The surprise closing of 23-year-old A Likely Story Children's Bookstore in Alexandria, Va., which shut its doors for the last time on the day before Thanksgiving, calls into question the viability of children's-only bookstores. But despite a whittling down from 750 stores in the early '90s to less than a quarter of that today, closings have leveled off in recent years—less than a handful in 2007—and there have been some successful transitions. Last year two well-respected California children's-only retailers were sold and continue to thrive: Adventures for Kids in Ventura and Yellow Book Road in La Mesa. And a number of general retailers, like BookCourt in Brooklyn, which tripled its children's offerings as part of an expansion this fall, have stepped into the breach. So is A Likely Story's closing a death knell?
Hardly, says Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, who envisions a new bookstore model that combines sales channels and would bring in customers all day long. As an example, she points to Isis Maternity Centers, with three locations in the Boston area. It has broken down the distinctions between service and retail by establishing itself as the go-to place for pregnant women, new mothers and toddlers to take classes—and to buy books.
Although ABC's membership has shifted from children's-only more toward general independents with strong children's sections, McLean doesn't see this as a bad thing. She notes that many children's specialty stores added toys and sidelines in recent years, and not just to increase margin, which is larger on these items than books. “It's about consumer shopping patterns. Children's-only isn't broad enough,” McLean says.
Last year when Vermont bookstore Flying Pig Books relocated from Charlotte to Shelburne, it changed its product mix entirely. Originally founded as a children's specialty retailer, it is now a general bookstore, a process that began a few years earlier when it started stocking mysteries and other adult titles.
Other bookselling organizations are also reaching a tipping point. The New England Children's Booksellers Association, which was founded by children's-only booksellers, is now dominated by general retailers, two of whom were recently appointed to lead it—Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, and Vicky Uminowicz, manager of Titcomb's Bookshop on Cape Cod.
A Likely Story was previously rescued in 2003 when Dinah Paul purchased it, but even Paul's energy and creativity (under her stewardship A Likely Story earned its second Pannell Award for Excellence in Children's Bookselling) weren't enough to staunch the flow of customers to other retailers. According to the Washington Post's Small Business blog, Paul's final e-mail newsletter exhorted shoppers to support independents: “As you search for another bookstore/community center from which to bring books into your family, please don't see big chains and Amazon.com as your only options.”
In addition to consumer pressure, some children's specialty store owners are simply starting to feel their age. Several proprietors of stores founded during the “Golden Age” of children's bookselling either retired this year or are about to. This past August, 16-year-old Brystone Children's Books in Fort Worth, Tex., closed when 63-year-old owner Marianne Harper decided she needed a rest. And 60-year-old Cammie Mannino, owner of Halfway Down the Stairs Children's Books in Rochester, Mich., will celebrate the store's 20th anniversary by closing it early next year. “We're doing really well,” says Mannino, who said her decision was based on her desire to write a new chapter in her own life.
After first trying to sell the store to her staff, Mannino has since turned down 23 prospective buyers. “This is a very difficult business to be competitive in, and you have to know every little trick of the trade,” Mannino says. “I created this little being and polished it up. And it's more important to me that people remember it fondly.”
Although she hasn't been in business quite as long, Susan Finkle, a children's-only Internet retailer, is in the process of shutting down her site (www.just-for-kids.com), which will close at the end of the month. “We're not bankrupt or anything like that, just moving on,” says Finkle, who has been finding it hard to run a profitable Web store. “Just like people go to Barnes & Noble first when they're going out, they go to BN.com or Amazon online.”
Still, as McLean notes, new stores continue to open, and existing stores are reinventing themselves. After the sale of its business fell through, last month three-year-old Tweedle Bros. Children's Bookshop in Manitowoc, Wis., closed its brick-and-mortar shop and migrated online, to www.toysbooksgifts.com.
Although McLean predicts that a new model of bookselling will take root within the next decade, there could still be tough times ahead for children's specialty booksellers as they learn to maneuver in a changing retail climate.