Imagine that you are the author of one of the most successful franchises of children's books in publishing history: To date, nine books and three movies, and more to follow. You're happily married, raising your kids in a small New England town. So what do you do next with your life?
If you're Jeff Kinney, creator of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, you build a bookstore.
Not an homage to your own career. Instead, a bookstore/meeting facility/general hangout place/spot for kids to see where Jeff works. It's called Unlikely Story and it opens in May on the grounds of a general store that served Plainville, Massachusetts for a century and a half.
So why would Jeff Kinney go and do a thing like that?
"For the people of Plainville," he says, "this was the most important spot in town. For generations, this is where people came to shop, have conversations, or wait for the trolley. The store that stood here, Falk's Market, was the heart of the town.
"That building was here since the late 19th century," Kinney says. "It was a part of everybody's childhood who grew up here. The owner, Merrill FalkSt, was a beloved guy. This was before people started going to Target to get their groceries and general supplies. It was really hard for the town, and some people were very emotional, when the building came down.
"By rebuilding on the same spot, I'm seeking to create for Plainville residents the kind of central gathering place they had for seven generations. And I'm building this building in such a way that it will last at least seven generations more."
Kinney is a tall, friendly, engaging guy with none of the awkwardness of his main character. Recently, he led my two twelve-year-old sons, Isaac and Walter, massive Wimpy Kid fans, and myself on a tour of the structure slated to open in April.
The store's name, Unlikely Story, in many ways sums up Kinney's own life. He was a technology programmer who wrote a book he thought was meant for adults, only to discover that the publishing world perceived it as a kids' book. He went with it, and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise was born.
Kinney says that he leads two lives--one as a small-town husband and father who rakes his own leaves and doesn't dare put on airs in front of his fellow townspeople. His other identity: The rock star status that pertains when every kid in America reads your books over and over again.
The bookstore, which is actually a lot more than a bookstore, in many ways merges Kinney's two identities. It creates a gathering place at the center of town of which Kinney's neighbors can be truly proud. And it also addresses his Wimpy Kid fame without being a monument to the author.
Kinney is as excited as one of his young readers digging into a new Wimpy Kid novel as he describes the concepts that went into the building. Touring with him is a little bit like having Willie Wonka take you backstage at the chocolate factory before the oompa loompas arrive to start production.
"The market actually started off across the street," Kinney says, "and it was pulled across the street by a team of oxen. It was a major maneuver. That's what allowed us to demolish it, because the building wasn't considered an historical site since it had been built somewhere else. The building was totally unsalvageable, so there was really no change that we could make to it that would save it."
He leads us down to the basement, gesturing toward the support beams.
"As you can see," he says, a cross between proud tour guide and proud papa, "many of the support beams in the original building were tree trunks. The entire building was sagging towards the middle. We had engineers tell us that nothing could be saved in the building at all. It was sad, but it was also a relief, because that allowed us to make the best building that we could. Every aspect of the new building tells a story."
The flooring comes from a New England ice cream and novelty factory. The boardroom table is made from the same type of wood as the parquet floor at Boston Garden. The ceiling decorations recall Harry Potter.
A secret passageway leads Pfrom the bookstore to Kinney's writing studio, where kids will be able to sit at his desk and draw on his computer. They'll also be able to cast their gaze on a 500-pound statue of Scrooge McDuck, cast in stone at age ninety-four by one of Kinney's idols, Disney animator Carl Banks.
"Have you heard of Thomas Edison?" Kinney asked my sons. "He invented the lightbulb, right? A lot of the lights in this building will have this really neat glow to them. A lot will be run off solar, and will keep the heat very well. We're rubbing oil over the floor, and that gives it a really nice honey glow. It makes it look old, but it's new.
"They also took bricks and roll them through something that has rocks in it that chips away from the bricks, so it looks more traditional. We looked at getting old bricks, but that was just not very practical and not very energy efficient to ship it from Kentucky or Louisiana, so we've got this tumbled brick, which looks like it comes from an old factory."
Kinney is just as enthusiastic about the roof tiles (a weather-resistant form of rubber) as he is about the kitchen and event space, which will bring glitz and glamor to the quiet town of Plainville.
"I didn't want to do a typical museum or gift shop honoring Wimpy Kid," Kinney says. "I wanted to do something that would honor the town."
It's not hard to imagine a river of headlights piercing the darkness, as in the last scene of Field of Dreams, each car containing parents and sons (and some daughters, too, no doubt) who want to pay homage to the Wimpy Kid.
In a small town barely a dot on the map in eastern Massachusetts.
And perhaps that's the unlikeliest story of all.