In the months since Hipocampo Children’s Books has reopened to in-person browsing, a group of pre-teens and teens have made the space a regular stop on their wanderings through the Rochester, N.Y., neighborhood where it opened two years ago. Their relationship to the store is as new as the store itself, but their ties to the owners go much deeper. All were kindergarten students of co-owner Henry I. Padrón-Morales in the dual-language immersion program at the nearby Anna Murray Douglass Academy School No. 12. One is the son of Padrón-Morales’s business partner Pamela Bailie.

For Bailie and Padrón-Morales the bookstore’s existence is a tribute to changes in the world of children’s books. They met through the school as Padrón-Morales was headed toward retirement, both excited at the existence of #OwnVoices children’s books that were never on the shelves of bookstores when they were kids. “We were both seeing that there was starting to be a change in some of the literature that was coming out,” Bailie said. “It was becoming a little more reflective of the many cultures and the many backgrounds of people in the United States.”

That change took on particular significance for the two given the diversity of Rochester, where nearly 40% of the population is African American and almost 20% are Latino. So instead of retiring, Padrón-Morales teamed up with Bailie to create a bookstore where they could celebrate books by authors about cultures reflected in their own community.

Neither had any experience in bookselling, but they knew picture books and early readers—and, most importantly, they knew their community. Starting in 2017, they began planning the store and started scouting locations for the right spot. Time and again, they came back to the neighborhood near the school. The school sits atop the site where civil rights leaders Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass made their home, and the alleyways of the nearby streets are lined with murals honoring the deep heritage of the place. One day, Padrón-Morales walked inside a storefront that was up for lease on a highly trafficked street in the neighborhood and knew it was the place to open the bookstore.

“The plaque says it’s an 1857 building, and all of a sudden it hit me,” Padrón-Morales said. “Frederick Douglass may have walked into this when it was an apothecary in his day. He walked up and down this street. How many places are there, where there is a history that goes back to the industrial age, where all these buildings were brick-and-mortar? It gave me a nostalgic feeling. It gave me a feeling of connection.”

Bailie and Padrón-Morales originally hoped to open in November 2018, but their small business loans were held up by the government shutdown. They opened in spring 2019 instead, with board books, picture books, early readers, chapter books, middle grade, and YA titles, mixing in an abundant stock of multicultural and #OwnVoices books with classics and new releases. But as they neared their first anniversary, the pandemic ground their operations to a halt.

Still, they persevered and settled into a division of roles—Bailie handles logistics and finances while Padrón-Morales works the counter and plans events—and hit the targets in their business plan. Pre-pandemic, Hipocampo drew customers by inviting authors, artists, and musicians, who crafted storytimes, performances, and sing-alongs. During the pandemic, Padrón-Morales opened a Covid-safe micro-school program in the bookstore that immediately attracted 20 applicants, from which he picked four pupils.

Emerging from the pandemic, the store has enough sales, foot traffic, and demand that the co-owners are adding some adult titles and preparing to make their first hire. They are also looking to grow as readers themselves. Padrón-Morales is a Nuyorican from Brooklyn. Bailie is Irish and Turkish, from Belfast. Neither had read the new wave of #OwnVoices YA books until they opened Hipocampo.

“I didn’t know that the whole YA world had developed into something so strong,” Bailie said. “When you’re reading these books, it’s so rare that you’re just having one feeling. You’ve got this whole wide, full range of emotions and feelings and thoughts. I love it. It feels more realistic.”

Now Padrón-Morales and Bailie want more, hoping that publishers will continue to expand what they publish for the children they see taking those books down off the shelves at Hipocampo. For both owners, those readers’ experiences are where everything begins and ends.

“There’s an energy we’re seeing, that comes at us when people walk in, in how they feel the space,” Padrón-Morales said. “We love that energy. We love the physical composition of the brick-and-mortar, we love the community dynamic that’s occurring. I don’t mean to get mushy, but we come at this from a perspective of love.”