Sock Puppets, Hedgehogs, and Full Time Writing

Usually this type of post would be titled something like Spotlight on Bookstores:  The Spirit of ’76 in Marblehead, Mass. But, how could I argue with the title written by the author, Brunonia Barry?!?  Sock Puppets, Hedgehogs, and Full Time Writing certainly got my attention!  Brunonia Barry is the author of The Lace Reader (my review, author event, and tour of spots mentioned in the novel; can you tell I enjoyed this one?!).  Her recent novel, The Map of True Places, was published in May 2010; it is also set in Salem, which provides a fittingly quirky backdrop to this wonderful tale of a Hawthorne scholar, his grown daughter, and a mysterious family tragedy.  The Spirit of ’76 bookstore, in nearby Marblehead, is mentioned in the novel – read on to learn why Barry has given it this place of honor.

There are many reasons that The Spirit of ’76 in Marblehead, MA is one of the best Indie bookstores out there. Just last week, for example, they hosted a poetry slam that drew eighty local teens to the store, and held them in captive attention until closing, a difficult thing to do these days. This local bookstore regularly hosts all sorts of programs: from a writing workshop by Laurie Stolarz to previews of upcoming titles for the local book clubs, diverse groups with even more diverse tastes and names that range from The Goddesses Who Read to The Orange Fur Bikinis. This is the kind of store where the staff learns your tastes and often puts a book or two aside for you. They also know when to stretch your reading horizons, suggesting books you’ll love but might never have found on your own.

The manager, Hilary Emerson Lay, is a treasure. A visual artist and writer who adores books, Hilary creates beautiful sock puppets which she occasionally sells at the store and of which we have purchased several over the years as gifts for just about everyone we know. One of them is sitting on my desk as I write this, a short red-headed geeky looking puppet that bears a disturbing resemblance to me.

Hilary has a pet hedgehog named Stanley who sometimes visits the store. He has met most of the local children and has fans of all ages. Hilary regularly writes about life with Stanley, who disappeared the other day only to be found hours later sleeping in her purse. All of his fans can find out his latest escapades by following Hilary’s postings or listening to her stories which people stop by the store to hear. It was no big surprise that one of Hilary’s recommendations to my book club was The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

As you can see, there is a real sense of community in this local establishment. But all this description is simply to establish location. What I really want to tell you about is how The Spirit of ’76 helped me to become a full time writer.

I had just finished the third draft of my novel, The Lace Reader, and I knew that it still needed to be tweaked a bit, but I was baffled as to what elements needed work. So, on a whim, and because they had always been so supportive of my efforts, I walked into The Spirit of ’76, manuscript in hand, and asked for help.

They already knew I was a writer, I had written for a ‘tween series called The Beacon Street Girls and had done a signing at the store a while back. The night of the signing, the store’s owner, Bob Hugo, asked me what else I was writing. I told him about The Lace Reader, and he told me to make sure I brought it by when it was finished. On the day I took my “book in a box” into his store, Bob wasn’t there. But Hilary was, and we started discussing my next steps.

“Do you have one of those many book clubs who might be willing to help a fledgling novelist?” I asked. “I don’t want to workshop this anymore. I need some opinions from real readers, and a book club would be perfect.”

Hilary thought about it for the next few days. The following Wednesday, she called to announce that she had found me a book club. Three weeks later, ten women showed up at my door. I asked them to be brutally honest about the story, and they were. I took copious notes when they agreed on what needed work. When they disagreed, I simply listened to their discussion. At the end, I asked the requisite focus group question: “Would you recommend this book to a friend?” I held my breath waiting for their answer. Overwhelmingly, they agreed that they would, and that, in fact, several of them already had.

With the help of this local bookstore, I was able to repeat the process with two more book clubs. Their notes and insights helped me with the rewrite, and when the book finally went into publication, everyone involved was passing the word. At initial publication, there were thirty-seven book clubs waiting to read The Lace Reader.

I think the synergy between booksellers and book clubs is a strong one, and nowhere is it stronger than at The Spirit of ’76. The fact that they are also supportive of local writers played a huge part in what was to become a great success and ultimately fulfill my dream of being a full time writer. And when my second book, The Map of True Places, came out this May, The Spirit of ’76 was right there to celebrate by hosting a great event.

18 comments to Sock Puppets, Hedgehogs, and Full Time Writing

  • Wow! This sounds like an incredible store. The fact that they are so openly supportive of writers, and so open to readers is wonderful! I also love that there is a hedgehog on premises!! Wonderful post!

  • great post and I just love Brunonia! Any store that has a poetry slam is my kind of place.

  • This post has just left me in a puddle of longing/envy/love (insert any word you like). Sock puppets? A pet hedgehog? Staff that sets aside books just for me? Helps new writers? I might just pick up and move there, just to be close. I swear, if a bookstore set aside books for me based on my tastes, we’d be in financial distress!

  • I loved this post! And it delighted me no end to read about Stanley the sweet little hedgehog. Thanks for brightening my day, Dawn!

  • What a fantastic store–the very meaning of community!

  • A bookseller that not only supports new novelists but has a hedgehog is my type of person, and place! Brunonia was lucky to have such a wonderful friend and supporter – and now she has you on her side. It also reminded me of my sweet late hedgehog Pickle – if anyone is seriously considering a hedgehog as a pet let me know I can tell you all about these fabulous little critters!

  • It sounds like a wonderful place that I wish all authors (and readers too!) had one in their community.

  • What a great place! I want to meet the hedgehog.

  • Hedgehogs are the mascots of bobbin lacers… I would give up the mascot if I could just have an independent bookstore closer than 100 miles.

  • Marblehead

    I find this bookstore pretty lame of late, and it used to be one of my favorites. I have twice witnessed the owner being EXTREMELY rude to customers, and they never have the book I am looking for in stock (YES I know about “special ordering”…I call that AMAZON.COM, for a FRACTION of the price, BTW).

    I’m convinced the staff puts up pics they never read, since when I started talking to a girl there about a book I LOVED on her pick-shelf, she had obviously NOT read the book. It was obvious she hadn’t even read the blurb on the BACK of the book.

    This is a nice little piece here about a store with good potential.

    but who cares if a thirty-something woman with semi-unprofessional hair brings her rodent?/pet to work and makes crafts out of old socks? does that help me pick out a dynamite book for my book club? not really.

  • booksbooksbooks!

    Great article, great store! Can’t wait to read your new book, Brunonia!

    @Marblehead: Wow, slamming artists and indies in one review! Impressive! What are you even doing on this website, in that case? If you think “special ordering” is synonymous with “Amazon” then you don’t deserve a local independent bookstore. I’ve had excellent experiences with the staff (and their picks, which they’ve read), and if I ever do need to special order something (read: not through Amazon), it arrives in 2 days.

  • Hilary

    @ Marblehead:

    As the thirty-something manager with semi-unprofessional hair (*what is fully-unprofessional, by the way? Mohawk?) I feel the need to respond to your comment.

    It is entirely your choice to continue to silently and anonymously despise us while ordering from Amazon. If you feel that it is easier to contribute to the demise of independent, locally-run stores than it is to drop me an e-mail about what I can be doing to improve the store and give me the chance to at least address your concerns, that is also your choice.

    I could go on for paragraphs and paragraphs about what my staff and I do every day to make the community a better, more well-read and (yes) more diverse place to live. We love our jobs, we love our authors (Brunonia, I humbly tip my hat to you), we know our customers by name. We constantly go above and beyond for our community.

    Example: I (pink hair and all) was recently invited in to a local kindergarten class to read them Jan Brett books and talk to them about hedgehogs. (Incidentally, it was on one of my days off, but I still happily drove in for it). I even brought Stanley in with me, and handed out coloring books that the publisher had sent me in an event kit. The kids each sent me a hand-crayoned thank you note with a picture of a hedgehog on it, and for a while I had them all displayed in the store and everyone loved it because it was something you would ONLY see in an independent bookstore. I challenge you to find a Borders or a Barnes & Noble that would do any of that. Or an Amazon.

    I’m sorry that you find my art, hair, hedgehog, staff, selection, boss and bookstore (*have I missed anything?) so offensive; I am happy to say that you are in the vast minority on all points.


    PS: Hedgehogs are insectivores, not rodents. Which you would know if you ever set foot through the door. I have a great book about the study of wild and domestic hedgehogs on my staff picks shelf. A book WHICH I HAVE READ ALL OF. (It’s by Hugh Warwick…just to make your Amazoning easier for you).

  • Hilary

    Dear Everyone Else:

    I appreciate, beyond words, all of your kind words…and I invite you to meet my famous hedgehog! Saturday, June 12 from noon-1, we are throwing a Hedgehog Party at the bookstore, at which my hedgie will be present.

    If anyone cannot make it and would still very much like to meet Stan, drop me an email ( and we can arrange a meeting at your convenience. I appreciate my customers THAT MUCH.

    Your indie bookselling friend,

  • zibilee, Serena, Sandy and Beth – I’m definitely taking a road trip to visit the ‘Spirit of ’76′ this summer. The shop is less than an hour away, and, I agree, it sounds delightful in so many ways!

    Lisa – you hit the nail on the head. Community it is!

    novelWhore – Hmm, my kids are always asking for a pet (allergies to cats and dogs, so they’re out). I wonder if they read my blog … they’ll be adding a hedgehog to the list of possibilities!

    Ladytink and softdrink – (hey, your names rhyme!) … I want to meet Stanley too. If you’re ever in the area, I’ll join you up there.

    Beth F – well, that’s an interesting connection, that hedgehogs are the mascot of bobbin lace makers. If I’m ever in a trivia contest, I’ll hope to remember that. Your closest indie is 100 miles away?! That’s unfortunate, and a reminder to me to appreciate what’s close by

    Marblehead – I don’t mind dissenting opinions, but your comment is extremely mean-spirited. It’s already been addressed by other commenters, so I’ll leave it as it (but won’t publish any other comments that I consider to be personal attacks)

    booksBooksBooks – I haven’t yet visited the “spirit of ’76″, but I have to agree with your comments re: special ordering. If my local indie doesn’t have a book I’m looking for, they order it for me, and I get a phone call 2 days later. Easy to do, I get the book as quickly as I would by ordering online, and more $ stays in my community. Win – win. Also, I finished THE MAP OF TRUE PLACES this morning; loved the many references to Salem & Marblehead, wonderful story with a good mystery/secret … get a copy!

    Hilary – the “Spirit of ’76″ is on my list of day trips for this summer. I’ll drop you an email before we come up — I’m looking forward to meeting you (and Stan!)

  • I have been to Spirit several times and have always found Hilary to be extremely helpful. She went to great lengths to find an obscure book for me and even went so far as to have an author sign a book for me, when I had not asked for it, when I could attend the signing and presented the book as a surprise. Hilary is a true treasure to the community and her attempts to bring in a more diverse crowd while still maintaining her dedication to her original followers is a true testament to her managerial style that should be praised.

  • Amy

    This is a fantastic post, thank you Dawn and Brunonia. Hilary’s bookstore, “The Spirit of ’76″ sounds like the perfect bookshop to me. I already am a big fan of MA especially spots like Marblehead (& many others!) The programs and events hosted at this shop sound wonderful, I would practically live there. And as a confirmed animal lover, I adore that Hilary has a pet hedgehog! But the way Hilary and others at the shop supported Brunonia in becoming the wonderful writer she is brought tears to my eyes. I love book stores such as this one that make you feel good and happy when you are there.

    Thank you! Someday I will visit The Spirit of “76!

    ~ Amy

  • Rick

    Hilary and Stanley are both awesome. And her hair is INCREDIBLY unprofessional, but perfectly endearing. Amazon is cold, anonymous and has no personality. But…birds of a feather I suppose.

  • [...] may recall the awesome Spotlight on Bookstores guest post about The Spirit of ’76 that Brunonia Barry wrote a few weeks ago.  Well, that post was read by someone who works at [...]

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