Tag Archives: books

Lending Book and a Helping Hand

June 28, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

On a recent Monday evening, Omahan Kalli Pettit wheeled a squeaky book cart down a hospital hallway. A pair of teenagers jostled each other as they walked past.

Kalli, not much older at age 18, continued pushing the cart toward a family waiting area where she spotted a father busy on his cellphone and a preschooler bouncing from seat to seat.

“Book on a cart,” the young boy shouted with excitement.

“Would you like to pick out a book?” Kalli asked. 

The father placed the caller on hold to help his son.

“Look, Dad! Dinosaurs!”

Even though the interaction was brief, Kalli says seeing the young boy’s smile stretch from ear to ear was worth every bit of time she spends volunteering at Omaha Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

The Marian High School senior started volunteering with the hospital in summer 2017. Teen volunteer services at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center typically increases in the summer months as young students are on break from school. Kalli started volunteering a few hours each week in June at the hospital’s Kids Camp, which is an area designated for siblings of family members attending routine clinic appointments to long-term care.

Friends and family say she’s always gravitated to helping kids. Perhaps it’s because not so long ago Kalli was in their shoes.

Kalli had a recent episode that forced her to spend a few nights at that very hospital’s sixth floor—the next area in which she planned to wheel the book cart. 

It wasn’t her first trip to the hospital. In 2009, Kalli—daughter of Mark and Kristie Pettit—was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 9.

“I remember being so young when nurses and doctors explained what was happening to my body,” Kalli says. “I was worried all of the time, but remember how calm the nurses and doctors were. They really inspired me to give back. It’s why I’m here today volunteering.”

She wants to spread that support and positivity to other kids.

“Having been a patient there initiated the whole idea,” says Kristie of her daughter’s volunteer work. “She loves to work with kids. Always has.”

“These kids have so much going in their lives. They’re trying to stay strong,” Kalli says. “As a volunteer, you can’t show them you’re sad.”

Kalli volunteers in the Teen Connection at Children’s Volunteer Services with roughly 50 other students to help in various capacities from the book cart to kids camps and hospital greeters.

“She’s been a great volunteer,” says Angela Loyd, a spokeswoman who oversees the Volunteer Services department. “She’s so cheerful and nice when helping families.”

“I want to make kids feel welcome at the hospital. Just knowing their minds are at ease a little bit as we play is worth my time,” Kalli says. “Sometimes we would paint or draw or play house. Really whatever they wanted to do that day. I always felt bad when it was time to leave because I didn’t want to leave.”

Knowing she has the power to make a difference in someone’s life is rewarding, Kalli says. She encourages other young people to consider service opportunities in their areas.

“No matter what, always have a positive attitude,” she advises. “How you express yourself can affect the way other people view you and how they’ll react to you.”

Visit childrensomaha.org for more information.

This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Fresh Paint

March 18, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

From a very young age, Omaha artist Stephen Kavanaugh had a raw talent for art, as well as a wise-beyond-his-years understanding of what it takes to be a professional artist. 

“The first drawing I did was of me and my grandpa fishing, and I was like 4 years old, but I was able to draw all this detail, and ever since then my mom pushed me to keep doing art. She saw something in me, so she even paid for outside art classes,” says Kavanaugh, now 29. “But even at that age, I remember having the thought that it wasn’t easy to do art as a career. Looking back now, that seems like a weird realization to have at age 5, but even then I couldn’t imagine not doing art. There’s something about it that gives me a stability that I don’t get from anything else. So, I’ve always kept with it because it feels wrong to leave it.”    

Kavanaugh’s penchant for drawing ultimately blossomed into an interest in everything from painting to sculpture to graphic design. At age 19 he discovered street art.

“The day I saw Exit Through the Gift Shop I went to Blick, bought all the stencil work to make my first street art piece, and did it that night at 3 a.m. Ever since then I was hooked, and I did that for a year,” Kavanaugh says.

A decade later, now a father of two, Kavanaugh says doing street art isn’t as feasible, but it’s a passion that continues to shine through in his work. His current focus is on painting, particularly mural work and live painting, where an artist creates a painting in front of an audience, often in tandem with live music.

“The live art is something that replaces that rush I would get from being out doing street art. I still feel like a street artist, just not on the streets,” he says with a laugh.

Kavanaugh’s vibrant style is characterized by intensely bright, rich colors and, typically, rounded outer borders. There’s a geometrical feel to his work. An array of shapes, symbols, and characters—in both senses of the word—come together in an animated flash mob of sorts, jumping off the canvas like an unruly, moving mosaic.     

artwork by Stephen Kavanaugh

In addition to street art, murals, and painting, Kavanaugh hasn’t been shy when it comes to exploring niche art forms. He illustrated a children’s book called Number Mountain and also self-published two original art coloring books, Bloom and Roon Toon. From city streets to college classroom seats, and everywhere in between, art has always been Kavanaugh’s driving force. The Omaha native earned his BFA in painting and graphic design from UNO.   

“Graphic design was me trying to take art seriously, but after realizing what graphic design really was, it just didn’t satisfy me enough as an artist,” Kavanaugh says.

But he has no regrets, noting that he got to work on some “cool projects, dream projects, really,” including branding work for Borgata (later Brickway) Brewery & Distillery, creating a key to the city, and design duties for a production of The Wizard of Oz at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Kavanaugh’s also done logo and design work for local bands like Ragged Company and Domestic Blend, not to mention uber-talented musician Aly Peeler, who is also Kavanaugh’s wife and mother to their children, 3-year-old Asher and 18-month-old Otto.   

“She’s an amazing singer,” Kavanaugh says of Peeler. “I really enjoy being married to somebody who works in a different spectrum of art. There’s a great balance there.”

In 2017, after three years supporting himself as a working artist, Kavanaugh took a position at AngelWorks, an arts nonprofit which fortuitously allows him to make a steady living while still doing what he loves.

“AngelWorks is the only art studio in Omaha that works with adults with disabilities, provides them a place to create and display work, and really tries to get them involved in the local artistic community,” says Kavanaugh, who leads classes and outings to various local studios and galleries, and helps create personal portfolios and set up shows allowing AngelWorks clients to showcase and sell their art. He’s also done some stunning collaborative pieces with individuals he works with there.   

“It’s a really awesome program and it’s uncovered a new skill [of mine]. I love those guys, and it’s really cool to see how excited they get when they finish or sell pieces,” says Kavanaugh, who calls his job “challenging and very fulfilling.”

As for his personal artistic pursuits, Kavanaugh hopes to do more live paintings and shows, starting with a January 2018 exhibition at The B Side of Benson Theatre with Maggie Heusinkvelt. Another chief focus for him is doing more mural work.

“Murals bring so much vibrancy and I think Omaha is starting to accept that as a different way of showing off our buildings or as a way for places to show off [what] they are,” Kavanaugh says.

Much as his artistic pursuits have been a patchwork of various endeavors, his mural work graces various, diverse corners of the city—from the Down Under Lounge to UNMC to a local
orthodontics office.    

“For a while I was all over the place, doing live paintings, coloring books, illustration…but it’s nice to have a center and to grow as an artist,” Kavanaugh says. “I always want to evolve instead of being stagnant. Lately, I’ve been coming up with work that’s more quality over quantity, work that I feel proud about.”

This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.

One of Ours

February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“There aren’t a lot of people in Nebraska writing new musicals,” says Roxanne Wach, executive director of Shelterbelt Theatre.

The Omaha theater company is in the middle of its 24th season of producing original work by Midlands theater artists, and Wach reads around 200 original plays a year. But when she discovered the musical Catherland, it stood out from the pack.

A collaboration between Lincoln-based theater artist Becky Boesen and musician-composer David von Kampen, Catherland will open at the Shelterbelt April 21. It’s the latest incarnation of the project after a staged reading was produced at the Red Cloud Opera House in 2015, followed by a workshop at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln.

“I championed the piece because I thought it had such potential. I liked the music to begin with, and that’s a huge hurdle with musicals. I liked a lot of the script and where it’s going,” Wach says. “David has really captured something in the music, and Becky is really talented with her lyrics, and it’s a pretty engaging score.”

It’s hard to imagine a story more quintessentially Nebraskan than Catherland, which is set in Red Cloud, the central Nebraska hometown of writer Willa Cather. The musical focuses on a present-day couple, Jeffrey and Susan, who move from Chicago to Red Cloud. Susan has some reservations about leaving Chicago; but early in their marriage, the couple agreed that once she finished her first novel they would slow down, move to Jeffrey’s hometown of Red Cloud, and possibly start a family.

Boesen explains that when people are experiencing culture shock they go through a honeymoon phase. Jeffrey and Susan are in that phase when “someone crashes into the barn outside and their life starts to unravel as a result, and there’s an immediate life or death problem that has to be solved,” Boesen says. “Willa Cather shows up, too. Susan, the novelist, is not a Willa Cather fan, and that’s a problem.”

That would be the ghost of Willa Cather. Boesen says that a lot of her own writing tends to include ghosts, though the ghosts are not always literal.

“I mean like a missing piece of your heart. Anything that’s missing to a protagonist,” she says. “But in this [show], there are legit ghosts, which is pretty fun.”

Von Kampen agrees, “And I don’t really like ghost stories. I don’t seek out movies or books that are like that, but from a creative standpoint, it feels really good.”

Boesen was born in southern Missouri and von Kampen is originally from Michigan, but they both moved to Nebraska as children. They’ve lived other places thanks to their careers, but are now settled in Lincoln raising their respective families. Boesen and von Kampen are full-time artists and arts educators who met briefly in 2013 while working on another project.
Boesen’s company, BLIXT, is an arts management and consulting firm that produces projects for the Lied Center, Lincoln Arts Council, and other entities. Von Kampen is a musician and composer who also teaches at Concordia University in Seward as well as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Roughly a year after their initial meeting, Boesen talked von Kampen into working as the musical director on a staged reading she was directing.

Von Kampen says, “I remember when (Becky) called, and I was thinking, ‘How can I get out of this?’”

She talked him into working with her, and it went well.

“David said, ‘Hey, don’t you write stuff? We should get together and talk about writing sometime.’ And I said, ‘cool let’s get together,’” Boesen explains.

They discovered their work “sort of sounded alike” and began to share ideas. Boesen had been thinking about her experience as a teaching artist in Red Cloud. Her play, What the Wind Taught Me, ran at the Red Cloud Opera House while on tour, and she says she fell in love with the town.

“You’re driving in Nebraska and all of a sudden you feel like you’re on Mars, because the prairie is like an ocean out there,” says Boesen, who started thinking about Cather and “what it must have been like to live in Red Cloud, Nebraska, in the late 1800s.”

The Nebraska prairie might be considered a character on its own in some of Cather’s work. That striking landscape also has inspired the creative team behind Catherland.

“It’s an exploration of sense of place, what it means to be home, what does it mean to make a commitment, and how does that change over the course of time, and the messy nature of long-term love,” Boesen says.

“I really think they’ve captured something. I’m so excited to be working on it. I just can’t wait for people to see it,” Wach says, impressed with Boesen’s willingness to revise her script. “To have somebody who’s that fearless in the process is a real asset to Shelterbelt in really giving new works their highest potential.”

Wach points out that supporting and nurturing new work by local artists is essential to the vitality of the Omaha theater scene.

“There are very few theaters our size who do new work in a city of our size.” Wach says, “We have a very vibrant theater community, and having new works helps feed it.”

Boesen says she and von Kampen feel lucky to have such a joyful creative process, “We just like making stuff, and we make stuff well together, and we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Visit shelterbelt.org for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Colonial Expansion in Loveland

October 1, 2016 by
Photography by Dana Damewood

On the edge of the Loveland neighborhood stood a modest colonial house. When it was built in 1940, the home had a mere 1,320 square feet. When the Ahlers family bought the home in 2009, they made big plans to overhaul the colonial beauty.

transformations7The Ahlers underwent a 2,600-square-foot addition to make space for their growing family. They enlisted my help with the renovations.

In the Ahlers’ home, it was important to keep the charm of the original colonial style while subtly incorporating modern amenities. I began the four-year renovation process with one goal in mind: “Make the spaces usable, livable, comfortable, and beautiful to the unique needs of the family using this home.” Striving to keep the home’s original design in line with the new addition resulted in some uniquely shaped spaces that were unlike modern counterparts of contemporary construction. My expertise in space planning and construction would bring sense and structure to furnishing otherwise awkward spaces. As a result, I custom-designed many of the furniture pieces exclusively for these rooms.


One of these challenging spaces was affectionately nicknamed the “big empty room.” In the beginning, there was literally nothing in the space other than two dog beds and a child’s trike with plenty of room to ride. Our goal for the space was to create an area where the family could read books together, watch a movie, work from home, or gather with friends and family. I got to work designing the multi-functional space—beginning with wall-to-wall bookshelves nodding to the colonial feel of a traditional home library. The bookshelves were painted dark gray to keep the look updated. Natural grass cloth wallpaper softens the walls, bringing texture and warmth, while bold patterns mix with a contemporary color palette of navy and tangerine to keep the room fresh and modern. The custom draperies diffuse the bright afternoon light, and the wool carpet tiles (perfect for pets) bring cohesiveness to the room. The various furniture groupings allow for many different activities to take place in this versatile space, and now their young son enjoys reading in the room and saves the trike riding for outdoors.

transformations8In the master bedroom, the look is traditional with a fresh color palette. Neutral linen fabrics with a soft damask pattern adorn the bed, while custom draperies in a bright grass-green color, along with black-and-white accents, liven the neutral color palette. I created a small seating area for watching morning cartoons and designed a custom kennel table for the unique use of the space for the family. Finally, what traditional master bedroom would be complete without an en suite bathroom boasting a custom claw-footed bathtub, crystal chandelier, classic black-and-white plaid wallpaper, and puddling green linen drapes?

The kitchen plays center field with honed marble countertops, custom white cabinetry, and an intimate fireplace. A challenge in the kitchen was where to share meals. The narrow footprint was another area where I customized the space for the needs of the family. The light in the morning is truly fantastic in this room. To capture that light and inspire family meals, I designed a narrow dining table stained in a deep black hue, which could take a beating and accommodate the dinette area. The result is a family-style area with room for eight.

There is a cohesiveness in this house that is anchored by the family’s deep-rooted East Coast ties, flair for subtle modernity, and interest in creating family tradition. This house reflects those qualities for this family, and I couldn’t be happier to help create this way of living for them.

Visit asid-neia.org for more information. OmahaHome

*Correction: The printed version incorrectly identified Paul Pikorski of Amoura Productions as the photographer.


The Creative Spirit of Brownville

May 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Jay Tallmon

This article appears in the May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Home.

What’s there to do in Brownville?” wonders Tom Rudloff, owner of The Antiquarium Book Store and Bill Farmer Gallery in Brownville. “Not much. Seven museums, five art galleries, a theatre, a concert hall, an arboretum, a winery, and three bookstores. So, not much.”

Maybe you haven’t heard of it. Maybe you’ve been meaning to get there. Maybe you’ve already fallen in love with the place.

Regardless, Brownville might be America’s only town of 130 residents that a 1,200 word article can hardly begin to synopsize.


Seventy-eight miles south of Omaha, Brownville is anchored like its own historic steamboat, the Spirit of Brownville, in the windblown hills above the Missouri River Valley. It’s one of the few places where you can wake up on the water (River Inn Floating B&B), shop for curios (Gypsy Jack’s Antiques & Oddities), buy rare books from a self-confessed “crazed grammarian” (The Antiquarium), sip locally crafted wine while touring pre-Prohibition era underground brewing caves (Whiskey Run Creek Winery & Vineyard), ponder the horrors of frontier dentistry (Dr. Spurgin’s Dental Office Museum), and purchase a fine broom (Country Brooms Everlasting)…all in the span of a few hours.

Founded in 1854 by Richard Brown, Brownville fell prey to the boom-and-bust cycle that crippled countless frontier towns. Within 20 years, the town had acquired a flatboat ferry, flour and lumber mills, two newspapers, a telegraph line, a high school, a medical college, three brickyards, and the promise of a railroad connection. Then, things fell apart. The railroad went bust. The county seat moved to nearby Auburn. In 1880, the population hit its high-water mark of 1,309. A 1903 fire and multiple floods destroyed several buildings along Main Street, almost destroying any hope of revival.

“Billy the Kid stayed here once,” says George Neubert, former director of Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum of Art and current curator/owner of the newly opened Flatwater Folk Art Museum. “He was going to rob the town, but when he realized we had no money, he went to Missouri.”


That’s not the end of the story. Brownville lay dormant. Slowly, driven by arts, crafts, niche entertainment, historical preservation, books, local restaurants, museums, and the sublime geography of the river valley, the town began to flourish again, albeit in a more contemplative, meaningful way.

I’ve been meaning to visit for several years. When I finally do come down to explore the village, which is supposed to have the most vibrancy per square inch than anywhere else in the state, I’ve chosen the wrong day. Almost everything is closed Mondays.

So, instead of entering galleries and historic buildings, I walk around admiring the well-preserved architecture, peering into darkened windows, and scribbling. As I press my cheeks against a glass bulletin board to read the schedules, a grey minivan captained by a senior couple rolls up behind me.

“Are you an architecture student?” says the amiable man behind the wheel.

“No, I’m writing an article about Brownville.”

“Oh, we thought you might be an architect,” the woman says. “A bunch of UNL students have been coming down here for a class project. Is this your first time? Do you want us to show you around? We’ll drive you.”


Being the kind of person who accepts rides from strangers, I enter the van.

Moments later, I’m now friends with George and Eva Neubert, owners of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum. Flatwater specializes in art “that doesn’t have a label next to it,” George explains. As a former director of Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum of Art, he knows art, art history, and curation. And he believes that the most exiting work is what goes on outside the mainstream.

“There’s an authenticity that I found in a lot of folk art that the thousands of MFA students producing wonderful, well-sculpted, products didn’t have the kind of angst that true folk art had. Plus it’s one of the most ethnically diverse collections in America.”

But why Brownville?

“When you consider a town of 130,” George says, “you’ve got more things happening culturally—per capita—than anywhere else
in Nebraska.”

Across the village on the hill at 309 Water Street in the historic Nebraska State Teachers’ Association building, Tom Rudloff’s Antiquarium contributes heavily to the cultural fabric here.

After nearly 40 years as Omaha’s de facto den of intellection, the Antiquarium relocated to Brownville in 2008. The new place contains over 150,000 rare and used books and is modeled after the famed Long Room of Dublin’s Trinity College Library. Despite moving to a little-known town bordering the state of Missouri, the Antiquarium still attracts visitors from around the world seeking what they won’t find anyplace else. Together with the Brownville Concert Series, the Antiquarium is making this village a global destination spot.


“The scenery is lovely and so is the air,” Rudloff says. “At least before the nuclear plant blows apart. Do I sound cynical? I’m a loudmouth, that’s what I am! At 76, how’s it going to get me in trouble?”

I ask what the store hours are.

“We don’t have hours,” he declares triumphantly. Then, popping up from his chair, he glides over to the old-time, hand-cranked cash registers and returns with a more definitive answer, which he reads aloud:

“Open 9 or 10 most days, some days as early as 7:30, sometimes as late as 11 or 12. We might close at 4:30 or later, sometimes midnight.”

It’d be a good idea to call first.

On my most recent trip to Brownville, I end the day with a burger at the Lyceum Café, a diner/bookstore/gallery that serves as the village focal point. On this Saturday evening, waitress Ashley Robertson zigzags between dining room, cash register, art gallery, and kitchen, balancing six huge plates while still moving and greeting people by name.

“I’ve loved the tiny town ever since I began working here eight years ago,” Robertson says. “If you are a person who loves nature, history, and homes with character, Brownville is the perfect town. My two kiddos and I enjoy walking down to the river, walking the Steamboat Trace Trail and the Whiskey Run Creek Trail, which is an absolutely gorgeous little trail, especially in fall.”

During the summer, Robertson and her family attend the Brownville Village Theatre, listen to weekly live music sponsored by Whiskey Run Creek, eat treats at the local ice cream parlor, enjoy Fourth of July activities, and search for treasures at the Brownville Flea Market.


Everyone I’ve met has mentioned the flea markets. They’re a huge deal, shutting down Main St. for three days while tourists and vendors flood the town. This year, the 59th Annual Spring Flea Market runs May 23 – 25. Over 260 antiques & collectibles dealers, food vendors, artists, and craftspeople will attend this year’s events. If you want to stay the whole weekend, you have 11 accommodation options, including places called The Actor’s Residence and Gypsies Nook. Look out for the 60th Annual Fall Flea Market, which runs September 26 – 27.

If Billy the Kid came back to Brownville now, he’d find plenty to steal.

On the Move

April 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally Published in March/April/May 2015 B2B.

This isn’t the first time the owners of The Bookworm have done this whole move thing. Beth and Phil Black have owned the independent bookstore for nearly 30 years and last fall they moved into their third location, anchoring the new Loveland Centre at 90th Street and West Center Road.

It’s a move the couple felt necessary for the future of the store.

Since the recession, the climate for brick and mortar booksellers, like many other industries, has been less than kind. Yet The Bookworm, which opened at Regency Court in 1986 and then moved to Countryside Village in 1999, continues to serve a faithful reading public.

“We’ve got loyal customers,” says Beth Black. “Omaha supports local. Omaha is incredible in how it gets behind local businesses. And we’ve got wonderful workers here who really love books. Who want to put the right book into people’s hands.”

“We are noticing more young families coming in and it’s a better layout—everything on one level,” Black says. “The expansion is good. There are a lot more people saying it’s easier to get here and we are seeing more people from Council Bluffs, Papillion, and Ralston. It’s been a good move.”

The layout is different, and the wide-open look has led some people to think the store is a new business. A lot of the “coziness” of the old Countryside Village location was out of necessity due to cramped spaces. For some customers, the change has taken some getting used to, Black says.

“We went through the same things when we moved from Regency,” she says. “It’s just different—it’s a change. Our customers take ownership in the store. It’s their store. The physical store has changed, but nothing else. We’ll hear moms come in and say, ‘See they still have cookies’ and, ‘Look. Carl the dog is still here.’”

Several recent trips to The Bookworm, both during the week and on weekend days, saw a good number of browsers, very similar to typical traffic at the old Countryside Village location. Black says another thing the store has going in its favor is the support of the city. Omaha, she says, doesn’t just shop local; it’s also a very intelligent city.

“People read here,” she says. “Even people with all their electronic devices they still like a book. And whenever there is an event in Omaha people call us to sell books.”

Black says The Bookworm will be selling books at the Holland Lecture Series for the upcoming appearance of activist and author Angela Davis on March 4. The Bookworm is involved every year in the Berkshire Hathaway weekend.

“Everyone wants to know what Warren and Charlie are reading,” she says. “They both are big readers and promote reading.”

Black says she’s sure this is the final move for The Bookworm. She says that the staff looks forward to being a part of Omaha for a long time to come.


Bricks & Molder

February 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 2015 Encounter magazine.

The rustic charm of Jackson Street Booksellers is practically an undisputed fact amongst Omahans. Narrow and crooked aisles, packed with books, wind back into the store in a seemingly endless labyrinth, scattered along the way with haphazard stacks of more unshelved books. Piles of unpacked boxes brimming with new book arrivals, crowd the store’s front entrance. A peek behind the curtain into the staff section reveals more mountainous piles of unsorted books, subjects ranging anywhere from Christian artifacts to World War II history. The entire place smells like the dust that drifts off old pages, and ink—lots of it.

It’s somewhat hard to believe that this sprawling jungle of a library—a bibliophile’s nirvana—was nothing more than a decrepit vacancy on 13th and Jackson in 1993.

“The block was completely abandoned,” storeowner Amanda Lynch said. “No condos, no Upstream’s across the street. The windows were all blown out. Just one bookstore to pioneer the block.”

Lynch, along with fellow storeowner Carl Ashford, traveled the country first for a few months, then over the course of several years starting in the summer of 1992, they examined and handpicked books from various stores, sales, and collections from “one side of the country to the other,” in Ashford’s words. Although they picked up the book trade in their hometown of San Francisco, Ashford and Lynch eventually settled in Omaha to open a store stocked with the nearly 100,000 works they had collected. They were later joined in the business by Sara Adkisson-Joyner, a fixture of the store’s staff for 10 years now.

Lynch said they expected the store to last maybe two years or more. Almost 22 years later, Jackson Street Booksellers remains a hub of quiet activity for a variety of readers—which, according to its storeowners, is the fun of the job. Although Ashford admits that rare book-collecting can be tedious and time-consuming, new faces are a good way to keep his job refreshing.

“Everyday I learn something new, like Vietnam in 1961 or some thing,” Ashford said. “I like the idea that as long as I’ve been doing this, I know probably half of the one-percent I could possibly know, as far as books are concerned.”

Lynch agrees.

“I like the interaction with the people who come in,” she said. “This may sound corny, but in this business, you can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s always a revelation to see what people are reading.”

As for types of books that Jackson Street amasses, Lynch claims they collect works from all subject fields, from a generic price range to “very eclectic, collectible books.” Many customers nowadays bring in books to sell, which are then hand-selected by the store’s three employees. Some purchases are house calls. Lynch recounts one time in which a customer offered them a collection of over 10,000 western Americana books that had been preserved in his family since the 1848 California Gold Rush.

Ashford notes that a handful of celebrities have also meandered through the shelves of their bookstore, most recently David O. Russell, the director of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Ashford added that in a speech Russell gave at the Holland Center, he mentioned their store “quite a bit.” Among the other icons that have passed through Jackson Street are director Alexander Payne, comedian David Sedaris, classical pianist Emanuel Ax, actress Laura Dern, and “a lot of rock guys that come into town.”

Although both Ashford and Lynch refuse to divulge their favorite books over the years (“It’s like picking a favorite child,” Lynch said), the “world of book-collecting,” as Ashford puts it, remains fresh through the customers that frequent the store. Those who wander in request a range of reading material anywhere from classic American literature to Haitian history—or even books about the process of making books.

“It’s always fun to meet relatively interesting people,” Ashford said. “Especially younger people, twenty-somethings. When I first moved here, Omaha was kind of sleepy. There’s more young energy in the city now.”

As for more intriguing customers, Lynch cited one example she recalls in which a handful of farmers in overalls ambled into the store one day—and bought entirely heavy-duty philosophy books.

“It’s amazing how revealing it is about people and the kind of books they buy,” Lynch said. “Someone you wouldn’t know on the street is buying the most esoteric or racy or brilliant math book, and he looks like the most ordinary person. I’m constantly amazed by people.”



From Stage to Page

October 6, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

After 28 years directing one of the nation’s top youth theaters, James Larson knows how cats talk. They tend to be a bit snooty. They certainly like to think they’re smarter than your average talking dog.

So shifting to writing children’s literature after decades directing the Omaha Theater Company for Young People at The Rose wasn’t that big of a leap, Larson says. Especially since Larson also has written stage adaptions for some of America’s most beloved children’s books.

“Writing fiction is quite a bit of fun,” says Larson, who adapted, among others, The Little Engine That Could and Mercer Mayer’s There’s an Alligator Under My Bed for national tours. “I’m usually limited to the space on a stage. In a book, nothing limits your imagination. I can have rocket ships blasting off to the moon. Pigeons can talk. It’s liberating.”

It’s a pleasure to witness that imagination unbound. His new book, “A” is for The Alchemist is a pure joy, a book seemingly written by a seasoned literary veteran rather than a first-time novelist.

“A” is for The Alchemist, a tale of a brother and sister (Winnie and Winslow) and their cat and dog pitted against a mad scientist, has exactly what fans of the Theater Company would expect from Larson: Vivid, fun, young characters, dastardly antagonists, a frolicking adventure and, yes, some lovable and pitch-perfect animal characters.

While Larson may have been steeped in the storytelling art, he did struggle with some of the novel demands of writing literature. For one, when you have 255 pages of story, you have a lot more story to tell. That means more backstory. Much more than in stories for the stage, Larson had to get to know everything possible about his characters and the landscape in which they live.

“To make them come alive, you have to know these characters so well,” he says. “I’ve written so much just in the process of getting to know them and trying to get to understand the craft. While some things about writing may be easier because of my profession, in some ways, writing this book is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

One of Larson’s longtime collaborators, Mark Medoff, winner of both the Tony Award and Olivier Award for his play Children of a Lesser God, effused about his friend’s skill at storytelling. Larson and Medoff have collaborated on several productions over the years. Medoff says he’s excited to see Larson try his hand at fiction.
“James became one of my heroes,” Medoff says. “He is such a talented artist and humble and generous human being that it’s not shocking he made the Omaha Children’s Theater into an international success.

“I so look forward to reading his book—and my grandchildren reading his book,” he says. “I know it will enhance my respect for…this dear and unique man.”

The book is already beginning to garner significant positive reviews.

Kirkus Reviews wrote that Larson “has written a well-paced story with all the ingredients to keep kids enthralled.” A Clarion Review piece said the book “is a promising start to Larson’s new series, which will appeal to children and young adults seeking an action-packed novel with some fantastic twists.”

Yes. Winnie and Winslow and their friends are scheduled for many more adventures, Larson says.

“I really like these characters, I really enjoy spending time with them and exploring their lives,” he says. “I honestly can see writing about them until I’m—I dunno—89 or so. That’s how much I care about them.”

Of Sophocles, Mutants, and Warhol

August 11, 2014 by

My wife, Julie, and I have amassed a library of perhaps 75 children’s books for story time with our grandkids, Easton (4) and Barrett (3). I’m also augmenting the collection with titles that were my faves as a kid.

Hold on a sec. To describe them as mere “titles” doesn’t paint the whole picture. I’m now on a kick of haunting antique stores and used book shops in search of early ’60s editions of works like The Snow Treasure (Marie McSwigan, 1942), a tale of heroism that finds Norwegian schoolchildren devising an ingenious scheme to keep a hidden stash of gold out of Nazi hands, and Daybreak: 2250 A.D. (Andre Norton, 1952), a post-apocalyptic adventure where the mutant-battling protagonist stumbles upon the ruins of a place that was apparently once called “New York City.”

The Snow Treasure is still in print and could be acquired with a few clicks of a mouse. But I don’t want just any copy of this classic. I want to read from the exact same edition with the exact same cover art that I so cherished as a young boy. It is difficult to put into words, but I think there is something magical—almost transcendent—about the reading experience when connecting to the past through vintage books.

A love of old books, avid readers already understand, can sometimes lead to the most unexpected of discoveries. Did you know, for example, that Andy Warhol began his career as an illustrator? He gained fame in the ’50s for his ink drawings used in, of all things, shoe advertisements. And before executing his first soup can, the artist augmented his income by illustrating children’s books. He was also known for his cats. Lots and lots of cats, just like the ones from Warhol’s work shown on this page from “Sophocles and the Hyena” (Best in Children’s Books No. 33, 1960).

The grandkids don’t care about the provenance of the books we select, but their grandpa is treating the collection process as something akin to a sacred quest, a decidedly idiosyncratic one that speaks to the power of memory and the magic found in dusty, musty volumes of the printed word.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” begins an old adage. “The man who never reads lives only one.”

I want my grandsons, Easton (4) and Barrett (3), to live those thousand lives. Now with the addition of Andy Warhol, let’s make that 1,001.