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Staff Profile: Michelle Spence

I am a reader, writer, worrier, and do-list maker, a combination that served me well during my 20-plus years as a science writer and editor. Yet it surprises me to look back and find that I did not grow up with bedtime stories or a book in my hand at the dinner table—and I double-checked with Mom. We both recall that I was part of an experimental reading program in which vowels (my mom says consonants, too) were assigned colors, and reading comprehension was evaluated through a box of leveled filing cards. When I was singled out as a proficient reader, I was assigned an extracurricular book that I only pretended to read by moving the bookmark periodically (not an omen of my future academic life, I assure you).

Required reading began to filter into my school life, but reading for the joy of it did not take hold until I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in my early teens. I don’t know if it was Francie’s perseverance or the functioning dysfunctional family that swept me away, but soon after I checked out every other book by Betty Smith from our city library. Why that book at that time? It wasn’t a school assignment or friend’s recommendation, and NPR had barely been invented. Reaching back, all I can think is that it fell from the sky and into my open hands at just the right moment.

I kept up my extracurricular reading through college and graduate school, but it wasn’t until we had kids that I witnessed the real enchantment of books. Bedtime stories were as routine as bedtime baths, and library storytimes were the first thing I sought out when we moved from Oregon to Washington to California with one and then two young kids. Seeing my 1-year-old daughter “read” Edward Lear and Jan Brett’s The Owl and the Pussycat still sparks my recommendation of that board book. And when I sent my college student son a photo of me with Frog and Toad, he recited by heart a quote from one of Arnold Lobel’s books.

Discovering the books that my kids liked turned into hearing about books that they loved and thought I should read. Now I also rely on the kids who I see in our section over and over, as well as my fellow booksellers, to tell me what to read next. Gā handed me Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam & Dave Dig a Hole just as my oldest was filling out college applications, and Patricia Maclachlan’s The Poet’s Dog right after we lost our family dog, and each I found unbearably comforting. Last week Stephanie gave me Beth Ferry and Juana Martinez-Neal’s picture book Swashby and the Sea to review, and I was a believer after my first look at those swirling ocean waves, which she knew I would be. Timing is everything—for my favorite books and those of my kids—and I’m always striving to get my timing right as a bookseller in the kids’ department at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Michelle Spence has been a bookseller in the children’s books department at Bookshop Santa Cruz since 2014 and has been buying and displaying the kids’ sale books for the last several years.