At the Charlotte, N.C. children’s bookstore Author Squad, kids and parents don’t just buy books, they make books—as in writing, illustrating, laying out, and hand-binding hardcover volumes, at the store’s own publishing center. Owner Lauren Garber has gotten the process so kid-friendly, in fact, that even two-year-olds can get in on constructing their own books.

Garber opened the store just three years ago—they celebrated their birthday the second week in November—having developed the idea after a stint teaching third grade. “When I gave the kids free time, they would make books,” she recalls. Noting the limited opportunities in typical school curricula for cooperative learning and creative expression, Garber thought it would be fun and valuable to make a business out book-making. She looked for examples of the concept at work elsewhere—and came up with virtually nothing.

“You could do photobooks online, obviously, and there’s always been those put-your-kid’s-name-into-a-book services, even when I was a kid,” said Garber. More recently, she’s heard that some of the bigger chain stores have started similar services, but those still require you to send away your materials and wait for the result. At Author Squad, customers make their books on-site, from start to finish, using scanners, Microsoft Publisher, and binding materials the store orders from a library supply company.

The publishing center and book sales make natural complements; though the store sells more toys and traditional books, a higher profit margin on publishing center sales (including membership fees) means that the two streams generate equal amounts of revenue. On top of which, the publishing center is a big draw for field trips, “especially with after-school programs,” and parties of all kinds: birthdays, playgroups, and showers. At a typical birthday party, each guest puts together a page, making a custom keepsake for the birthday boy or girl. Author Squad also holds classes five days a week to introduce the process and develop storytelling skills for members of every age and skill level—“babblers,” “scribblers,” and “doodlers,” through teens and adults (teachers get a significant discount on membership).

“We have a big art room,” Garber says, “where [kids and parents] are doing their illustrations, they’re on the computers, getting to lay out everything on the spot. You actually glue it together yourself, with the same supplies that libraries use to change a paperback into a hardcover.” Garber experimented extensively to find a simple but effective way to put the pages, boards, fabric, and endsheets together. “We actually use gluesticks,” she says with a laugh. “It’s pretty kid-friendly—even the two-year-olds are doing it themselves.”