More than a quarter-century after Michele Cromer-Poire and Carol Erdahl opened the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., they’re handing it off to another pair of female entrepreneurs. After undergoing an approximately 10-week crash course in the nuts-and-bolts of owning a bookstore, Amy Sullivan and Holly Weinkauf will officially assume ownership of the 27-year-old children’s bookstore on August 1. Cromer-Poire and Erdahl, who own the 3,500-square-foot, two-story building housing the local literary icon, will become Sullivan and Weinkauf’s landlords; if or when the building is sold, the Red Balloon’s owners will have first dibs on buying it.
Like Cromer-Poire and Erdahl, who did not know one another before deciding to open a bookstore together, Sullivan and Weinkauf’s relationship began with a conversation about going into the book business together. Weinkauf, who has an M.L.S. in library science from UCLA and previously worked as a children’s librarian in Houston, has volunteered weekly at the Red Balloon as a storyteller since she moved to St. Paul three years ago. Last December, Weinkauf began talking to Cromer-Poire and Erdahl about buying the store from them, after negotiations with another potential buyer broke down. A conversation between their husbands at a holiday party subsequently led Weinkauf to Sullivan, who moved to Minneapolis three years ago and has an education background. Sullivan has almost completed a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Illinois at Chicago; her dissertation is on the history of childhood.
The two first met with Cromer-Poire and Erdahl in April to negotiate buying the store and its 22,000-title inventory. Within six weeks, Sullivan told PW, a purchase agreement was in place, and the two went to BEA representing the Red Balloon just a day after signing that agreement. Besides walking the floor at the Javits Center, the two attended Paz & Associates’ one-day school for prospective booksellers and the ABA’s Day of Education.
“We were so warmly received at BEA,” Sullivan said, “People meant it when they handed us their cards and told us to call if we needed advice.”
While admitting to anxiety concerning the economy, Sullivan and Weinkauf are confident that a children’s bookstore remains a viable venture, despite the industry’s shift towards digitization. The Red Balloon currently sells e-books through its Website, though revenues from e-book sales are a minuscule fraction of the store’s total revenues – which Sullivan and Weinkauf declined to disclose. Weinkauf would say only that the store is on “solid footing.”
“We’re aware of and able to adapt to changes,” Weinkauf said, “But children’s books aren’t going to change as dramatically or as quickly as adult books. People are always going to read to their children.”
After all, Sullivan pointed out, earlier that same day, more than 30 mothers and their children attended a story time at the store, and afterwards “bought loads of books.”
Since their return from BEA, Sullivan and Weinkauf have maintained a regular presence in the store. Not only have they met “many times” with Cromer-Poire and Erdahl, but they’ve also met individually with the eight full-time staffers and eight part-timers, some of whom have worked at the store for more than 20 years. All staff members intend to remain with the store “for the meantime,” Sullivan said, after the sale is finalized. “They’re incredible, so committed,” Sullivan said. “I’ve never seen a place where people love working there so much.”
While sharing some responsibilities as co-owners, Sullivan and Weinkauf intend to divide up other duties according to each’s strengths. Weinkauf will focus on budgets, accounting, and other back-office operations, while Sullivan will focus on public relations, media, and partnerships with other organizations.
Sullivan explained that the duo are in the process of “reimagining” the store, “trying to polish” the space. “The store does a lot of things that are great,” she said. “We can do some to improve things.” Right now, that means shifting the merchandise to include more sidelines and toys and revamping the Web site. “We want to bring everything up to date,” she said.
The store will continue to schedule author events throughout the week, including its Saturday morning events. It will also continue to host its three popular story times for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. Sullivan hopes to expand outreach to schools and educators, as well as collaborate with local nonprofits on literacy initiatives.
While the Red Balloon is already renowned for its extremely loyal customer base, the store’s new owners want to build up its YA customers. Ideas for attracting more teen readers include setting up a blog on the store’s Web site written by teens and creating more of a designated space inside the store for book clubs to meet.
Even adult readers are included in the new owners’ vision for the store. While wanting to be more selective in curating the store’s inventory, Sullivan says, she also wants to put her scholarly credentials to good use by developing a section of books on the history of childhood. Not only that, but Sullivan wants to reach out to educators at the local universities who have expertise in this academic discipline and schedule in-store lectures that would appeal more to adults than the store’s typical demographic.
“There’s so many ways we can expand what we offer,” she noted, expressing her wish that the Red Balloon will become “a destination, a respite, and a delight for customers of all ages.”