A little more than 20 years ago, Michele Cromer-Poire, then the co-owner of Odegard's Books in St. Paul, Minn, and Carol Erdahl, a St. Paul librarian, told a mutual friend that each wanted to open a children's bookstore.
"It was a miracle," Cromer-Poire told PW. "We didn't know each other. Our universes intersected, but they weren't the same. I came at it from bookselling, she came at it from a librarian's perspective." The mutual friend introduced them, and the duo decided to take a leap of faith and open a children's bookstore—together.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, Cromer-Poire and Erdahl celebrated the 20th anniversary of Red Balloon Bookshop. The store opened in a 1,700-square-foot space down the block from its current location. Five years later, the bookstore moved to a 3,500-square-foot, two-story building specifically constructed to accommodate it, with such features as a cement main floor and a freight elevator. The current space contains 2,100 square feet of retail space with a 22,000-title inventory.
The celebration, held the weekend of November 20—21, included two days of birthday cake, puppets and music, including a song written in honor of the occasion. There were visits by costumed book characters like Clifford the Red Dog, Madeline and Curious George.
There was storytelling by many children's book authors, including Lise Lunge-Larson (The Hidden Folk:Stories of Fairies, Dwarves, Selkies, and Other Secret Beings, Houghton Mifflin) and Nancy Carlson (Henry's Show and Tell, Viking). Both authors have participated in every one of the bookstore's anniversary celebrations over the past two decades.
"Business is harder than it was 20 years ago," Cromer-Poire said. "But we had the best year ever last year, and we expect this year to be just as good. There are so many more books being published now than in 1984."
Cromer-Poire attributes much of the store's success to its staff of nine full-time and 15 part-time booksellers. On average, the staff has worked in the store 10 years.
"We have to find new patrons all the time, as our customers grow up," said Cromer-Poire. "We've always been proactive in finding new business, it doesn't just walk in the store. You have to work at it. We keep the quality of our inventory high and we put on a lot of in-store events."
Not only does the store regularly schedule author events throughout the week, but it hosts three popular story-time hours for babies, toddlers and preschoolers on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. The store has also hosted a Saturday morning event each week since it first opened.
"Our Saturday morning events are always connected to books," said Cromer-Poire. "Sometimes it's storytelling, sometimes it's an author event. If an author isn't available, we'll design an event around the book. For instance, when we did an event around When Marian Sang [Scholastic], we had a well-known African-American singer living in the Twin Cities come in and sing some of Marian Anderson's songs. It was great."
"We love connecting kids to books," Cromer-Poire declared. "We love what we do. We work with kids, we work with books. One of our goals when we first talked over dinner 20 years ago was to make an impact upon our community. I think we've done that."