The 1970s and '80s saw a burgeoning of children's specialty bookstores. Many started small. In fact, the first location for Booktenders Secret Garden in Doylestown, Pa., was so tiny that author/illustrator Stephen Kellogg dubbed it “the enchanted closet,” recalls owner Ellen Mager. She bought the store, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, after it had been open only six months (the original owner decided the concept was too new to make a go of it).
Others began as home businesses, like Linden Tree Children's Recordings and Books, which Dennis and Linda Ronberg started in Tacoma, Wash., in 1982, where they produced their first children's concert with a then up-and-coming singer/storyteller named Raffi. Sharon Hearne earned enough money from a book fair business she ran from her home to expand into a bookstore business: Children's Book World in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, as bookstores age, so, too, do their owners. After weathering the onslaught of the chains, which had larger children's sections than many children's-only stores, and then online retailing, today one of the biggest challenges confronting children's bookstore owners is their own mortality. Like their aging general bookselling peers, many children's booksellers are ready to do something else with their later years. Not many, however, have been bold enough to close in order to retire, as did Chauni Haslet, owner of All for Kids Books and Music in Seattle, who retired at the end of June.
Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop in La Verne, Calif., is one of very few children's bookstores with a succession plan that keeps the store's traditions intact. “One of the advantages of having your children take the store over means they have your philosophy,” says Judy Nelson, whose son Pat and daughter Laura will soon assume the day-to-day running of the bookstore, the book fair company and the school library business. It's part of a five-year plan that will enable Judy and her husband, Byron, to move to part-time and then full retirement after 23 years.
To find out what has enabled some booksellers to grow their businesses to the ripe old age of 20 or more, PW invited them to share some of the secrets behind their stores' longevity.
Bank Street Bookstore (New York, N.Y.)
The college try.
“We want to be the place where people can find everything. We stock 30,000 to 35,000 children's titles and another 15,000 to 20,000 titles for teachers,” says Beth Puffer, manager and buyer of the oldest children's specialty bookstore on the East Coast. Unlike other children's bookstores, Bank Street has a built-in safety net, because of its ownership by Bank Street College of Education. “We're fortunate in that we're a little protected,” says Puffer. However, the store hasn't needed to make use of that net, since its business continues to grow 38 years on. Puffer regards Bank Street Books as one of New York's best-kept secrets and has begun working to change that. Two years ago she moved the store's entrance from 112th Street to Broadway and upgraded its Web site (www.bankstreetbooks.com). “We sell all over the world both in the store and on the Web site,” says Puffer, adding that the store is a destination for teachers from as far away as Iceland and Hong Kong.
The Blue Marble (Ft. Thomas, Ky.)
Founded by Tina Moore on the ground floor of her house as a toy store, the Blue Marble's inventory soon switched, and is now 95% books. For Tina's husband, Peter, who took over the day-to-day running of the store four years ago after her stroke, one of the advantages of living above the store is getting to know children's book writers firsthand. “I'd much rather handsell a book by an author I know,” he says. “Whenever we have an author event, we almost always have a meal [upstairs]. We'll provide the main course and the staff provides the side dishes.” But they don't just handsell to parents who walk into the store. The Blue Marble works with parochial school libraries in Kentucky and Cincinnati. Its complete inventory has been online since the mid-1980s (through Bibliophile and then through its own Web site), and the store offers 5,000 out-of-print collectible children's books through AbeBooks.com. Among its new initiatives is going green. “We recycle all packing materials and all paper that comes into the store,” says Moore. “We have our own paper bags. When we go to shows and get cloth tote bags, we give them out to our customers. We also distribute our galleys and staple picture books together and give them to inner-city schools.”
Booktenders Secret Garden (Doylestown, Pa.)
Faced with competition from discounters and Amazon.com, owner Ellen Mager has upped the number of authors and illustrators she brings to area schools. As a result, schools now account for 60% of her business. “It's a tight market,” says Mager, whose customers are very price-conscious. “The last two to three years especially, it's been more obvious that people want discounts. Before, I used to have collectors. And more and more if a child says, 'Can I have a book?', the parents will say, 'You have a birthday coming up.' ” Mager does offer savings to members of her Discount Book Club; everything else is full price. She's also added more sidelines to improve her margins—puzzles as well as book-related plush. And she charges for her time for in-service activities, helping teachers and school librarians find books for their curriculum. She would still like to cut more costs and considered moving her 1,800-sq.-ft. store. Instead, Mager has decided to try subletting 400 square feet this summer; she has just begun showing it and a neighboring business (not related) is considering leasing it.
The Children's Book Shop (Brookline, Mass.)
Making each dollar count.
“I still do the bookkeeping, so I know where every penny goes. That, and the fact that I own it are the main reasons I'm still here,” says Terri Schmitz, who purchased the Children's Book Shop in 1985 and bought the space it's in when the building was converted into condos 10 years later. The store is not only one of the country's oldest children's bookstores (see sidebar), it is one of the few that has chosen not to add more sidelines and to remain children's-only.Over the past three decades, the biggest changes Schmitz has felt are from the growth of Internet retailing and the consolidation of publishers. “Now that there are only five or six major publishers, you owe a lot more money to a lot fewer people,” Schmitz says, wearing her bookkeeping hat. Another more recent change is that more big-name authors are bypassing New England. While the Children's Book Shop, which frequently partners with a nearby library for author events, would once do as many as six or seven large-scale events each fall, it now does two or three. Currently the store's biggest transition is its new Web site (www.thechildrensbookshop.com), which will go live later this summer. It is also moving to an e-mail newsletter; its final paper newsletter was mailed out this spring.
The Children's Hour (Salt Lake City, Utah)
Clothes make the store.
Earlier this month the Children's Hour made its fourth move and more than doubled its size—to 4,000 square feet. “Barnes & Noble did this to me. I should send them a great big thank-you note,” says owner Diane Etherington, who was one of the first children's-only booksellers to add sidelines. In addition to toys and dolls, she also carries jewelry and clothing for women and kids. “The clothing really does help our bottom line and has brought in so many customers. It keeps me going,” Etherington says. In her new location, she has space for more displays and for a few more nonbook items—sweaters, pants and shoes for men, since so many more dads shop with their kids. For Etherington, it's all about making the store a place where customers and staff want to be. “We sell a feeling, that this is a little slice of heaven,” she says. “I would not be as happy as I am if we were only selling books.”
Eight Cousins Children's Books (Falmouth, Mass.)
“I think children's bookstores are the bonsai of bookstores: small, need a lot of tending and beautiful,” says Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins Children's Books and children's book buyer for BookStream. She looks at the store as an organic proposition that needs constant care. “I never take it for granted that we'll be in business more than six weeks,” she says, even though the store has hundreds of six-week increments behind it. That makes Chittenden ready to try new things, like Above the Treeline or the Anthology inventory control system, which it added this past spring. Seven or eight years ago, when a nearby general bookstore closed, Eight Cousins put in a shelf of adult books. It now stocks 300 adult titles, which produce 8%—10% of store sales. After visiting Partners Village Store in Westport, Mass., this spring, Chittenden decided to try a similar audiobook rental program for both adult and children's titles. “Things continue to evolve,” she says. “Things like should we have a graphic novel section? Hmm. We keep moving things around. It's that tending, tending, tending. There's no end to it.”
The Red Balloon Bookshop (St. Paul, Minn.)
The competitive advantage.
“Our staff is our biggest asset,” say Michele Cromer-Poire and Carol Erdahl, owners of The Red Balloon. Clearly The Red Balloon is doing something right. Not only has it kept its employees for the past five years (27 full- and part-timers), but unlike many children's stores that rely on school business, it continues to have “decent traffic” through the front door. Although educational sales were down last year because of a drop in school and library funding, in-store sales more than made up the difference, Cromer-Poire says. However, school sales are still very important to the bottom line. Two years ago, the store began handling textbook sales for a local private school, and educational sales account for 46% of the Red Balloon's overall business. In recent years, the store has worked on gaining visibility through events like one with four Newbery Medalists that it held last fall at the Fitzgerald Theater and through a branch store—more like a store-within-a-store—that it opened at the airport in 2005 through a partnership with HMSHost. Over the years, the store's inventory has shifted to include adult books and, more recently, graphic novels. However, hardcover picture books continue to be its largest area. Part of the reason Erdahl and Cromer-Poire have been able to overcome bookselling hurdles—they rank Amazon and high gasoline prices as the biggest ones at the moment—is that they've faced competition from the start. B. Dalton opened its first bookstore in Minneapolis in the 1960s; the city is also home to Target.
Once Upon a Time (Montrose, Calif.)
Change is good.
The oldest children's bookstore in the country, Once Upon a Time, survived despite founder Jane Humphrey's retirement in 2003 largely because of two customers, ages seven and nine, who wrote to the Los Angeles Times asking, “Where am I going to get my fifth Harry Potter book if there is no Once Upon a Time?” Shortly afterward, their mother, Maureen Palacios, bought her daughters' favorite store. Under her ownership, sales have increased— a whopping 175% the first year. Currently sales are up 7% over last year, with personal and professional transitions like last September's move and Palacios's recovery from cancer. She used the move to add an inventory system—the store's first—and to continue to broaden her stock, while maintaining Once Upon a Time's old-fashioned look. Like Humphrey, Palacios uses antiques rather than bookshelves to merchandise. Cookbooks, for example, can be found on a pie safe, pirate books on an old trunk. “You don't change a store totally,” Palacios says. “But you reinvent it to your own personality.” Up next: a local book delivery service via electric car.
San Marino Toy and Book Shoppe (San Marino, Calif.)
“We opened in 1975 in a bedroom community of Pasadena, about 10 miles from Los Angeles, as an old-fashioned toy and bookshop, and we haven't changed much,” says owner Betty Takeuchi. “Maybe that's part of the reason for our longevity. We still price most of our items with hand-written tags. We still giftwrap. We still have our own paper we ordered 33 years ago.” There's no inventory system, and the store didn't even have a cash register for several years. “Many of our customers are old-fashioned, too,” she says. “We still have a mailing list of 13,000 people. And we have some fourth-generation families shopping here.” That's not to say that the store hasn't made any changes. Among the most successful was moving author signings out of the store and into schools. “We sell many, many more books,” Takeuchi says. The store has also benefited from adding a book fair division, which does about 45 school book fairs a year. She credits the book fairs, the newsletter and the store's Web site (www.toysandbooks.com) with being all the advertising the store needs. She also does community outreach by giving away one $30 gift certificate a year to each school or organization the store works with.
Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop (La Verne, Calif.)
Changing of the guard.
When Judy Nelson, co-owner of Mrs. Nelson's, contemplates the future of bookstores, she sees a big question mark. “We have one of the most wonderful bookstores,” she says. “But we just don't have enough traffic to have a booming store. There's so much competition. I don't think people realize the impact their choices make. We had a brand-new Barnes & Noble go in five minutes away, and our customers love the Internet.” Though her store is labor-intensive, she has no intention of closing it. It's an integral part of Mrs. Nelson's other businesses: a book fair company that opened a year after the store did, in the mid-'80s, and a school library business that launched two years ago. Mrs. Nelson's is one of the few children's booksellers to go head-to-head with large library suppliers like Follett by selling shelf-ready, bar-coded books. “It's very complicated,” says Nelson. “But it's a good adjunct to our book fair business and the store. We're still learning.” Her book fair business continues to grow. Eight years ago Mrs. Nelson's moved from table-top book fairs to rolling cases. It now has two branches, and serves 400 schools a year.
Linden Tree Children's Recordings and Books (Los Altos, Calif.)
Still making music.
The store, named for owners Linda and Dennis Ronberg, moved to its current 2,700-sq.-ft. location in 1989 and holds events in an inside courtyard. It often has a presence at area wine festivals, math conferences and reading-related events. But it's not nearly as events-centric as in years past. “A few years ago, we would have done anything just for advertising's sake,” says Dennis Ronberg. “Now for practically any event, we'll look at the bottom line.” As its name indicates, music has always been an important part of Linden Tree's product mix. But the bulk of its business, 75%, is in books, according to Ronberg. “What makes us unique,” he says, “is the wide range of things we sell in a day. We often sell 150 discrete items.” However, he attributes the store's longevity to the fact that he and his wife do so much of the work. “We don't have any full-time staff,” he says. “Linda does most of the stuff on the computer. I pay the bills. I'm the one who cleans the bathrooms and often locks up at night. Every time you farm some of that out, there's another $100 or $1,000 out of your pocket.” Careful management has kept Linden Tree's overall sales up slightly despite a softening in children's music. Increases in paperback books and sidelines like Folkmanis puppets have more than made up the difference.
Pooh's Corner (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
In 2003, after working at Pooh’s Corner for 37 years combined, Sally Bulthuis and Camille DeBoer purchased the store they had managed for so long. One of several general children’s bookstores founded by Baker Publishing Group, Pooh’s Corner was put on the market after the company’s acquisition of Bethany House Publishers and its decision to focus on publishing. According to DeBoer, the most significant change the pair have made was moving to a slightly larger location in the same mall in 2005. They also added a bathroom big enough to accommodate a stroller and shifted their buying to just-in-time inventory. However, many things have stayed the same, such as the 10-person staff, which include a member of the Baker family. Even Pooh’s Corner’s current color palette and lighting reflect choices made by DeBoer and Bulthuis when they ran the store for the Bakers. More importantly, the store’s customers have stayed through the transition. “New grandparents come in who used to shop for their kids, and we hire kids who used to come to storytime,” says DeBoer. Pooh’s Corner continues to strengthen its local connections through partnerships with area arts organizations like the symphony and ballet and participation in West Michigan’s Local First.