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Difference Maker

An independent bookseller stars in her own fairy tale

Nancy Traversy took on the big chain-store dragons to rule her own realm – Barefoot Books for children.

By Sarah More McCannCorrespondent / March 17, 2009

Living barefoot: Barefoot Books Cofounder Nancy Traversy pairs vivid art with high-quality multicultural children’s stories from the Nile to the Amazon, Shakespeare to mythology.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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Cambridge, Mass.

Here, amid the strollers and nannies and crawling babies, a giant coat tree with tiny coats, and one little boy howling that he won’t, he refuses, to leave, two woolly sheep sit quietly alongside a warren of bunnies. Across the room, there’s a donkey, a scarlet macaw, several princes and princesses, a dinosaur herd, and a small schooner’s worth of pirates, their hair tied neatly in matching kerchiefs. They’re puppets, of course, the quietest residents of an enchanted land with crayons, blocks, puzzles ... and hundreds and hundreds of books. This small children’s kingdom – this corner bookstore and benevolent barnyard/zoo/prehistoric plain – is, after all, in the business of marvels and dreams.

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But look between the covers of Barefoot Books – turn the pages slowly – and there’s another story. Alongside those dinosaurs and the pirates, one cofounder of this bookstore and publishing company has her own fantastical tale. In an era when conventional wisdom in publishing holds that tots want nothing but Disney, and that independent bookstores are being vanquished by the big, bad book chains, Nancy Traversy has so far been victorious. In 2007, her company made Inc. magazine’s list of the fastest-growing businesses.

“You cannot underestimate the stamina of the girl and the persistence,” says Ms. Traversy’s husband, Martin Lueck. The publishing company, which Traversy and Tessa Strickland launched from Traversy’s London home in 1993, doubled, then tripled profits before expanding to the US in 2001, eventually becoming an $8 million company. And despite the dismal economy and a slowdown in British sales and trade, Barefoot’s North American website and store sales grew nearly 40 percent in 2008.

The Cambridge store, about a mile north of Harvard Square, sells only books published by Barefoot – bright, bold, multicultural offerings. There’s “The Barefoot Book of Princesses,” sure, and one about knights, but there’s a rhyming trip through the Galápagos, and titles like “We’re Sailing Down the Nile” and “Catch that Goat! A Market Day in Nigeria.”

Traversy’s fascination with other cultures – and her determination to share them – has been lifelong, she says. And like all plucky heroines, she’s nurtured a profound wanderlust – and had more than her share of global misadventures.

Born in Canada, Traversy headed to London in 1985, after college, to work as an accountant in a big firm. But “women could only go so far, and I was fairly ambitious,” she says. After that, she worked at two London design firms and traveled to Asia on business. At meetings, “They’d always ask, ‘And who is your boss?’ ”

Gender came up in more dramatic ways, too. While pregnant with her oldest daughter, but before she’d transitioned to maternity wear, Traversy was pitching a £300,000 office-furniture system outside Seoul and drinking green tea throughout the meeting. Looking for relief, she loosened the ties on her skirt. It fell to the floor the instant she stood. “Well, do I get the job?” she asked her shocked audience. “I never heard from them again,” she says now. “It’s what not to do in a meeting.”

Still, her trips deepened her interest in the cultures and colors of the world – something she and Mr. Lueck, with whom she’d fallen in love while mountain climbing in Africa, wanted to make a part of their children’s lives. So they planned a family vacation to Kenya in 2000. En route, a man charged into the cockpit of their airliner and attacked the pilots, causing the plane to freefall before a basketball player saved the day – four seconds, Traversy says, before a crash would have been unavoidable.

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