This fall, Children’s Book World in Los Angeles hit a major milestone by turning 30. Owner Sharon Hearn began her career as a reading teacher in rural Ohio with plans to open a teacher supply store when she moved back to Los Angeles with her husband. That was until she participated in a book fair and realized she liked books “a whole lot more than teacher supplies.” So she opened and ran a book fair company out of her parents’ garage for seven years, and then with the money from that, opened Children’s Book World on October 6, 1986.
For the next seven years she ran both the store and the book fair business together, which she called “very grueling” until she took the leap to focus her efforts solely on the store. Initially it was one storefront, until she annexed two neighboring storefronts for her current combined 2,700 square feet of space. Of that, 2,100 square feet is retail space, and she has kept a small warehouse in the back.
Part of what has made the store a success for the last three decades, Hearn says, is that from the beginning, the store got a lot of support from the neighborhood and the schools. Yet over the years she has witnessed many changes, mostly the appearance and disappearance of other stores in the area. The first was when Crown Books opened up three blocks away from Hearn, then a Barnes and Noble also opened a few blocks away. While she weathered the competition, Hearn says it’s ironic that when those stores closed, she was sad. “I was sad that they closed because it was a time when bookstores were closing all over the city. It left no general bookstore in this area. Even though we did get a bump in sales I found it very disturbing.” The other big change, of course, is the appearance of the Internet, “the thing that’s not going away” Hearn says.
What’s allowed the store to survive is that Hearn has made sure to “stay the course” on her vision, which included having a “very helpful knowledgeable staff” and offering a range of diverse titles even back when the store opened in the ’80s. “We’ve always had a strong multicultural section,” she says. “There weren’t many books to pick from then. It’s been a big focus of ours from the start so we have a very diverse clientele.”
Brein Lopez, the store’s manager, who has worked in Los Angeles for more than 25 years as an independent bookseller (including Book Soup and Every Picture Tells a Story), says that Children’s Book World is “more than just a place to buy books. For 30 years it has been a source for young people and their elders, for educators, and lovers of good literature. Sharon has proudly placed her brand on the store with dedicated showcases all year long to multiple cultural celebrations, focuses on social justice and civil liberties, and a commitment to reaching a diverse clientele throughout Los Angeles.”
Hearn calls the business over the decades “really steady”; the only serious blow was that of the 2008 recession. “That was the first recession that we really felt,” she says. “But it was never at the point where I thought we would need to close.” The success of the store is also in part due to the neighborhood support. “We are lucky with the demographics where we are,” says Hearn of the West Los Angeles neighborhood where the store is based.
While online shopping has become a habit for many consumers, Hearn said her customers are committed to shopping local, at least when it comes to books. “My office door is right by the back entrance, so I hear comments from customers coming in and out all the time,” said Hearn. On Small Business Saturday she heard “so many comments from people telling their kids they wanted to come here to support us. The community on the whole has been very supportive.”
In addition, the store has always held many events, and also creates custom baskets of books. “We’re trying to do things that make people want to think of us first.”
The store has two charity arms that provide underserved communities access to quality books. The first is a recycled book garage stocked with slightly damaged books from the store alongside donations from customers; nonprofit groups gather books from the garage to distribute to children. The store also has a project, started with a grant from James Patterson, called Readers and Writers Rock where “we bring in kids from low-income schools or we take an author to a low-income school and we give each child a free book,” Hearn says. “Those are my favorite things to do.” Another program starting in 2017, based on a donation and request from author Dav Pilkey, will be bringing classes from lower-income areas into the store to pick whatever book they would like.
Lopez calls the store “a remarkable place” and Hearn “a wonderful boss and owner.” He adds, “Her commitment to having a staff of full-time employees with a commitment to and love of reading is exemplary in the business world. Today we have grandparents bringing in their grandkids after three decades of visiting with their own kids.”
Hearn is optimistic about the future, not only for her stores but other independent bookstores, despite the challenges they face. “We’re really thankful to have such a supportive community around us,” she says. “It’s a hard environment for a bookstore. The Internet is growing and growing. But I do think especially for children’s books there will always be a market for physical books. I haven’t seen anything on an iPad that can compete with a physical picture book.”