Wonderland, a new Manchester store where reading is about more than books

Deirdre Shaw opened Wonderland Books & Toys at 245 Maple St. in April. Photo/Maureen Milliken

MANCHESTER, NH – Deirdre Shaw had long dreamed of opening a bookstore for kids. When that dream finally began to become reality, it formed around the idea of accessibility. Not only the physical accessibility for those with disabilities, though. Shaw wanted the store to be in a neighborhood accessible to city residents who may not be able to jump into a car to take them where they want to go. She wanted items that were accessible to people whose budgets may have little room for extras, like books and toys.

She wanted, too, a store that would recognize that making reading accessible to all kids may look a little different than simply books on a shelf.

The result is Wonderland Books & Toys, which opened at 245 Maple St., in April in space that formerly was home to Double Midnight Comics and Collectibles. [Double Midnight moved to 252 Willow St. in late 2022.]

Manchester’s population ranges from below the poverty line to 1-percenters, Shaw said. “I want to make sure to hit all the levels. I didn’t want anyone to come in here and not be able to get something.”

“Something” goes well beyond books. The store’s many sections – from age groupings that comprise infant to young adult, to topics like science, outdoors, sports, family, “Health, Body and Mind,” and many more. Most sections include accompanying toys and activities. She also sells games, stickers, small toys, and candy. Prices across the store range from less than a dollar to $60.

The toys are key, including being part of the reading experience as either a gateway or an aid to reading, Shaw said in an interview at the store with Ink Link.

“There’s only so much you can do with books alone,” for many young readers, she said. Accompanying toys “can help tell the story.”

Tote bags at Wonderland Books & Toys are decorated with a logo designed by owner Deirdre Shaw’s niece. Photo/Maureen Milliken

When she was in high school, Shaw worked in the children’s section of a library and fell in love with children’s literature, including noting specific illustrators and following their work. She originally wanted to be a children’s librarian and was one for three years at a Catholic school after she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where she focused on psychology and literature. But her career path took some detours, and jobs working for the University of Denver, where she was pursuing a library science degree, ultimately led to a career as an event planner. 

Along the way she also had her first retail job, at a clothing store, and discovered a love and affinity for that type of work as well. 

“I loved helping people,” she said, particularly helping them figure out what they were looking for and finding something that worked for them.

Before moving to Manchester, Shaw and her husband, Duncan, lived in Massachusetts, where Deirdre worked part-time at bookstores, including the Make Way for Ducklings pop-up bookstore in Faneuil Hall. That experience provided a rich learning environment.

“I had a lot of questions” for the people who ran the stores, she said. There was a lot to learn, particularly about how to choose stock for stores.

The experience also helped her refine her vision.

“That’s when I decided to do books AND toys,” she said.

The Shaws moved to Manchester eight years ago, and the book and toy store dream finally became reality this year.

Duncan Shaw arranges stuffed animals in a display case decorated with playing cards as part of the Alice in Wonderland theme at Wonderland Books & Toys. Photo/Maureen Milliken

The name Wonderland comes from Shaw’s love for the Lewis Carroll books, both “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Through the Looking Glass.” 

“It’s one of my favorite books,” she said. Her father is of Cuban heritage and would read it to her in Spanish when she was a child.

An Alice theme runs through the store in its décor and artwork, some of which was created by a niece who is a graphic designer. Of course, there’s an Alice section front and center.

There are sections, too, for parents and other adults. For instance, one with books about how parents can talk to and support kids around topics like body image, mental health, and racism. The “Health: Body and Mind” section has books for both kids and their parents about how to deal with illness or mental health challenges. Among the toys in that section are plushes that depict brains on the autism spectrum, or with ADHD.

The board game section is popular with all ages, and the store also has games that go beyond traditional board games. Shaw’s hottest product is Buildzi, by Carma Games. Buildzi has blocks of different shapes and colors that participants must form into a tower depicted on a card. The first one to build the tower correctly wins. As Shaw and her husband demonstrate the game, and then Carma’s original game, Tenzi, it’s clear that the games are not just for kids. Not only are they just as much fun for adults, but they’re the type of game that kids and adults can play together, on equal footing.

While some of what the store sells is cross-generational, like Buildzi and Tenzi, in general the store encourages parents to become involved in their kids’ reading journey. The layout of the space, including groupings of comfortable chairs, invites browsing and interaction. 

Shaw also wants the store to become an active community space. She already has a story time – she crowd-sourced time and day on Facebook in order to find a convenient time that would not compete Manchester Public Library’s story times.

She plans to host author talks by children’s book authors, acoustic jazz-folk music evenings, game days for younger kids, and game evenings for teens. 

An empty 1,000-square-foot room at the back of the store will soon be event space that can be rented out for kids’ birthday parties.

When Shaw was planning her store, she didn’t want to compete with The Bookery, on Elm Street. “It’s an adorable store,” Shaw said. “I love it, I love the feel of it. They do great events.”

She was looking to fill a different niche, in a different neighborhood. She said the focus on kids, as well as Wonderland’s location in the heart of the city, helps do that.

“I wanted to be somewhere that was walkable, had parking, and was on bus routes,” she said. “Because if people can’t get here, what’s the point?”

And people have been getting to Wonderland, including customers who live in the neighborhood. Many tell her they’re excited about having a store where they can bring their kids or shop for gifts for kids, that’s within walking distance.

“People who live here have been awesome,” Shaw said.

She runs the store herself and is the lone employee, with Duncan pitching in. It’s still a work in progress, but she likes where it’s going. It’s all driven by an underlying philosophy.

“I really feel that kids grow up so fast, everything is stress stress stress,” Shaw said. “They need time to be kids. To read and develop that imagination.”

Wonderland Books & Toys, 245 Maple St., is open Tues. – Sat. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Check the website, which is still under construction, for updates. For more information call 603-628-2866​.