Elizabeth Bluemle and Josie Leavitt

Winged Vocation

For its founders, opening the Flying Pig Bookstore represented the granting of an unattainable dream

by Janet Essman Franz

Life partners and co-owners of Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Elizabeth Bluemle (left) and Josie Leavitt use their mutual affinity for books as a way to embrace their community.

One was a precocious toddler who taught herself to read at age 3 and could recite sentences from adult textbooks before she started kindergarten. The other was a bright little girl who had great difficulty reading. Both became voracious readers and have found their calling in matching people with books they love. Today they are life partners and co-owners of Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne. 

Elizabeth Bluemle and Josie Leavitt had very different childhoods, but took a similar career path. They met in New York City through their jobs at Literacy Volunteers and followed their hearts and intuition to Vermont. As business owners, they have been a welcome addition to the Route 7 business corridor. 

Bluemle grew up in Arizona and Los Angeles. Her mother, Sarah Jane Miller, was an actress with recurring guest roles on Sanford and Son, Quincy, Eight Is Enough, General Hospital and Little House on the Prairie. Bluemle’s father, Robert Bluemle, was a securities lawyer. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her stepfather was also a securities lawyer. Her sister, Tiffany, is three years her senior. 

Bluemle says she was practically born with a book in her hands. “I think I got impatient waiting for them to get the time to read to me,” Bluemle says about teaching herself to read. “They used to trot me out at parties and have me read text books.” Her favorite childhood books were Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand the Bull and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.

Early on Bluemle knew she wanted to write and work with children. “Every job I had revolved around books, kids and writing,” she says. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, she worked in publishing in northern California and New York, where she was production manager for Literacy Volunteers. 

Leavitt grew up on Long Island with her mother, a single parent. Reading did not come easily to her. “I loved books, but I didn’t learn to read until I was 8,” she says. “I had a hard time. I think I was dyslexic and no one knew it.” A reading teacher gave her a copy of P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog. Go! and, she says, “It was like an enormous light went off for me.” As a young girl she especially loved horror books. “I went early into Stephen King and Peter Straub.”

Leavitt studied English at Columbia University and interned in theater. After college she worked for the New York City Opera, then for a children’s agent booking kids for commercials. Simultaneously, she volunteered for Literacy Volunteers teaching illiterate adults to read. 

Leavitt and Bluemle met in 1991 and became close. They were the same age, 27, and shared a passion for books, children and encouraging people to read. Eventually both left Literacy Volunteers to pursue graduate degrees in education. Bluemle became a school librarian and Leavitt went to work as an English teacher in the city schools. 

Darrilyn PetersFlying Pig sells books for children and adults plus puzzles, toys and gifts. Darrilyn Peters is a bookseller.

In 1995, Bluemle and Leavitt took a long weekend vacation in Burlington, and decided they wanted to live in Vermont. “It’s very progressive, but it’s also just so beautiful here,” Leavitt says. They called a real estate agent, found a house they liked and could afford, and “so we said, ‘OK, we’re moving to Vermont.’ We don’t agonize about decisions.” They closed in June 1996 and moved to Charlotte.

They met their real estate agent at a café on the Ferry Road in Charlotte in the old post office building that would become the Flying Pig Bookstore. They loved the building and dreamed of its potential as a business site. When the “for lease” sign went up two months later, they acted quickly. “We saw the sign, called our agent, found out about the rent and signed the lease,” says Bluemle.

At first, they didn’t know what they would do with the space. They considered several retail ideas and decided they really had one choice, Leavitt recalls. “Elizabeth said, ‘The only thing we can do is kids’ books.’ It was the only area where we had real expertise. She knows everything about kids’ books.” 

Bluemle concurs, “In retrospect, I don’t know why we considered anything else, it’s such a natural thing.”

Ten weeks after signing the lease, they opened the Flying Pig Bookstore. The name describes their experience of achieving an unattainable dream. “It was really impossible. I don’t know how we did it,” Bluemle says. “Josie handled the building, getting permits, retrofitting the space, dealing with painters. I ordered the books.”

Today they share roles from ordering books to stocking shelves, meeting with publishers and serving customers. Leavitt does most of the accounting and budgeting, while Bluemle handles the graphics, including producing an annual newsletter with reviews of the store’s new books and creating flyers and ads; manages the website; and arranges merchandise displays. “Often I’m the idea person and Josie’s the practical person,” says Bluemle. “We’re a good balance for one another.” 

The store sells books for children and adults, puzzles, toys and gifts. For 10 years it operated in Charlotte, and Leavitt and Bluemle became entrenched in the community. Leavitt volunteered for Charlotte rescue and performed standup comedy at local venues. Bluemle and a colleague started a community theater project to raise funds to buy books for children whose families used the Charlotte Food Shelf. They made friends and got to know their customers well. 

 “We felt like we were a happy destination for a lot of people. We watched all these kids grow up,” says Leavitt. She recalls one child who started coming to the store with her parents when she was 8 months old. “She’s 12 years old and she still comes in all the time, and now she’s this strong, opinionated reader.”

Bluemle and Leavitt have read most of the books in the store and have a knack for knowing what a particular person will enjoy. 

Shelburne resident Jane Peter, who has been a devoted customer since the store opened, says this is what keeps her loyal to the Flying Pig. “I just walk in and say I need a good book,” Peter says. “They know what I like and I always come away with something I enjoy. They celebrate everybody’s tastes and seem to enjoy helping a wide variety of customers.” 

Matt FrassicaFlying Pig employs three permanent, part-time staffers, such as Matt Frassica, a bookseller, and two parttime high school students.

As the customer base grew, so did the store’s inventory. Leavitt and Bluemle wanted to expand so they could carry more adult titles, increase sales and hire staff. When the Shelburne Inn renovation was begun, they again acted quickly. “The day I saw the sign up on this building, I called Redstone [the developer]. We thought this would be a great location. It was a good size, and we love being right on Route 7,” Leavitt says. “It was a great decision. Business has been phenomenal.”

The new space has ample room for more books and a loft suitable for author events. They now offer a writers’ workshop for aspiring writers to learn from established authors and will soon offer a similar series for illustrators. They hope to start book groups to meet in the loft. “There are endless possibilities for getting the community together and using the bookstore as an anchor,” Bluemle says.

The store employs three permanent, part-time staffers plus two part-time high school students. With employees, they now can take time to pursue other interests. Leavitt still does stand-up comedy and teaches stand-up comedy classes at the Flynn Center in Burlington. Three years ago, she started a series called Stand Up, Sit Down and Laugh, where semi-professional comics perform on stage at the Flynn. She performs regularly at Higher Ground in South Burlington where she coordinates Vermont Comedy Divas. She is also on the radio each Tuesday morning as sidekick to Champ 101.3 hosts Corm & the Coach. “It’s my job to keep those guys in check. It’s really fun. People come up to me and say, ‘Keep talking, I know your voice.” It’s neat.”

Bluemle has completed one book, My Father The Dog, a children’s picture book published by Candlewick Press in April. Another book, Dogs on the Bed, will be published by Candlewick this fall. Her works in progress include a children’s book, How Do You Wokka Wokka?, to be published in 2009, and another about a girl searching for a ghost. 

“Children are the best audience in the world,” she says. “If you ask people to mention a book that was really important in their lives, nine times out of 10 they will recall a book from their childhood.” She is also writing a novel for young adults about falling in love and a contemporary novel about sisters for adult readers.

They remain focused on helping match people with books. Bluemle is especially concerned about getting books to children who otherwise would not have them. She continues her work with the community theater project to purchase books for food shelf patrons, and at the bookstore, she arranged for customers to purchase discounted books for distribution through local charities.

Leavitt finds fulfillment in helping children foster a love of reading. “If I can help someone find a great book — especially kids — that makes my day,” says Leavitt. “If a parent says, ‘My kid’s not a reader,’ I say he just hasn’t found the right book yet. I needed someone to give me Go, Dog. Go!” •