A decade ago, the number of children’s-only bookstores in the U.S. had declined precipitously, to fewer than 100, after hitting a high of 750 in the 1990s. By 2010, members of the Association of Booksellers for Children, a bookselling group that broke off from the American Booksellers Association in the mid-1980s, voted to merge with the ABA. Since then the ABA has been committed to providing educational opportunities to foster children’s bookselling at both BookExpo America and Winter Institute, as well as through Children’s Institute, a separate annual program for kids’ booksellers.
By 2010, members of the Association of Booksellers for Children, a bookselling group that broke off from the American Booksellers Association in the mid-1980s, voted to merge with the ABA. Since then the ABA has been committed to providing educational opportunities to foster children’s bookselling at both BookExpo America and Winter Institute, as well as through Children’s Institute, a separate annual program for kids’ booksellers.
But some industry watchers say we’re now living in the golden age of children’s books, and given strong sales in the category, children’s specialty stores are starting to reemerge. Many are small, less than 1,000 sq. ft., but they are already starting to have a large presence. Two-year-old Second Star to the Right was named 2016’s best Denver bookstore by Denver A-List, beating out the much larger and older Tattered Cover.
Like their general bookstore counterparts, children’s bookstores these days are often changing hands when owners are ready to move on, rather than simply shuttering. Last spring, Beth Albrecht purchased 32-year-old Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park, Ill., when owners Iris Yipp and Rose Joseph were ready to retire. Earlier this year Sally Sue Lavigne took over the Storybook Shoppe in Bluffton, S.C., the state’s only children’s bookstore.
To find out more about today’s new children’s specialty bookstores, PW contacted booksellers at several stores that have been open for four years or less—in some cases just a few weeks. Children’s booksellers haven’t always found it easy to pursue their passion. But, despite the challenges, they expressed optimism about the road ahead and have no regrets about their decision to focus on kids’ books. As Marcus Mayer and Katherine Warde at Addendum Books say: “We feel so fortunate to be a part of the children’s book community. It is an absolute pleasure to help introduce kids, teens, and adults to the amazing writing that is happening in the world of children’s lit. We hope we’ve helped instill a lifelong love of reading and literature in the kids and teens we see each day.”
St. Paul, Minn.; 400 sq. ft.
Opened: June 2012; initially opened as a YA bookstore within Subtext, a general bookstore, before the two stores separated in 2015
Why a children’s bookstore? “We are both public-school librarians and almost exclusively read children’s and young adult books,” owners Marcus Mayer and Katherine Warde say. “We carry everything, but wanted it to have a good feel for teens when they walk into the store. We think teens want a bookstore like ours since the other children’s bookstores are geared more toward the younger set. As far as we know it is the first of its kind.”
Challenges: For Warde and Mayer, who work outside the bookstore full-time, having enough time to get everything done is a challenge. So is being able to work at all the store’s events.
Sales: “Great. We opened in a neighborhood full of kids and teens who can walk or ride their bikes to the store. The neighborhood has been hugely supportive; we feel right at home here.”
Best thing that’s happened: “The many events that we’ve hosted in our short time being open, and the friendships that we’ve made along the way. There are so many amazing people in the book world—customers, authors, illustrators, publishers, editors, reps, and agents.”
All-time bestsellers: Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant (HarperCollins), Andrew Smith’s Winger (S&S), Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind (Atheneum), and Suzanne Collins’s Gregor the Overlander (Scholastic).
Bel and Bunna’s Books
Lafayette, Calif.; 823 sq. ft.
Opened: May 2016
Why a children’s bookstore? “About 14 months ago, I decided I had had enough of the corporate world,” owner Bel McNeill says. “While tossing ideas around, I thought I might get a job in the local Barnes & Noble in Walnut Creek. As I am an avid reader and hoarder of books, it seemed like a good place to start. Literally within days of deciding, I got word that it was closing. Then within a matter of a few days more, someone told me that the Storyteller, a children’s bookshop in Lafayette, was closing. And I thought to myself, I can do this. I can open my own shop. I followed my dream, a thing that not many people do.”
Challenges: “On a very basic level, there were challenges that were totally unexpected. For example, it was a huge struggle to get realtors who would help me find a space. Once the space was secured, and I got down to building the physical business, there were so many unexpected costs—the city and the county permits, various legal bits, all the services and utilities, the infrastructure. On a day-to-day basis, the challenges revolve around convincing parents that their children should be reading books that are both great for their reading level and are developmentally suitable. The other challenge, which I expected, is that I am here every day, seven days a week.”
Sales: “Remarkably well. I hit, or go beyond, my target most days. People seem to be very enthusiastic about having a children’s bookshop and appear to love the space. I am seeing repeat visitors.”
Best thing that’s happened: “I am utterly passionate about having children read, but more importantly, having them enjoy reading. I wanted to be able to help nonreaders want to read, and I wanted to help stretch those who are confident readers. I’ve managed to do both already. I continue to do it every day.”
All-time bestsellers: Roald Dahl’s The BFG (Puffin), Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Came Home (Philomel), and Jeffrey Brown’s Jedi Academy (Scholastic).
Louisville, Ky.; 800 sq. ft.
Opened: August 2014 (across from Carmichael’s Bardstown Road store)
Why a children’s bookstore? “Children’s books were 20%–25% of our sales at the Bardstown store,” says Kelly Estep, buyer for and manager of both the Bardstown store and Carmichael’s Kids. “We were so tight on space that when this space opened up, [owners Carol Besse and Michael Boggs] were completely supportive of the idea. I felt confident that the neighborhood would support it. I could just see on Saturdays the number of people buying birthday gifts.”
Challenges: “It still feels like we don’t have enough space. I wish we had a break room and a back room for receiving. The other major challenge I have is staffing, because the staff is tied up with selling. Richard Howorth and Lyn Roberts at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., who were so generous with their time, told me that from the start. We think, as indie booksellers, we’re so tied up with hand-selling. But it’s nothing compared to children’s. It has been harder than I thought to run two stores. The mistakes are harder to swallow.”
Sales: “Meeting my expectations. I think we have a lot more potential to extend our reach. People are so interested in children’s literacy.”
Best thing that’s happened: “For me, this is a challenge and a great thing. I don’t get the same opportunity I used to, to sell in the store, because I’m wearing all those hats. When I do have the opportunity, the best thing is seeing kids come in the store. They feel like we built it for them.”
All-time bestsellers: Andrea Beaty and David Roberts’s Rosie Revere, Engineer (Abrams), a hand-selling favorite; and Adam Gamble’s Good Night, Kentucky (Good Night).
Los Angeles; 750 sq. ft.
Opened: In 2012, began doing book fairs for dual-immersion schools, libraries, and institutions; in 2013, launched online store; in February 2015, opened bricks-and-mortar store
Why a children’s bookstore? “We started [a Spanish-language children’s bookstore] because we were disenchanted with the quality and variety of books we could find for our own children in Los Angeles,” says Celene Navarette, who co-owns the store with Chiara Arroyo. “We could not believe that a city with five million Spanish speakers and growing numbers of schools offering bilingual programs did not have much wider and better access to the rich literary traditions of Latin America and Spain. Our store in Mid-City is a multipurpose space: it is an office and showroom for professionals during the week, a bookstore open to the public on the weekends, and a venue for a monthly series of literature, music, and art events.”
Challenges: “We knew our main challenge would be to draw customers by convincing them that we offer a product and service that the online global market cannot offer. The physical relation with the book and personalized attention cannot be replicated online, and this is particularly important in the case of children’s literature. In our case the challenge is compounded because authentic literature in Spanish is hard to find in the U.S., and unfortunately there is still limited knowledge about it. We have built a catalogue of thousands of titles traveling through Latin America and Spain. Promoting our books has been a challenge since most of [our] authors and illustrators live abroad, and their publishers cannot afford to send them to Los Angeles on promotion. There are also few professional or trade organizations or forums to learn what is going on in children’s literature in Spanish. Making the importing process efficient and cost effective was a much bigger challenge than we had anticipated. We sell books from dozens of publishers from more than 10 countries, and each supplier has different procedures and timelines, pricing and volume policies, and freight methods and costs.”
Sales: “Fantastic. We are profitable and growing, and we are already looking into moving to a bigger space soon. Last year we published the first book under our own label, a graphic science fiction novel about the life of Cesar Chavez, and we are considering publishing other books.”
Best thing that’s happened: “In addition to the overwhelming response from the Spanish-speaking community, we have been amazed to find a large and growing community of English-speaking families of all ethnicities that are committed to [ensuring] their children speak Spanish. To us, this reflects a big societal change in attitude towards a more diverse and inclusive culture and linguistic inclusiveness. It is very rewarding at a personal level to play a small role in this process.”
All-time bestsellers: Ruth Kaufman, Raquel Franco, and Diego Bianki’s Abecedario (Pequeño Editor); Francisca Palacios and Carmen Cardemil’s Niños de América (Editorial Amanuta); ISOL’s Secretos de familia (Fondo de Cultura Económica); and Frédéric Kessler’s Y sin embargo se quieren (Tramuntana).
Let’s Play Books!
Emmaus, Pa.; 800 sq. ft.
Opened: November 2013, open house on Small Business Saturday; grand opening February 2014
Why a children’s bookstore? “We had to relocate to Pennsylvania,” founder and owner Kirsten Hess says. “I had recently left [R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Ct.] and couldn’t imagine going back to the corporate world. In 2009, I had started an organization called Let’s Play Books! However, it had nothing to do with selling books. The mission was to connect children with the love of story. So I decided to merge the two ideas. Our tagline is ‘Stirring Imagination, Engaging Creativity, and Developing Character, One Book at a Time.’ ”
Challenges: “The expected ones—operational costs, the ease of purchasing books on Amazon, competing with big box stores. Through my experience at R.J. Julia, I was prepared to an extent [for] just how much work is involved in running a shop. Bookshop owners and managers have such a broad range of duties and responsibilities, from the business, marketing, and customer-service aspects to an unbelievably huge product base, which requires historical and current knowledge and context in order to serve customers well. Of course, there have been unexpected challenges, basic small-business management for one. I was not adequately prepared to play the role of owner, book buyer, gift buyer, marketing coordinator, events coordinator, accounts payable/receivable, and to staff the floor all day every day. I struggle with this still. If I am doing my job well, customers want to be in my store. However, when I’m with customers, my favorite part of the business, I’m not tackling the never-ending list of must-do-today items.”
Sales: Consistently up, some months as much as 150%. In fact, sales have been so strong that in September, Hess is moving the store two blocks away and more than doubling its size to roughly 1,800 sq. ft.
Best thing that’s happened: “Hosting author Alex Gino for their book, George. Their visit showcased to my community members our [store’s] basic premise, which is celebrating who we are. The bookmark for the book even says ‘Be. Who. You. Are.’ How perfect! Our children’s bookstore is a place of wonder, a place you can be yourself, a place you are welcome. Everyone. Always.”
All-time bestsellers: Chris Colfer’s the Land of Stories series (Little, Brown); Sylvia Long’s board book Hush Little Baby (Chronicle).
Make Way for Ducklings
Boston; 1,200 sq. ft.
Opened: September 2014; forced to move from a 5,000 sq. ft. location at Faneuil Hall’s North Market endcap to a significantly smaller space in April 2016
Why a children’s bookstore? In 2012, Adam and Jamie Hirsch opened their first children’s bookstore named for a popular children’s book character with local ties, when they reopened the Curious George store in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., which had been closed for a year. Authors Margret and H.A. Rey lived just blocks from the store for many years. Two years later the Hirsches decided to try another store named for a children’s book character, Robert McCloskey’s beloved Make Way for Ducklings, published in 1941. “With the ducklings theme and the bronze statues in the Public Garden, and no other children’s-themed store in the area, we thought Faneuil Hall would be a perfect place for our offering,” cofounder and co-owner Adam Hirsch says.
Challenges: “With our close proximity to the construction on the new glass building at the front of the North Market and our limited window presence, it’s been a bit of a challenge drawing the right eyes into the store.”
Sales: “A bit off” from the previous location.
Best thing that’s happened: “My team performed a Herculean task in transitioning the store. We have great product and it’s merchandised really well. I have an extraordinarily skilled team.”
All-time bestseller: Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings (Viking).
Ollie’s Other Place
Middlebury, Vt.; 900 sq. ft.
Opened: November 2015
Why a children’s bookstore? “We opened Ollie’s in part because of the impending disruption of business at the Vermont Book Shop, our parent store, during repair of two railroad bridges in the middle of downtown Middlebury,” says Jenny Lyons, sales/marketing manager of the Vermont Book Shop and Ollie’s. “But really it was a desire to create a place where people could find clever and creative kids’ books and gifts. It was a niche that needed to be filled in our town.”
Challenges: “One challenge was where to draw the line in the types of children’s books we would carry. We decided to focus on gift editions of classic books that could be paired with corresponding merchandise, classic and contemporary books for baby shower gifts, and fun activity books, coloring books, mazes, and lift-the-flaps, as well as some educational nonfiction.”
Sales: Business is going well. “The neighborhood is happy to have us, and I think we are reaching a whole new pool of customers.”
Best thing that’s happened: “The fun energy of the store is infectious. It is such a bright, happy place to be. We always have a new toy sample out to play with. And everyone who walks through the door has nothing but welcoming things to say. It has been really fun.”
All-time bestsellers: John and Jennifer Churchman’s The SheepOver (Little, Brown). The store also does well with books by another local author-illustrator, Ashley Wolff.
Second Star to the Right Bookstore
Denver, Colo.; 1,100 sq. ft.
Opened: November 2014
Why a children’s bookstore? “The dream of a children’s bookstore was always there in the back of my mind while I was teaching,” cofounder and co-owner Dea Lavoie says. “I would get so excited when a child discovered that love of books, and I wanted to expand on that and create a place that was magical and nurturing. I thought about how I would decorate it, from the glitter in the ceiling paint to the bell on the door. My husband, Marc, was also a teacher, and as teachers we had seen the need in the area for a children’s-only bookstore. There are many wonderful bookstores, but very few that serve only young readers. With so many beautifully written and illustrated stories, we felt that such a place should exist.”
Challenges: “Going in we knew the learning curve would be steep, as we had no retail experience or business background. We also wondered if having a store of only children’s books would be financially viable. We’ve been fortunate in meeting the people we have, at just the right time, who have helped us to gain the expertise we needed.”
Sales: Up more than 50% over last year—and they continue to grow.
Best thing that’s happened: It was exciting to have their store named Best Bookstore 2016 by Denver A-List. But another of Dea Lavoie’s favorite moments took place one summer morning: “We had kids’ yoga going on outside, the toy room was opening, kids were everywhere laughing, and we just looked at each other and said, ‘This is just like we had dreamed.’ ”
All-time bestseller: Dallas Clayton’s It’s Never Too Late (Putnam).
Stories Bookshop + Storytelling Lab
Brooklyn, N.Y.; 650 sq. ft., including a storytelling lab
Opened: May 2016
Why a children’s bookstore? “I’m one of those writers who has always nurtured a bookshop fantasy, and when my first son was born and I began to discover the world of contemporary children’s books and rediscover my favorites and classics from my own childhood, I really fell in love,” cofounder and co-owner Maggie Pouncey says. “Our house was soon completely overrun with picture books. I truly believe we’re in a golden age of children’s literature and celebrating that in a children’s bookshop became a more and more urgent dream for me. My husband, Matt Miller, was the CTO of an education-technology company, and he was ready to make a transition, and we began to talk about doing this together, being business partners. I also teach writing and so at the same time we began to develop the idea of two symbiotic businesses: the bookshop and the storytelling lab, where we teach bookmaking, illustrating, creative writing, and other storytelling arts to kids, and have local authors and illustrators teach master classes to kids.
Challenges: “We applied for a small-business loan to start the business, and that was a process with way more complexity than we initially understood. We also decided to do some crowdfunding. Running a Kickstarter campaign was a big new challenge for us, too, but also a wonderful way of engaging our community before we even opened our doors. And, of course, there were construction challenges and thousands of design and inventory decisions. So there has been occasional decision fatigue, but a huge reward of joy as the pieces all come together.”
Best thing that’s happened: “It’s just a miracle to watch the thing that once lived as an idea in our heads become a physical space that other people can inhabit and make their own. Matt and I are still pinching ourselves.”
All-time bestsellers: Mo Willems’s The Thank You Book (Disney-Hyperion) and the first book in John Bemelmans Marciano and Sophie Blackall’s Witches of Benevento series, Mischief Season (Viking)—“my older son’s staff pick.”
Teich Toys & Books
New York City; 1,000 sq. ft.
Opened: June 2014
Why a children’s bookstore? “My husband [J.J. McGowan] and I had been selling a small selection of handmade toys and children’s books by local authors at our original gift store, Teich, up the street,” says Allison Teich McGowan. “That area of the shop was very popular, and we decided to open a store entirely devoted to toys and books nearby [in Manhattan’s West Village]. As local parents, we knew there was a clear demand for [a children’s bookstore] in the neighborhood.”
Challenges: “Honestly, the book aspect of our business is the least challenging out of everything. There is such an amazing selection out there, and though it’s hard to carry everything we like or that our customers want, we find there is a huge demand for interesting children’s books. We try to keep a very curated selection so that it’s not overwhelming and our staff is familiar enough that they can make great recommendations. I find that with books more than anything else, people want to touch them.”
Sales: Beating last year.
Best thing that’s happened: “As a member of the community, it’s been fun to get to know the community more. And I have so many wonderful employees.”
All-time bestsellers: New York City–themed books: Adam Gamble’s Good Night New York City (Good Night Books) and Pop-Up New York (Lonely Planet).