, eyeglasses and plastic parts. The new store is an anomaly next to venerable institutions like Gerry’s Barber Shop and Don’s Diner (“Family Owned Since 1936”).
In 2012, Mr. Kinney surprised residents when he bought a crumbling building in the town’s historic center for $300,000. Over the decades, the building, which dated to the 1850s, was a barbershop, a drugstore, a tearoom and a general store. Then, for 17 years, it sat vacant, a depressing blight on the town. Like everyone else in Plainville, Mr. Kinney grew tired of looking at it.
Mr. Kinney was not sure what to do with his new purchase at first. At one point, he sought advice from his core audience, a group of local fifth graders, whose suggestions included a roller coaster, a swimming pool filled with M&Ms and a bookstore.
The bookstore idea stuck, especially since a nearby Borders had closed. “What’s the thing that everybody loves and treasures the most?” Mr. Kinney said. “It’s a bookstore.”
The project had a rocky start. An inspection revealed that the building could not be salvaged, and it had to be demolished rather than restored. “That was a tough day for a lot of people,” Mr. Kinney said. “You felt history being erased.”
In its place, Mr. Kinney commissioned a three-story building with architectural echoes of the old general store. The building is made from reclaimed wood and other recycled materials, and the interior features hand-painted replicas of old signs that hung on the building over the decades. Mr. Kinney designed the store’s logo and sign himself: a bug-eyed cartoon elephant holding a book with its trunk, under the words “An Unlikely Story.”
The story of Mr. Kinney’s rapid rise to fame is itself pretty unlikely. He studied computer science and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, and he intended to become an agent with what is now called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Instead, he ended up as a programmer at a medical software company and then a game designer at Funbrain, an educational gaming website.
On the side, he created comic strips, which he had loved since his childhood. But his work was rejected by newspaper syndicates. In 1998, he came up with the idea for “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” the illustrated diary of an acerbic and devious middle-school boy named Greg Heffley. The stories were semi-autobiographical, loosely based on Mr. Kinney’s childhood and “put through the fiction blender.”
He had been working on the series for six years when his boss at Funbrain suggested he post it on the company’s website. It attracted millions of readers. Two years later, he sold it to Abrams, an art and illustrated-book publisher.
When Mr. Kinney started writing “Wimpy Kid,” he had adult readers in mind. His editor persuaded him to publish it as a children’s book instead. The Abrams children’s imprint, Amulet Books, had measured expectations and printed 15,000 copies of the first book in 2007. It was an overnight success that has grown exponentially with each book. Last year, demand was so high that Amulet printed 5.5 million copies of the ninth book in the series. This fall, the 10th book will be published simultaneously in more than 90 countries.
Mr. Kinney’s empire has grown so large that Abrams measures “Wimpy Kid” sales separately from the rest of its children’s and adult imprints. A “Wimpy Kid” team made up of about half a dozen people meets weekly to manage the brand.
“When you’re buying enough paper for five and a half million books, the stakes are high,” said Michael Jacobs, president and chief executive of Abrams.
Bringing a Store to Life
One morning, a few weeks before the May 30 opening day, Mr. Kinney was a bit groggy as he surveyed the store’s progress. He had had just three hours of sleep the previous two nights. He spotted a patch of ceiling in the basement that needed to be painted, and he questioned the placement of a big bookcase in the cafe. The shelves, with enough space for 3,500 books, were still bare, but the leather armchairs and display tables for new releases had arrived.
The space was coming to life, with fanciful touches like flying books hanging from the ceiling with their pages spread like wings. A few chalkboards were scattered through the section, hidden at toddler level behind secret panels, so children could write messages or discover one of Mr. Kinney’s doodles.
The store will have a prominent “Wimpy Kid” section, with a roughly 500-pound bronze statue of Greg Heffley by the sculptor Allyson Vought, along with “Wimpy Kid” books, stationery and T-shirts.
The nearly 16,000-square-foot building will double as an event space for local theater performances, yoga classes, ballroom dancing, karaoke nights and occasional screenwriting and cartooning workshops, which Mr. Kinney will teach. It will also serve as the new headquarters for Wimpy Kid Inc., which Mr. Kinney and his two full-time employees now run out of a small house next to his home.
Over the years, Mr. Kinney has visited hundreds of independent bookstores. When he decided to open his own, he needed to learn how to run one. He sought advice from the owner of one of his favorites, the Northshire Bookstore in Vermont, and took a few of his staff members there for a retreat last summer.
“We talked about the nitty-gritty of running a bookstore, everything from numbers to relationships with publishers and the aesthetics of a store,” said Chris Morrow, co-owner of the Northshire Bookstore.
Early on, Mr. Kinney hired Paz & Associates, an organization that trains and counsels independent bookstore owners, which studied the town’s population size and traffic patterns and advised him on a variety of things, including the store’s layout and inventory and how many employees and parking spaces it would need. They told him that a bookstore in Plainville would have been impractical for the average owner, but a world-famous author had a better shot at succeeding at making it a destination.
“I’m sure they were thinking we were crazy to open a bookstore in a town of 8,000,” Mr. Kinney said. “Maybe they still do.”