"When pigs fly" means, of course, "never," and in the past few decades, successful independent bookstores have been almost as rare in the Burlington area as airborne swine. So the Flying Pig Bookstore's name is appropriate, even as it evokes fanciful images from the kids' books that have been the shop's mainstay.
Many local readers still think of the Flying Pig as a specialty children's bookstore. But a recent move from Charlotte to the former Shelburne Inn has enabled owners Josie Leavitt and Elizabeth Bluemle to expand their inventory - which, they point out, has included adult titles for the past seven years. "We really wanted to carry more adult books, partly for the customers and partly for ourselves," says Leavitt.
They've been expanding in the realm of readings, too. On Friday, May 4, the bookstore hosted Valentino Achak Deng, the "lost boy" of Sudan whose harrowing story Dave Eggers told in his best-selling book What Is the What? Deng was originally scheduled to speak in the store's new 1000-square-foot Loft. But so many people called to request tickets that the event was moved to the gym of the Shelburne Community School.
There, on Friday evening, tall, nattily suited Deng addressed a multi-age audience of about 250. In a commanding, heavily accented voice, he described his immigration to the U.S. and his dismay when he learned why his original flight - scheduled for September 11, 2001 - had been cancelled. While Deng was a polished speaker, there was no mistaking his sincerity as he asked the audience to relate his story to their own lives: "Your problems are minimal, and you can deal with them."
How did the Flying Pig snag Deng for his only bookstore appearance in Vermont? Bluemle explains, "One of our staff members, Matt Frassica, was an intern at McSweeney's" - Eggers' hip, San Francisco-based literary quarterly. Frassica, a recent English M.A. from McGill University, proposed and coordinated the event.
Nowadays, the Flying Pig has a diverse staff of six, ranging from 25-year school library veteran Juanita "JP" Schittina to high school sophomore and fantasy fan Dianne "PJ" Laberge. But in 1996, when the store opened, it was the brainchild of Bluemle and Leavitt, who'd recently arrived from New York City. Both women had left careers in education, but "came up here without jobs planned," Bluemle recalls. Within two months, she noticed a "For Rent" sign on Charlotte's former post office.
"Because there's so little in Charlotte that's for communities, I just immediately wanted that building," Bluemle says. "About 10 weeks later, we opened the doors to the store." In their third year, they bought the building. "It was a perfect place to have a bookstore, off the beaten path," Bluemle says. "But when people found it, they tended to come back."
Still, the 625-square-foot Charlotte space couldn't accommodate the needs of a burgeoning business. By moving to Shelburne, Leavitt explains, "we've doubled our size." At the same time, adds Bluemle, "We made a conscious decision to become a general store."
Bluemle says the Flying Pig carries about 40,000 titles, including current adult fiction and nonfiction best-sellers and "a pretty deep backlist of fiction." Like the local megastores, it offers the "standard adult hardcover discount" of 25 percent off cover price - a surprise to customers who expect independent stores to have boutique prices, she points out.
Essex's 26-year-old Book Rack and Children's Pages closed just last March. By expanding, is Flying Pig rushing into the breach? Bluemle wouldn't phrase it quite that way. "We were so sorry to have [The Book Rack] close, because there's a need for independents," she says. "I hope that we're filling some of the needs of those customers."
Flying Pig promises to do that with its roster of upcoming events. On July 20, the store has scheduled "Midnight Muggle Madness" to greet the release of the new Harry Potter book. But many of its guests will appeal to older readers, such as Chris Bohjalian on May 10 and University of Vermont biologist and memoirist Bernd Heinrich on May 15. On May 23, the store will welcome Cape Cod author Peter Abrahams, whom mystery fans know for his cerebral thrillers such as Oblivion and End of Story. Abrahams writes mysteries for kids, too - making him an appropriate guest for a bookstore that now serves old and young alike.