December 2015 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Used Books & Cats

It's catnip for many bibliophiles: two novels set in a bookstore and featuring cute kitties. Jenny Kalahar is a bookseller and the author of Shelve Under C: A Tale of Used Books and Cats and its sequel, The Find of a Lifetime, from her Turning Pages series. We asked her about her inspiration, her pets, and what she's working on next. 

ShelveUnderCOct2015Front copy.jpgRRB: I imagine you get a lot of inspiration from your everyday bookselling experiences. How long have you and your husband been booksellers? Do you have a specialty?

JK: Our used bookshops, the customers, and the cats we've fostered have certainly been inspirations for my novels, stories, and poetry. Even though we've never had our own young apprentice--as Kris is in my novels--I based that character's mentoring on the guidance my husband has given me over the years. Patrick opened his first used bookstore at age eighteen, and I met him when he was setting up The Story Shop following his military career. We owned a used & rare bookshop in Michigan and one in Ohio before moving to Indiana where we now sell online from our old schoolhouse home. I've been buying, selling and collecting with him since 1989. Patrick does skillful book restorations, and I handle the online orders and listing. We have a broad selection for sale, with children's fiction, modern literature, music, and theology taking up a large portion of our bookshelves.  

RRB: I guess it goes without saying that you have resident 'bookshop cats'?!

JK: When we had our shop in Ohio, we fostered a few cats at a time from our local shelter and found great homes for more than fifty over the years. Here in Indiana we have seven wonderful cats and a terrific terrier, Weegee.

RRB: How and when did you decide to write a story about them?

JK: Shelve Under C: A Tale of Used Books and Cats began life as a story for very young readers about seventeen years ago. I put it aside and forgot about it, but then uncovered it again a few years ago. It was only about six pages long, but I liked it enough it to write more and more, adding a foster child, Kris, who loves old books and wants to learn from the shop's owners. I first published it in 2012, but then revised and expanded it the next year. My main motivation for writing the novel is the fact that when we fostered cats, and when other businesses in Athens, Ohio, fostered cats and dogs, the local shelter was able to remain nearly kill-free. The business that took over our building still fosters cats. I want to promote the idea of small, un-busy shops as fostering sites, and I want to encourage kids to have a love of reading, book collecting and selling, and book restoration. My novels take a close look at the real daily life of a shop, all told with humor and heart, cat antics and the doings of customers and neighbors as seen from inside a used and rare bookshop.

RRB: Your reviews on Amazon are terrific. Is that what encouraged you to write a second in the series?

JK: Yes, of course! And the reviews are the reason I didn't publish the first sequel I had written. I had veered away from the bookshop and from the core characters, and away from the cats. When I re-read the reviews, I knew that the book I had written as a sequel wasn't what readers would enjoy. Now that The Find of a Lifetime is published, I'm glad that I went back to the bookshop. Bookselling, book-hunting, flea markets, the cats, and even a very rare book find add to the story of the fostered cats and small college town drama and humor. The characters from the first book are fleshed out, and Kris, the apprentice, has an even larger role, learning more about collecting and restoration.

RRB: As an author (and a bookseller) with an obvious interest and love of the book as a physical object, how do you feel about the fact that your books are e-books?
FindofaLifetimeKindleCoverSept92015 copy.jpg
JK: All three of my books are available in softcover and e-book editions. I feel very much that nearly any reading is good reading. Comic books, song lyrics, cereal boxes, and now e-books can all be pathways toward an appreciation of books printed on paper. Or vellum. At first, Shelve Under C was only available as an e-book. If the reviews were awful, I knew I could click my mouse and make it disappear. There's such a timelessness to physical books that it can intimidate an author. The first edition of the first book contains real errors that make me cringe (even the subtitle was wrong!). I don't know if the era of the electronic book will continue to dominate the world of the reader or if hardcovers and softcovers will find more love again, especially with younger readers. But I do believe that collectors will always treasure books that can be held by hand while reading, hugged when finished, and admired on a shelf for a lifetime.

RRB: What are you working on now? Will you continue the series?

JK: I'm writing my fourth book now, a young adult fantasy novel of a peculiar sort that is set in Indiana. And I have a good start on the third in the Turning Pages series, which picks up just a few days after the end of The Find of a Lifetime. I've also started writing a fourth in that series set in the 1980s as a prequel. I would like to find a traditional publisher for the fantasy. A second collection of my nostalgic, fun and unusual poetry--A follow-up to One Mile North of Normal--may be ready next year. An audiobook of Shelve Under C is in production, narrated by actress Beth Bostic. It will be available in January.

Images Courtesy of Jenny Kalahar.