When bookstores started closing their doors, Caroline Gezelius and Ulrika Sundström did the opposite. Their bookstore Bokbok in Södermalm is a space where the heart beats for children. This is where picture books beckon explorer’s minds, where fantasy novels stir up thoughts. Anything to give books a space in children’s and families’ daily lives. When reading becomes a challenge, they know how to help.
Bokbok is a book box in all its glory. With its twenty square meters, the shelves start at the floor, which is a plus when the clientele span from mumbling toddlers to committed mothers and fathers. When Caroline stands behind the desk she speaks about children’s literature with passionate eagerness. It was the undying commitment to children’s reading that lead Caroline and Ulrika to opening the store three years ago. The two of them share the work between their day jobs, Caroline as a teacher and Ulrika as a journalist, jobs where they both witnessed children’s will to read wither.
“I saw how reading decreased significantly in school. The children weren’t reading by choice anymore, there were other things poking at their attention. Ulrika wrote about the matter as well, and we knew we wanted to do something,” says Caroline.
The initial idea of Bokbok first came to them when another children’s bookstore had to shut down.
“I just thought, no way, we can’t just watch as the bookstores go belly up – let’s just do it!”
What was your vision when you started Bokbok?
In the beginning we envisioned something big, like a café, with children reading on little chairs and pillows all around. But instead we fell for this little place, and we realized that our customers thought it was nice, cozy. We know where all of the books are even though there are so many, since the store is so small. That’s become an advantage for us.
You’re a teacher as well – has this helped you as a bookseller?
Yes, because of it I know what children read today. And at the same time, I can inspire them to read something else. After reading a book, I let one of my students read and review it. They usually enjoy the reading, as it becomes sort of a dialogue. If children and their parents come into the store after that, I can tell them about the books. I can tell them to keep at it until chapter two, because that’s when things start happening!
“I enjoy reading aloud, and have always done to my students.”
Your shop is a room filled with books – what do children usually do first when they come inside?
They almost always check the picture book-shelf. They’ll find something they read when they were younger and say ”oh, it’s this book!” And then maybe they’ll turn to a shelf for their own age. The youngest always spot what’s on floor level first, like the puzzles and games.
And amongst adults – do you think there’s enough support for children’s literature?
There was such an extensive discussion about children’s reading a couple of years ago. It does feel like the message kind of hit home, because a lot of parents are very keen on reading to their children now. There are currents coming from below. I hear parents who say: ”we’re not gonna use the iPad, let’s read a book instead.” There is still this notion amongst the older generations that reading is something good, and that you should buy books. It’s passed down through generations, even though children may be reluctant at first. It’s very popular to give books as presents.
How come children are reluctant towards reading?
I think it might have to do with phones and iPads. Most children have iPhones nowadays, even very young ones. With that, they only play games, and the brain is quick to reap its rewards. There are still huge challenges regarding that, both at home, in school and at daycare.
When the children use their iPads – couldn’t they just bring out a digital book?
No, I don’t think so, that wouldn’t be wise. You’re not as attentive, I’ve noticed in my students. When you read something digitally you process much less of what you’ve read; there are too many distractions. As a child you also miss out on that moment with your parent, the talking about what you’ve read, and the engagement.
What can parents do to encourage their children to read?
I think they must restrict their ’screen-time’. They need rules that they’re consistent with. Sometimes it can be challenging to pick up and concentrate on a book. In those situations it helps to sit down and read aloud together to make sure they get into the reading, making it a bit exciting so that they look forward to it. As a parent, you shouldn’t be afraid of stopping suddenly to let the child continue on their own. To gently push the reading onto them a little. The children need to learn to stick with the reading even when it’s not super exciting.
What are the advantages of reading aloud?
I enjoy reading aloud, and have always done to my students. To walk into a world together, maybe even witness as they open up to something they’re not used to. It’s that sense of doing something together. You can talk about what happened in the chapter, to create a little extra connection. Not just that patient type of reading reading, where you might not understand all of the words or skip them. If you read aloud as a parent or a teacher, you can stop and talk about what happened in the chapter you’ve just read.
”I’m surprised by how much is still around from when I was little.”
Children have other reading habits today – do you think this affects the books on the market?
Yes, absolutely. Many authors today go for it in the first chapter already to capture the reader. Which is probably needed. A lot of popular books in schools lean towards the fantasy genre, they want it a little scary. The books that were popular 15-20 years ago, for example books about football or animals, are not as prominent anymore. It doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or a girl anymore. If you’re a boy it’s not automatically assumed you need to read “like a boy”, it’s actually changed a little bit.
What happened to the children’s classics – are they still as popular?
I’m surprised by how much is still around from when I was little. For example a new edition of Katitzi was recently released, can you imagine! I had one customer who came in and found Pricken, which is from the 40s. The older customers come in and they say ”ah, Pricken, I read that when I was little” and then an 18 year-old comes in and says the same thing. Stuff like that is nice.
You also have a couple books for adults in the store – is there a reason behind that?
Yes, if we think adults should read books we think are important we put them up in here. Like Factfulness, which is a book that everybody should read. We also have yoga books and other books that we think could be helpful for parents.
”I enjoy every day I’m here.”
You started Bokbok even though a lot of bookstores had shut down – what was the biggest challenge for you?
When the newspapers’ economical reports are bad, naturally things are a little harder for us. You can tell then that people are trying to save a bit more money. I think everybody noticed when there was a lot of talk about amortization and mortgages earlier this year. I do think that more bookstores need to specialize in something, like we’ve done with children’s books.
Do you think going a bit more niche is the way to go for independent booksellers?
Yes. It’s horrible to hear about bookstores going belly up in small towns where they’ve been a big part of the cultural scene there. It’s such a shame, but it’s difficult for them to make it work sometimes. One alternative is to also keep an online shop, especially if your store is a little niche.
Online shopping has become increasingly common – is this something you notice?
Very little in this area. The people who live here are very keen on supporting the local shops. We have very loyal customers that come here and buy their books. Our business is dependent on them being able to come here and actually look at the books, rather than just buying them on the website. I think the prizes are irrelevant in the end, because we know our books – we can offer them our expertise and advise.
Is that the best part of your job?
Yes, it’s fun to talk about and read books. I enjoy every day I’m here.
The Murderer’s Ape by Jacob Wegelius
It’s a fantastic story that a lot of people would get sucked into. It’s an adventure novel without compare that 10-99 year-olds would enjoy all the same. It’s kind of jumping right into a Tintin adventure at the same time that it’s not, because it’s both sorrow and joy. You get all of it in that book.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This is amazing. The Swedish translation is incredible. It’s a book that would be able to touch people of different ages. It’s also written in a special way, you might have some trouble reading it because it’s written in verse, it’s not the block of text you’re used to. It flows, almost like a river.
Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space by Dominic Walliman
It’s about space. It’s got amazing pictures and you can really geek out with this one. The best part is that you understand, it explains in a really pedagogical way. It’s great.
Opening hours: Monday 11.00-18.00, Tuesday to Thursday 12.00-18.00, Friday 11.00-18.00, Saturday 11.00-16.00, Sundays closed
Holidays may affect these hours.
Social medla: @barnbokhandelnbokbok