If You Think Jeff Kinney Builds Monuments To Himself, You Clearly Don't Know Jeff Kinney

Okay, class. Let's start with a pop quiz. Ready?
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Okay, class. Let's start with a pop quiz. Ready?
Jeff Kinney, author of the wildly successful and beloved Diary of A Wimpy Kid, uses imagery from what wildly successful and beloved children's book series in the Plainville, Massachusetts bookstore he built?
A)Diary Of A Wimpy Kid
B)Captain Underpants
C)Harry Potter
Warning - it's a trick question.
You'd think that a guy who sold 165 million copies of Wimpy Kid books - in 50 languages, from Arabic and Azerbaijan to Welsh -- would have built himself a monument to his own creation.
But the answer is C) Harry Potter.
And if you think Jeff Kinney is building monuments to himself, then you clearly don't know the guy.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Kinney welcomed a thousand kids and their parents to An Unlikely Story, the bookstore he built in the center (blink and you missed it) of Plainville, a small New England town settled in the 17th century that's been waiting for some kind of excitement ever since.
This weekend was probably what they were waiting for.
Kinney, who says he's visited more than 500 bookstores around the world on his Wimpy Kid promotion tours, has lived with the concern that at some point kids might just move on from the stick figure drawings and joke-filled books they pore over ceaselessly.
While there's scant evidence pointing toward a diminishing of interest in Wimpy Kid, either on the part of the author or its vast and growing readership, Kinney wanted to create something with a sense of permanence and meaning beyond making a whole lot of kids laugh and think.
Not that that's something to sneeze at.
And so he decided to build a bookstore in the center of a community where experts told him a bookstore could never thrive.
He bought an iconic general store that had stood at Plainville's center since 1856, only to find that structural engineers declared the building doomed, in part because its foundation consisted not of steel beams but tree trunks.
One tap from the wrecking ball was all it took; 30 minutes later, the one-time market and chief town hang-out spot was a pile of rubble.
From the wreckage emerged a bookstore/café/meeting space so elegant and well designed that it won three international design awards in its first year.
The flooring comes from a Dorchester ice cream factory; the ceiling beams from a Kentucky tobacco warehouse.
("Don't lick the beams, kids, you'll get addicted," Kinney admonished his young crowd Sunday.)
The walls are adorned with signs that illustrate the history of the location - the market and the pharmacy found there in earlier decades.
The bookstore is everything Kinney hoped it would be - timeless, beautiful, a magnet for book lovers, and a shrine to everything Wimpy Kid.
Wait a minute. That last clause is absolutely not true. In fact, if you look up from the racks of carefully selected titles - true bibliophiles work here - you'll see not images of Greg Heffley but visions of Harry Potter.
Yes, there are stacks of Wimpy Kid books available for sale, but that's the only way you'd know that Kinney was connected to the place.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Kinney gave three talks a day to audiences of kids and their parents, showing how the bookstore came to be.
"I know you kids want to hear about Wimpy Kid," he said, kindly but resolutely, "but I'm going to tell you about this store."
And he did.
Kinney spoke of his desire to do something to put Plainville, quietly nestled near the Rhode Island border, on the map.
He paid homage to the authors he read as a (presumably non-wimpy) kid, and said that if there hadn't been a Judy Blume, there might not have been a Greg Heffley.
Before he got to a Q&A (which heavily favored kids asking Wimpy Kid questions), he shared only a little about Wimpy Kid and more about the authors who had spoken at his store, including a 96-year-old former Plainville resident who passed away two weeks after doing a talk on her book of town history.
He also spoke about his studio on the third floor of the store, where he writes the jokes, writes the stories, and draws - often for 17 hours a day - the cartoons that make Wimpy Kid so beloved.
Kinney gave me a private tour of the studio, all bright colors, bookshelves groaning with Wimpy Kid in every imaginable language, and a huge statue of Scrooge McDuck, before one of the Sunday talks.
"A few years back," Kinney recalls, "I was invited to visit Charles Schulz's studio, which was a huge thrill for me. I wanted to give kids who are fans of the Wimpy Kid series to see where the books are made and get their hands on the tools I use. So in a few months, we'll open my workspace up to the public."
The studio features a photo of a priest giving a copy of Wimpy Kid in Latin - Commentarii de Inepto Puero - to Pope Francis, a high water mark in Kinney's life.
"As a Catholic, that's the top," he says. "It doesn't get any better than that."
For a guy who is concerned that his series won't last forever, Kinney has little to worry about.
He has built not one monument but two - a children's series whose popularity shows no signs of abating and a bookstore, profitable despite the gloomy projections of the nay-saying consultants, that has already accomplished its main goal.
Without fanfare or ego, Jeff Kinney has quietly put his town of Plainville on the map.
And there's nothing wimpy about that.

Jeff taking questions Sunday at An Unlikely Story:


Jeff showing Falk's Market, the building that preceded his bookstore in Plainville, MA:


Inside Jeff's third floor studio:


Inside the store:


Outside the store (photo credit http://www.bealsandthomas.com/):


With a young fan at the signing after a talk on Sunday:


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