If you love beautiful children’s books you need to head to Smallprint, sharpish. We caught up with founder and mum of two, Jenny Thomas, to talk books, business and taking on Amazon.
Smallprint was one of our favourite discoveries at Mr Fox HQ last year. The beautifully-curated collection of unique and unusual children’s books makes great gifting easy and is full of lesser known, independent titles that make inspiring new additions to your own kids’ collections too. And there isn’t a book in the store that you wouldn’t leave on the coffee table either. We chatted to founder Jenny Thomas and bagged Mr Fox readers an exclusive discount while we were at it…
Tell us a little about Smallprint and why you founded it.
When looking at our daughter’s bookshelf we realised that they all felt like they would be here today and gone tomorrow, very few felt like new classics to be treasured and handed down.
At the same time our son was born and our daughter craved more attention, we found story time was the only one-on-one time each day and we were rushing through it regurgitating the same stories over and over, which wasn’t enjoyable for anyone. Cue a need to introduce some new books that would help her navigate a difficult time of the day by directing her thoughts into a book and allow us to feel that we were sharing something special together.
We wanted to curate a collection of books for children from 0-8 that would sit proudly on the coffee table, that are visually arresting, stimulating and supportive to a child’s development. The idea is that you won’t have seen them all before and that they will stretch your imagination and encourage chit-chat between readers. Read them, keep them and then pass them on.
There are so many children’s books being released – what do you look for in the titles you curate for Smallprint?
When we started our main criteria was ‘do we want to look at this book as parents and do we like the look of it as an object in our home’. It sounds shallow but there is such a trend for children’s toys and interiors that compliment your own styles and aesthetics, so why not feel the same way about books?
When we see a new book now we always think about the children we know and question who would like it and why. We look for amazing illustration and graphics as well as novel ideas such as wordless books, spot the difference and interactive elements that will encourage two-way discussions and bright and bold concepts that make learning fun. We are bored of seeing A is for ‘Apple’ – why can’t A be for ‘Awesome’ as it is in Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet? We also try not to encourage any gender divide so avoid overly feminine princess books or masculine diggers or pirates. And we almost exclusively go for hardback, because we urge our customers to keep these books forever or hand them on!
You did a lot of Christmas shopping fairs – what feedback do you get talking to parents about finding books for their kids?
We love doing the fairs because it really gives us a great opportunity to find out a bit about what makes families tick. People seem happy to discover a go-to place where they are guaranteed to find something unusual and a bit different. Like us, a lot of people love giving books as gifts but find that the high street offering lacks inspiration, these books are out there but hard to find because there are so many thousands on the bookshelves or on websites. Plus there is that worry that you will buy something the child already has, which we hope to avoid with our curated collections.
We also discovered that a lot of parents are willing to buy kid’s books for themselves – people are embarrassed to admit that they have a thing for a beautifully illustrated children’s books, but many of our customers are not buying for a child but for an adult with a love of design, graphics, illustration or interiors.
Amazon has been blamed for putting many small book stores out of business – how does it feel taking on the online giant?
Slightly terrifying and if we thought about it then we would maybe consider ourselves crazy! In all seriousness we have rarely considered where we would be down the line but for the time being we believe there is definitely a place for a dedicated online kid’s bookshop selling a handpicked edit. We photograph everything internally, we try to match books for particular interests and ages to make it easier to navigate and we are constantly working on new ways to make it easier to make a decision when browsing the store.
We want to get to know our customers and their children by creating a warm and welcoming hub that we hope will serve us well as we grow. Amazon is a great place and we could never take them on, but we can encourage people to think twice before they give their money to a faceless corporation and instead realise that when they buy from Smallprint, it does actually go into supporting a family business and the occasional vet’s bill for our over-groomed, anxious cat. We trust in people’s goodwill, their belief in us, a growing trend to shop small. If we all buy less but buy better then it makes one hell of a difference to people’s lives and creates a fuzzy feeling inside.
What were your favourite childhood books?
I have a terrible memory so the fact that any memories of books remain is a miracle and must mean they were pretty special. I remember a few amazing books about Oink and Pearl that was a 1980s series about sibling pigs. I had the classic favourites from Beatrix Potter and the Winnie the Pooh books were always special. I was also bit addicted to Calvin and Hobbes comics which belonged to my brother and if I was lucky and didn’t crease the pages I could borrow them.
I loved fairy-tales and nursery rhymes too, which is strange as I now read them to my daughter through slightly gritted teeth as the morals seem so bizarre and frankly they can be seriously disturbing to a 5 year old. And I loved those books where you would read a chapter and then it would direct you to another page further in the book and you could choose how you read them and what direction the story took – they blew my mind.
Which are your favourite kids publishers at the moment?
We try to support smaller publishers that we believe in, our favourites are Big Picture Press, Enchanted Lion Books, Wide Eyed and Gecko. These are pretty well-known but they consistently deliver books that are creative, beautiful and fit our tastes. Wide Eyed are a brilliant London-based publishers who have created this amazing house of gorgeousness where contemporary books are dreamt up by some of the most talented illustrators of today. Like us, they launched in 2015 so we are kindred spirits!
We do occasionally buy from large publishing houses such as Abrams & Chronicle and Tate Publishing because it would be a crime not to include some of their incredible books on our virtual shelves. We really enjoy hunting down those books that are a bit more elusive though. We have started looking further afield to India, America and Australia to broaden our collections.
Any great UK writers, illustrators or publishers we should know about?
We have massive love for Alice Melvin who is a down-to-earth Edinburgh based illustrator creating amazingly intricate drawings, her books are published by Tate publishing. I love supporting her as she is so talented and has a kind soul. We also love Brighton-based Sarah Dyer who has a couple of first concept books that we covet, mainly because she includes all sorts of weird and wonderful items such as aubergines and bats so you aren’t stuck with the same generic objects and colours.
We are big fans of Kay Vincent who is best known for her ‘Ketchup on Everything’ brand and recently launched the Animal Alphabet which is fab – her style is big and bold with retro touches. She is local to us so we are lucky to feed off her creativity in person from time to time.
What is on the horizon for Smallprint in 2016?
We are really excited as this will be our second year and we have loads of plans and are so grateful to everyone who has supported us and kept us going this long! First up we are about to launch a bigger selection of prints – although we’re primarily a bookshop we are also passionate about lovely illustration for the walls so we are growing our print collections to offer more variety whether it’s from Southeast London or the US.
We are currently exclusive UK stockists for amazing wallet cards from So Awesome, a Michigan born, mum-led business too. It’s a genius concept, appealing product with great illustration all backed up by montessori-led teaching. We’ll be expanding our collection to include additional sets across the full range.
We also have our eye on some small publishers from overseas who we would love to have in the Smallprint family, in addition to growing our collections for older kids from 5-8 years. We will also be working on our gift ranges and growing our Book Clubs packages which offer subscriptions for 6 or 12 months. Otherwise we will be finding more people to share with, generating ideas, making it easier for people to find what they want, interviewing illustrators and authors, setting up events, touring the country with our book stall and seeing where it all goes from there!Mr Fox readers get an exclusive 10% off at Smallprint until 31 January 2015. Just use code MRFOX10 at checkout. And don’t miss Jenny’s favourite five picks from the current Smallprint collection to get you started. Shop at www.smallprint-online.com