More than 150 booksellers crowded into a hotel meeting room during Wi7 to learn from three stars in the children’s bookselling world how they too can become “hometown stars with children’s books.” The panel, moderated by the ABA’s Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, featured Colette Morgan, owner of Wild Rumpus, in Minneapolis; Diane Capriola, owner of Little Shop of Stories in the small city of Decatur, Ga.; and Cynthia Compton, owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys, in an upscale Indianapolis suburb. While the three stores are located in diverse locales, each bookseller emphasized the necessity of creating a magical space inside the store, selecting stock carefully, and partnering with other local businesses and organizations.

‘Energize the Atmosphere’

Morgan, whose store is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, declared, “I assume everyone walking into the store wants to have a good time.” As soon as one enters Wild Rumpus, one is met with a barrage of noise, from the plethora of animals living there (the store is also licensed as a pet store), mixed in with the music playing overhead.

“It’s important to energize the atmosphere,” Morgan explained, describing the store environment as being one of “controlled chaos,” and the store’s inventory as “eclectic and intelligent.”

Wild Rumpus is renowned throughout the region for hosting exciting events as well as for stocking unusual titles; Morgan explained that she uses coop funds to produce events that people will want to attend and does not stint on props. “If you need to rent a champagne fountain and pour chocolate milk through it, do it,” she said.

Last year, Morgan took advantage of $19,000 in coop funds to host author events, for which she does not charge, as she wants to be inclusive. Morgan also uses coop funds to purchase books for children in inner-city schools when the store hosts author events at these schools. “If one child in one of those classes becomes an author or illustrator, it could be because of that,” she said.

Morgan said the store doesn’t publicize this, but children purchasing items with their own money receive a 20% discount. And publisher promotional swag – like t-shirts or caps – goes to young customers. “They appreciate publisher giveaways so much more than me or my staff ever could. It’s like gold,” she said.

‘Have Big Ideas’

Like Morgan, Capriola emphasized the importance of “thinking outside the box” to entice new customers and keep regulars loyal. This, like Wild Rumpus, also can involve animals, such as Little’s Shop’s “dog wedding” story time last April, when there was a lot of public interest in Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. Staffers read Angelina and the Royal Wedding, a wedding planner came in and discussed how to plan a wedding, and two dogs were then “married,” complete with cake and a party.

“Have big ideas and hire staff you can trust to do it all,” Capriola said, explaining that the store hosts book-based summer camps to bring people into the store during an otherwise slow time. “Parents love the idea that their kids are spending their days in a bookstore, reading and talking about books,” she said, noting that it’s important to involve the local community, by bringing in adults to speak with the children and to participate in activities with them.

Capriola emphasized making friends with other businesses and organizations. Recalling the community effort that has gone into producing the Decatur Book Festival, now in its seventh year, Capriola pointed out, “The littlest idea can become the biggest thing if you have the right community partnerships. Don’t be shy about promoting your store to your community,” she added, and to support local businesses, “walking the talk.”

Building Bridges

Using the morals contained in classic fairy tales to spice up her presentation, Cynthia Compton emphasized that one’s store must stand out – use social media and other opportunities to underscore the store’s one unique strength. She also emphasized that, like Hansel and Gretel, booksellers should not go into the woods alone.

“Partner with a group to sponsor an event,” she said, “It’ll fill the room and it builds bridges.” 4 Kids also partners with local organizations in allowing them to use the store’s space for their special events, such as a local yoga center, a math tutoring company, and a magician who teaches classes.

“They use our space and give us free classes to gift our customers with,” she explained.

Compton has cut out her entire media advertising budget, and instead gives out $5 gift cards, considering them as advertisements for the store. “It only costs you money if they come in and use it,” she pointed out. “They’ll also be carrying the card in their wallet.”

Like the Three Little Pigs, Compton said, one should carry building materials wherever one goes. The store has been hosting more and more “pop-up book fairs” in nurses’ rooms in hospitals, in fire stations, in the backs of churches, in teacher lounges, and “wherever there are adults working who need to buy books for their kids.”

“I want books out in the community,” Compton insisted.