As former teachers, Debbie Manning and Jean Fennacy have a passion for bringing children and books together at their northwest Fresno bookshop Petunia’s Place. And the love isn’t one-sided, as many in the community appreciate the shop for what it provides: The chance to find the perfect children’s book.
“We’ll be in the grocery store and people will come up and recognize us and say, ‘Oh, we love your store,” Fennacy said. “There’s such a warm feeling about that.”
Despite the challenges facing brick-and-mortar bookstores living in an online world, Petunia’s Place continues to survive and even thrive. Formerly devoted solely to children’s books, the independent bookseller at 6027 N. Palm Ave. last year expanded to offer a broader selection of books for adults after Fig Garden Bookstore closed its doors.
The shop does not sell its stock online, although its website does show visitors what books have recently been stocked. Neither owner sees online sellers as an insurmountable threat, as they said many Petunia’s Place customers want to support a local business rather than shop online.
“We can get things in just as fast as Amazon,” Manning said, noting that if an order is placed before noon she can have it ready by next day.
Hard work is a big part of how Petunia’s Place has survived, where other bookstores have not been so lucky, as the shop owners ask themselves ‘What else can we do so that people know we are here?’
“We still have people that will come in and say ‘I didn’t know you were here, and I’ve lived in Fresno for 50 years,’” Fennacy said.
Petunia’s Place has a history that stretches back to the 1970s. It was opened by Beverly Woods in a tiny shop south of Fresno City College, said Fennacy. Later Woods asked her neighbor, Jean Pereira, to join the business and moved it to the southeast corner of Bullard and West avenues.
We were like a lot of other people that have always said, ‘Love to own a bookstore... and we said, ‘Well, why not?’
Jean Fennacy, Petunia’s Place co-owner
When Manning first moved to Fresno, she became one of Woods’s main customers. And Fennacy knew Woods as her third grade teacher. Through these connections, the two of them bought the bookshop about 26 years ago when Woods retired.
“They sent out a letter and we were like a lot of other people that have always said, ‘Love to own a bookstore,’” Fennacy said. “And we said, ‘Well, why not?’”
Although they’ve owned it for decades, helping out in summers and on weekends and handling the shop’s paperwork and bills, Manning and Fennacy have become involved with the store’s day-to-day operations only within the past six years.
When they first bought the shop and got into the minutia of running it, they realized one of them would have to quit or at least take a break from the teaching jobs they both had, Fennacy said.
So Manning took a year’s leave and opened the store, moving it across West Avenue to a shop that was double in size.
When Manning went back to the classroom, she asked Betty Eskes, one of her student-teachers, if she wanted to be the bookshop’s manager. Eskes agreed.
“We’ve been blessed with dear friends,” said Manning. “Our employees have been a godsend. They’ve all been a part of our lives in some kind of entwined way: student-teachers, students and children of teachers.”
One of the shop’s three part-time employees, Amy Lacy, first worked for the store more than 20 years ago when she was in college and knew Manning as a teacher. She began working part time again about two years ago when she had a child and decided she didn’t want to work full time any more.
“The love of books definitely drew me back,” she said. “I’ve always been a customer of the store.”
Lacy acts as the store’s manager and said she does “a little bit of everything” from orders to helping customers to reporting what the store has sold every week to the New York Times and the American Bookseller’s Association for their bestsellers’ list.
“It’s a wonderful, comfortable, happy environment to spend time in,” she said of the current location.
This was part of the appeal when Petunia’s Place moved in 2010 to its current location on North Palm Avenue at Bullard Avenue.
There is not another place like it in town.
Joan Schoettler, Petunia’s Place customer
While the shop is about the same size as its former storefront, the location has a courtyard for special community events such as author signings, Hispanic heritage celebrations in the fall, holiday parties for Halloween and Christmas and book drives for different organizations, Fennacy said. The store used to have story time, but it got too popular and became unsafe with the number of people who would show up, she added.
“The community is who we are,” said Manning. “We are Fresno.”
The store began selling books for adults when Fig Garden Bookstore closed in 2011, leaving Fresno without an independent seller. The store has learned to stock books that women shoppers, such as mothers, would be interested in, some even recommending books the shop should carry.
The bookstore’s passion still lies with children’s books, though, as Fennacy noted that as former teachers, both of them still loved to match a child with the perfect book.
Serena Cantelmi is a customer who appreciates the staff’s book recommendations. She goes into Petunia’s Place at least twice a month, sometimes as often as once a week, and has been shopping there for about 13 years. Before that, she shopped there as a teacher.
She buys books not only for her boys, who she said have grown up in the store, but for herself as well, gravitating toward heartfelt stories.
“They know what my boys love to read and what I love to read,” she said.
The shop is a gathering place for those who value great literature for children, from contemporary to classic, said Joan Schoettler, who has been a customer since about when it first opened. She goes in about three times a month, shopping for her grandchildren now that her son is grown.
“There is not another place like it in town,” she said.
Sarah Anderson: (559) 441-6248; @Sarahsonofander
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sundays.
Phone: (559) 438-1561