Amy Oelkers has scheduled nearly 200 author events at the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., since she was hired in May 2012 as events and marketing manager at the beloved Twin Cities institution, which is marking its 30th anniversary this year. That’s not counting the book clubs and story times she’s also scheduled. Like so many young booksellers before her and many of those who will doubtless follow her, Oelkers never considered bookselling as a viable career choice. But what started out as a temporary job until she could find a permanent position in her chosen field has turned out to be a dream come true.
“I’ve always been passionate about children’s books, and about YA books,” Oelkers, 32, tells PW. Oelkers grew up in a suburb south of Minneapolis and has always been adept at balancing her family life with her professional aspirations: after receiving a B.A. in English literature at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Oelkers entered the library science program at St. Paul’s St. Catherine University to study for her M.L.S. degree while raising two young sons. The spring before her last year of graduate school, Oelkers recalls, she was looking for a “book-related” position to build up her resume before she entered the library job market. After her sister-in-law mentioned in passing that she’d seen a notice at the Red Balloon for an events coordinator Oelkers recalls thinking that she “had to” apply.
“I knew I needed a job that put me in the middle of the action,” she explains , “At the same time, I had worked so hard to become a librarian, and in the back of my mind, I almost felt like I was letting go of one of my dreams.” But, Oelkers says, she has become “converted” to independent bookselling, and has found what she describes as her calling at the Red Balloon. Plus, she is putting her library skills to good use.
“I get to connect kids and teens with books, I get to help them make irreplaceable memories at events, [and] I get to support our local kid-lit community,” she explains, noting that she would not have been this fulfilled at an adult bookstore. “I’ve always been youthful, and I can embrace that part of myself as a children’s bookseller.”
Oelkers emphasizes that while it takes a strong sense of organization and professionalism in order to successfully schedule and execute public events at any bookstore, as the events coordinator at a children’s bookstore, she feels strongly the additional responsibility of “keeping it fun” for young readers – especially teens, who have so many other potential distractions competing for their time. That explains why the Red Balloon was turned into a medieval castle for a reading by Robin LaFevers (Grave Mercy); candles were lit inside for Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Boys), while a bonfire burned outside on the store patio for Hollow Earth co-authors John Barrowman and Carol Barrowman; and that professional musicians were on hand performing “Rites of Spring,” during an event with Lauren Stringer (When Stravinsky Met Nijinski).
Oelkers is also passionate about working with teens to build a sense of community inside the store by involving them in its operations. Under Oelkers’s supervision, the Red Balloon launched a Teens Read book club in March 2013. Book club members each read a different ARC each month and discuss with the group. The club is capped at 18 members; there is a waiting list.
“We go around the circle and everyone talks about what they’ve read,” Oelkers says, “Usually the kids start exchanging books. There’s amazing energy and a lot of camaraderie.” The Teens Read members are also responsible for writing book reviews for the Red Balloon’s monthly newsletter and, Oelkers says, store buyers consider their opinions and feedback when making orders.
It’s important to the Red Balloon and to her personally, Oelkers says, that the community realizes that the store is just as committed to teen readers as it is to the story-time set. Oelkers admits to feeling gratified that teens feel connected to the store, and attend events there, with store regulars even bringing friends along. In fact, when four YA authors on Macmillan’s Fierce Reads spring 2014 tour stopped at the Red Balloon, more than 50 teenagers attended the group reading.
Even with nationally touring authors, it’s often hit-and-miss, in terms of enticing potential attendees into the store, Oelkers says; it’s simply a reality of the job. While an in-store signing featuring Glee star Chris Colfer (The Land of Stories series) drew 400+ people this summer, another event with a well-known, critically acclaimed author-illustrator in fall 2013 drew only seven people; a few months later, he won a prestigious award for the book he’d promoted at the Red Balloon.
Starting this October, the Red Balloon partnered with the Twin Cities Book Festival on expanding the one-day event’s children’s programming. Besides the traditional Children’s Pavilion, an area at the State Fairgrounds in St. Paul was dedicated to middle-grade and YA authors, with a stage and activities area managed by Oelkers and Red Balloon staff and volunteers. Approximately 25 children’s authors participated this year, more than double last year’s number, noted Eric Lorberer, the editor of Rain Taxi, the Twin Cities-based literary journal that sponsors the festival. “It was a big home run with Red Balloon,” Lorberer said, noting a significant increase in the numbers of children and teens in attendance in 2014. This year’s festival, in its 14th year, drew about 7,000, up from the previous year’s attendance of 6,000. Lorberer says Rain Taxi intends to partner again in 2015 with Red Balloon on Book Festival programming.
“I’m really proud of the turn-out and of the presence we had there,” Oelkers says, noting that store personnel had felt that they were taking “a risk” by partnering with Rain Taxi on an event renowned more for its roster of internationally acclaimed adult literary fiction and nonfiction authors, rather than for children’s authors. “We created an experience that you can’t replicate.” Lorberer adds, “It was really magical. I can’t speak highly enough about Amy. She is a creative and excellent events planner.”