Petaluma Profile: Patty Norman, local bookseller and open water pilot

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“Books will solve the world’s problems if you read enough of them,” says Patty Norman. “I really believe that. From books, you learn empathy and understanding. And you can’t unlearn that.”

Norman is best known, to thousands of young Petaluma readers (and their grateful parents), as the “children’s specialist” at Copperfield’s Books. In that role — which she has held for nearly 16 years — Norman does more than just help kids find the perfect books. She also organizes all of the children’s and young adult’s author visits at the store, including off-site events at local schools, where visiting writers and illustrators frequently appear at student body assemblies to share their experiences of being a professional storyteller.

“Developing the authors’ program has been so fun,” Norman says, “finding different ways for the kids to meet authors and illustrators. It’s been so great to watch kids discover that writing and drawing books is a real thing, that real humans actually do that. That if you like to write, then you can write. I think that’s super important.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, Norman was busily planning a scavenger hunt for that weekend, as a tie-in to a planned visit by author Mac Barnett, author of the “Mac B., Kid Spy” books. She’s also been working hard to finalize a schedule of other 2019 author appearances, all while (“slightly”) worrying (“a bit”) about her son’s upcoming trip to Thailand.

“He’s going with friends,” she explains. “It’s a mom thing, worrying about stuff like that.”

Norman is the mother of two adult kids, Taylor, 30, and Jack, 27.

What many don’t know about Norman is that she also works as an online digital artist for Athleta, a women’s sports clothing company originally founded in Petaluma. When Athleta was purchased eight years ago by the Gap, the local company’s offices were moved to San Francisco. Norman now commutes into the city a few days a week. This serves her other passion — kayaking as a “pilot” for open water swimmers in the San Francisco Bay.

“The piloting thing is where I can clear my head from both jobs,” Norman allows. “Piloting is an amazing challenge. You are guarding the swimmers from other boats, while making sure they don’t get off track, because with goggles and waves they can’t really see where they are.”

She primarily pilots at Aquatic Park, working with swimmers from the South End Rowing Club, where she says a surprising number of Petalumans go to swim in the open water of the Bay.

“It’s such a huge community of good people,” she says. “They are authors and attorneys and firemen and on and on. Their love is swimming, and my love is being able to support the swimmers. I go places I would never go on my own in a kayak.”

She does it several times a month, and last summer, was part of a team assisting an athlete who set out to swim the length of Lake Tahoe.

“She started at 9 at night, at Camp Richardson, and she swam until noon the next day at Incline Village,” Norman says. “No breaks. If you are a marathon swimmer, you have to keep going, and you can’t hold onto the boat. We had to throw her food every now and then. It was insane.”

Norman says she took the late-night shift, beginning at 1 a.m.

“It’s very dark out on Lake Tahoe at 1 in the morning, and it was extremely windy,” she recalls. “I was looking at the waves, thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ At one point, I remember, I was texting with an author friend in England, and I said, ‘Oh my god! This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done!’ And he wrote back, ‘Well, while you’re in the middle of a lake. I’m stuck in traffic.’ So I guess I definitely had the better deal. Anyway, we got the swimmer across the lake. It was such an adventure.”

Most days, Norman allows, it’s adventure enough to just meet the parade of youngsters who come through the store, ever eager to talk about their favorite books. Last summer, on a cross-country trip with her husband Jeffrey — during which they sought out tiny towns with strange names from which to mail belated Christmas cards — Norman struck up book conversations with kids everywhere they went.

“The first town we stopped in was Lyndon Station, Wisconsin, population 50, where the Miller General Store doubles as the post office,” she recalls. The 6-year-old son of the store owner, when Norman asked if he liked books, excitedly revealed that his favorite book was “Dog Man,” by Dav Pilkey. “So we had this great conversation about books, so I got a business card from his dad, thinking, when I get back, I’m going to send this kid some books. After that, I just kept looking for more kids to connect with. In little towns or on reservations or in cities, wherever we happened to stop, I would look for kids and talk to them about authors and books and writing. It was so fun. It made my whole trip for me.”

When she got home to Petaluma, she did indeed send them all books.

“I loved being able to do that,” she says, estimating that the postage cost her around $200. “It was worth it. All kids like to read if you give them the right book. Maybe I was able to expand that enthusiasm a little.”

The experience gave Norman an idea, and now she’s in the early stages of developing a nonprofit foundation that would find creative ways to get more books into the hands of more kids.

“A thousand dollars here and there from a local business would provide a lot of books for a lot of kids,” she points out, “and if this were a nonprofit, then it could be a tax write-off. That’s just a win-win for everyone.”

Whether on the water, in an office or in the bookstore, Norman says what fuels her obvious energy and inventiveness is the pleasure of connecting people together, and helping them find the things that bring them pleasure.

“I feel super fortunate to be able to do all the things I do,” she says. “I want to make a difference - and I kind of think maybe I am.”

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