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A Storybook Bookstore for Children of All Ages

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San Diego

"Mommy, mommy, I found a castle," a breathless Max Cantlupe cries out as he tracks down his mother and escorts her to a cozy corner of the store. There, as promised, is a kid-sized fortress where the preschool set can play and surround themselves with the books that someday will transport them to distant planets, ancient Greece, or maybe inside the wondrous world of worms.

As Max settles down in the castle, his 7-year-old brother, B.J., searches the shelves for books that suit his fancy. Soon, he is drawn to a book about Picasso. Later, the voracious reader follows his mother, Michele Molnar, around the shop. He reads Dogzilla aloud to her, as she shows her out-of-town visitor the delights of The Prince and the Pauper, a bookstore that caters to the child in all of us.

The children's bookstore sells new books, both the best sellers and the more selective fare. But its specialty is collectibles. It stocks some 50,000 out-of-print or used titles--some dating as far back as the 1700s--and conducts searches for scarce books.

Reading for Pleasure

Here at The Prince and the Pauper, a dozen people are still browsing well after the shop is supposed to have closed for the night. But it's that kind of homey place where the owners, Jack and Lorrie Hastings, seem to be more interested in letting their customers lose themselves in the tens of thousands of new and used volumes than in scooting them out at closing time.

And lost they could become if Hastings were not around to guide them through the labyrinth of rooms that he continues adding to keep up with the burgeoning business. Within the small alcoves, customers can while away the hours on wooden chairs and padded benches, undisturbed lest another customer wanders their way.

The bookstore has both the look and feel of a bygone era. The wooden shelves are weathered, and old glass cases show off first editions. The moment patrons enter the door, the scent of aged books greets them.

New and old stuffed animals dangle from the ceiling and perch atop the bookcases, watching over the comings and goings below. A live parrot chatters to passersby from his cage in one room. In another, Hastings orders his yellow cockatiel to quiet down so he can talk with a reporter who has come to call. All that's missing are a couple of cats stealing around corners or napping nearby. They, too, were once part of the business. But Hastings sent one cat home when it grew impatient with grasping children and then sent the other along to keep the aggrieved feline company.

But the Hastings' business operations are as modern as the atmosphere is old-fashioned. Modems and faxes and toll-free phone lines enable them to find books and help customers from across the country. Hastings pulls out a thick pile of search requests that have poured in. Most come from throughout California on this particular day, but some have come from as far as Raleigh, N.C.

And what are the most common customer requests? First and foremost, Hastings says, is Fun with Dick and Jane, the basal reading series that baby boomers grew up on and now wax nostalgic for. And second on the list, says the somewhat chagrined shop owner, is Little Black Sambo.

They, however, are not necessarily the most expensive. Among the scarcer books that have become favorites are Mr. Bear Squash You All Flat, which he sells for about $150, and Dr. Goat, which can run anywhere from $50 to $125.

Many of the books, though, are priced low for parents who might not otherwise be able to afford them. Some paperbacks go for $1 and hardbacks for $2 to $3. Customers can also sell books to The Prince and the Pauper if they are in good condition and get cash or trade credit.

With a Child's Heart

Hastings says it was pure serendipity that led him and his wife into the children's bookstore business. As a cable-systems trainer for the Times Mirror Co., Hastings met a student who persuaded him to help out with a weekend collectibles business. He found somelittle books from the 1930s that the dealers swooped down on. They eventually filled their stalls solely with books.

Then in 1988, Hastings and his wife opened their own business. When it grew too large in 1990, they moved to their present address, where the couple bought out a block of buildings so they could expand. Since then, he has immersed himself in the lore of the books he sells and the behind-the-scenes stories of the authors.

He talks about Kay Thompson, the reclusive author of the Eloise books. Though there has been much demand for her series, she won't allow publishers to reprint some of her books, which were intended for adult audiences but caught on with the small fry instead.

Hastings also shows his visitor how the same stories have been changed ever so slightly with each printing. The original Eloise, published in 1955, shows Eloise in the bathroom and makes reference to hating the Peter Rabbit character. Both the bathroom scene and the Peter Rabbit comment are missing in later editions.

Many of the customers don't want the books for children but for themselves--in many cases to replace books from their childhood. They are the books that the adults loved as children, Hastings says, and "in loving them, the children destroyed them."

The visiting reporter, for instance, is overjoyed to discover the Trixie Belden mystery series she relished in her adolescent years.

Longing, of course, knows no age boundaries, a point driven home by one of Hastings' 8-year-old customers. Peering at him over a glass-topped case, she holds out her money to buy a book. "I have been looking for this book ever so long," she explained.

Three-year-old Max, though, has put away his childhood daydreams to deal with more practical matters. With his dad, Joe Cantlupe, sitting beside him, Max is plumbing the What Do You Do With a Potty pop-up book.

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