For our next installment of 7 Questions for a Bookseller, we have branched out of the City of Angels and interviewed Marlene England, the co-owner of the Curious Iguana bookstore in downtown Frederick, Maryland. Independent bookstores are thriving in the U.S., especially those with clear community outreach programs and missions. The Curious Iguana’s mission is “Get to know your world,” and the little bookstore has firmly established itself as an institution in the busy downtown area. Michelle Brafman, author of Washing the Dead and Bertrand Court, visited the Curious Iguana for their Sunday Shorts event and absolutely loved it, so of course we had to check back in with our friends in Maryland. We talked to Marlene England, co-owner of the Curious Iguana, and she generously agreed to answer our questions.
1. What inspired you to name the bookstore, “Curious Iguana”?
My husband and I also own an independent toy store (Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts) in downtown Frederick, so we wanted a bookstore name that was somewhat similar. We loved the word ‘curious’ – what could be better for a bookstore? – and then it became a matter of finding a unique animal name that wasn’t already in use by another business. ‘Iguana’ was the winner – and I love that the iguana art on our logo is in the shape of a question mark. It’s an unusual name, to be sure, but it works for us.
2. If you only had to describe your bookstore in three words, what would they be and why?
Well, ‘curious’ has to be one of the three…followed by ‘friendly’ and ‘globally focused.’ Compound words count as one, right?
3. What was the inspiration behind Curious Iguana’s motto: “Get to know your world”?
Books can be such powerful agents of change – they build empathy, increase awareness, expand our understanding of the people and places around us. ‘Get to know your world’ is our way of encouraging people to read beyond their borders, to discover new ideas, new stories, new ways of seeing and understanding this world we all share.
4. You have stated that you take great pains to select global and diverse book selections. How intense is your curating process, and do you try to read every book that you display in your store?
Oh, I wish we could read every book in our store! We do our best, but that’s a lofty goal. We do take careful time with publishers’ catalogs and are very thoughtful about our selections, considering recommendations from staff and customers. Being a small store – just under 1,000 square feet – we have to be selective. That process takes time, but it’s time well spent when we see customers find books they’re looking for, as well as books they didn’t even know they wanted to read until they visited the Iguana.
5. Curious Iguana partners with local businesses to host regular events, like Tuesdays with Tea book club, where your next-door neighbor, Viola!, provides tea, and Supper & Stories, where participants pay to talk about books while enjoying a meal served family-style at Nido’s Italian Restaurant. How important are community and local business relationships to you?
We love our partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits, and we’re fortunate to be located in Downtown Frederick where working together just seems to happen naturally. These partnerships are very valuable to our business – and I think it’s a big part of what makes our downtown so special.
6. A portion of Curious Iguana’s net profits go toward non-profits like Kiva and the Malala Fund. This is a very different kind business model for a bookstore, but one that seems perfect for Curious Iguana. What kind of impact does this model have on your customers and visiting authors?
Curious Iguana was established as a benefit corporation, and we’ve been committed from the very beginning to supporting global nonprofits. It fits well with our mission of ‘Get to know your world’ and holds us accountable to our goal of building a business that does good by doing well. Customers often ask about the large world map behind our counter with pins indicating the countries where we’ve sent money. The map is a good conversation starter, and it shows customers how their purchases are making a difference.
7. Which book do not enough people know about?
Just one? There are so many. I’ll name two that I continue to recommend to anyone who will listen: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Evicted by Matthew Desmond – both powerful nonfiction books that have expanded my understanding of race, our criminal justice system, and poverty.
If you would like to see more of The Curious Iguana, but don’t have a plane ticket to Maryland, here is a video by the Booktuber wordienerd, as she tours the bookstore!
The Curious Iguana has been featured in Publishers’ Weekly in the article, Doing All Right, in which PW checks in on the progress and success of six independent bookstores. It was also noted in the Washington Post upon opening in 2013 and most recently featured in the Frederick Gorilla in “The Rise of the Independent Bookstore.”