By doing what they’ve always done—putting the right books in the hands of children—the oldest children’s specialty bookstores, some of which have been around for decades, continue to be integral parts of their communities. “I don’t think the role of the bookstore has changed that much,” says Heather Hebert, manager of Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa. “When we opened [in 1989] our goal was to help children find books they didn’t want to put down, and that is still what we strive to do.” She sees opportunities to help even more children as the book industry evolves to include more diverse offerings at different reading levels.
Helping parents and children find the right book is also a key operating principle for JoAnn Fruchtman, who founded the Children’s Bookstore in Baltimore, Md., in 1978. “That is why we exist,” she says, “to help people find what they want and expand what they want to know.” When a mother came into the store recently because her six-year-old wanted to learn more about Martin Luther King, she ended up leaving with a stack of books that included Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born (HarperCollins/Tegen) and Last Stop on Market Street (Putnam). Fruchtman recommended the additional books because they really got to the heart of the boy’s question.
Carving Out a Niche
“I have to reinvent [the store] every year,” says Shirley Mullin, founder and owner of 31-year-old Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore in Indianapolis. About half of her sales come from outside the bookstore—institutional sales, authors in the schools, and conferences. Mullin also makes a point of selling class sets of the Young Hoosier Book Award winners. The librarians prefer to order from Kids Ink rather than library vendors, because, Mullin explains, they know that they’ll get all the books they ordered and they will be delivered for free.
Kids Ink’s relatively small 1,100-sq.-ft. store, but Mullin is able to make it work because she has a warehouse that is exactly the same size. There she and her staff can pull books for spring book fairs in conjunction with summer reading lists or author visits, such as one earlier this year by Bob Shea (Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, Roaring Brook). For Mullin, author and illustrator visits are particularly important because of their lasting impact. “[School visits] can make a child a reader,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll come in the store three years later and ask for a book by the author.”
Having a separate space to store books has also made a difference for the nation’s oldest children’s specialty bookstore, Once Upon a Time Bookstore in Montrose, Calif., which opened in 1966. Owner Maureen Palacios, who purchased the business in 2003, used a grant from James Patterson two years ago to add a storage shed, which the staff nicknamed Narnia. It allows the bookstore to hold books for multiple signings; it hosted 64 authors last April at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Palacios says that she couldn’t have done it without Narnia: “It’s been a godsend to us. It’s built our services and author events.”
Palacios, whose background is in human resources, credits smart staffing, along with storage, with the store’s success. Creativity also helps: Palacios is about to launch a subscription book club that combines writing with reading. Young people who sign up for Postcards from Pippi (Pippi Longstocking, the store cat), will receive a postcard from Pippi and will be encouraged to write back and become pen pals. “It’s our way of differentiating ourselves,” Palacios says.
The decision by Manhattan’s Bank Street College to move Bank Street Bookstore to a new 2,200-sq.-ft. space in March 2015 was a “major act of commitment to the college community, the neighborhood, and to the community of educators in New York,” says store manager Andy Laties. In the two years since, the bookstore has amped up its events schedule and now holds more than 300 free events a year. “Bookstores are now universally understood to serve as ‘third places,’ where community members can engage with one another,” Laties says. “Bank Street has embraced this role.”
Arguably, technology has had the biggest impact on how booksellers do their jobs, from buying via electronic catalogues to relying on POS systems in stores and social media to promote books and events. Children’s Book World is also one of several stores to move to online ticket agencies—it relies on Brown Paper Tickets for large-scale events, such as a recent one with teen dancer Maddie Ziegler (The Maddie Diaries, Simon & Schuster). The store also has an active website where it promotes events and programs, including its book subscription program, Book-a-Month Club, which has been growing at what Hebert calls “an impressive rate.”
Expanding Inventory to Stay Competitive
Though booksellers’ goal of getting kids to read hasn’t changed, the way they approach it has. For some, like 34-year-old Children’s Hour in Salt Lake City, that change came early. When Barnes & Noble was about to open its first superstore in the area, owner Diane Etherington began diversifying her inventory, first with toys, then some women’s sweaters, and now clothing, shoes, and jewelry for women and children. The Children’s Hour is the rare independent bookstore that boasts three changing rooms.
“We’re selling so many books to people who have not thought about buying books—it’s been really fun,” Etherington says. “Everything else allows us to sell books.” She credits her decision to turn the store into a boutique with helping the Children’s Hour differentiate itself from chain stores and continuing to make it a destination, despite the popularity of online shopping. Books line the back wall of the store and are divided by age, from infants on up. Adults shop in the store’s YA section as well as a small adult section that Etherington added because so many customers wanted to know what she was reading.
The addition of a significant number of adult books has been one of the biggest changes in children’s stores, particularly those in communities not served by general independents. As neighboring bookstores closed, Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Mass., began adding adult books. Since the 31-year-old bookstore, founded by Carol Chittenden, changed hands in January 2015, the new owners have upped the portion of the inventory that is for adults so that there are now almost as many adult as kids’ titles. “We only recently divided our books into children’s and adult,” says co-owner Sara Hines, who runs the children’s department. “They’d always just been ‘books.’ ” Although Eight Cousins’ name hearkens back to the childhood classic by Louisa May Alcott, the store changed its tagline in the spring to better reflect its inventory shift from “quality books for children” to “your local family bookshop.”
Fundamentals Children’s Books, Toys, and Games in Delaware, Ohio, one of Columbus’s fastest growing suburbs, also recently rebranded, after 29 years. Owner Tami Furlong, who opened the 1,300-sq.-ft. store to sell educational materials and then added more general interest kids’ titles a year later, still works with many teachers in her community. But she removed “parent-teacher store” from the bookstore’s name. “The most important thing to me all these years is flexibility,” Furlong says. That has meant adding some sidelines over the years and a shelf of adult titles, but she still keeps the focus on her favorite category: books for kids.
In recent years, some children’s stores that have transitioned to new owners have gotten makeovers. That’s been the case at 36-year-old Linden Tree Books in Los Altos, Calif., which Dianne Edmonds and Jill Curcio purchased from Linda and Dennis Ronberg in 2010. For starters, Edmonds and Curcio moved the bookstore down the street in 2011. They also took “children’s” out of the store name and hired an events manager to program more events, for all ages. With the move, Edmonds and Curcio broadened the inventory to include more YA books, even adding a teen board to help with selection, along with some adult titles, including cookbooks and travel books.
After close to seven years at the helm, Edmonds and Curcio continue to tinker. In the third quarter last year, they replaced WordStock with Lightspeed, a new POS system not typically used in the book market. And they have other ideas, including launching a newsletter for middle graders with kids’ reviews. Looking back to 2010, Edmonds says: “We’ve gone from a steam locomotive on one set of tracks to a rocket and the whole universe. The POS system was the last piece of getting the store into the new world.”
Holly Weinkauf purchased the Red Balloon Bookshop, a 33-year-old bookstore in St. Paul, Minn., founded by Michele Cromier-Poiré and Carol Erdahl, in August 2011. Two summers ago Weinkauf tried to beef up the store’s YA sales by moving the YA section to the basement and giving teens a separate space. She also started a teen book club. Last summer, she updated the main floor to create more display space and lowered the counter. “It allows us to have many more conversations with customers,” Weinkauf says. Earlier this year, she began a new project called Book Gathering, which involves creating a book list around a particular theme. In March, the store celebrated Women’s History Month with a Rad Women People gathering, and in May it hosted its first book swap.
When 33-year-old Magic Tree Books in Oak Park, Ill., changed hands in June 2015, new owner Beth Albrecht began tweaking the store’s inventory. Through her three teenage children, she got interested in webcomics and has begun selling more graphic novels. “The store has always had an attitude that embraces all: open and kind,” says Albrecht, noting that founders Iris Yipp and Rose Joseph long embraced diversity in all its forms. That said, Albrecht tries to be “a little more adventurous” in what she stocks. Her goal is to appeal to young, hip parents, while continuing to satisfy grandmothers, who remain the store’s bread-and-butter customers.
Paying It Forward
For many children’s booksellers, being part of the community means helping underserved kids. The 35-year-old Booktenders’ Secret Garden Children’s Bookstore & Gallery in Doylestown, Pa., does a large part of its business working with schools and bringing in authors such as nearby resident Jerry Spinelli. Founder and owner Ellen Mager gives back by collecting books for two “adopted” schools: one for fifth through eighth graders, the other for third through eighth graders.
Thanks to a customer who prefers to remain anonymous, Jean Fennacy, owner of Petunia’s Place in Fresno, Calif., which opened in 1978, has begun giving away envelopes filled with $20 bills to children ages 16 and under to buy books. The customer gave her six or seven envelopes before Christmas and continues to bring in more each time he stops by. Some of the recipients’ parents have asked Fennacy to keep the envelopes and give them to others whose needs are greater. With their help, Fennacy envisions keeping the free book program going well into summer.
Fruchtman at Children’s Bookstore wanted to do even more for disadvantaged kids in Baltimore. Early on in her bookselling career, she raised $1 million to create the Children’s Bookstore Educational Foundation to provide teachers with large quantities of books that they needed for their students, such as 350 copies of Things Fall Apart and 250 copies of Night. The books were then shipped to the store, and she and her staff boxed up books for the teachers to pick up.
Now Fruchtman is in the midst of transitioning the foundation to serve the city’s youngest children. She is moving the foundation’s money into the Baltimore Community Foundation, where it will be used in the city’s Judy Centers to provide books for preschool children and their families.
Like Booktenders’ Mager (or Miss Ellen, as she is known to her young customers), booksellers at stores of a certain age continue to bring in customers because they handsell and because they continue to change with the times. Despite her many years in the business, including earning the inaugural NAIBA Handseller of the Year Award, Mager continues to push for the best way to reach young readers. Even after all these years, she says, “I’m trying to hone in on what I can do to make [the store] work better.”