Children's Features

Checking In
Judith Rosen -- 2/12/01
An update on 11 children's independents that have opened in the past six years

In This Article:
Also, More New Stores

Three years ago, when children's bookstores were beginning to close their doors at an alarming rate, PW looked at nearly a dozen gutsy booksellers braving the tough retailing climate of the late '90s and opening new children's stores (Children's Books, Apr. 6, 1998). At the time, chain superstores were already moving into many urban areas, and's ability to siphon off sales from bricks-and-mortar stores was just starting to be felt.

In revisiting these bookselling newbies, the good news is that only two stores have closed--David's Books in West Roxbury, Mass., and Read to Me in Wichita Falls, Tex. That puts this group way ahead of most small businesses, half of which close after four years, according to the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy.

Of the remaining nine stores, several have significantly increased their sales and space, and one, Birth & Beyond in Seattle, added a third location only to close it within a year. Curiosity Corner in San Carlos, Calif., was the only store to merge with another--Milo's Toy Chest & Bookstore--and move to a considerably smaller but more profitable space.

Although each store has a very different approach when it comes to mixing books and sidelines--in some instances adding adult titles, in others forging a presence on the Internet--all are active in their communities and appear to be well on the road to long-term success.

A Sense of SpaceFrom July through December last year, the four-year-old Great Horned Owl Children's Bookstore in Louisville, Colo., six miles east of Boulder, experimented with selling adult books at a nearby coffee shop. Although co-owner Carolyn Harrington termed it "very successful," it's
An ad on the local cable TV station has
brought customers to Great Horned Owl
in Louisville, Colo.
not something she plans to repeat. Having to take care of a second location stretched her and her staff too thin.
But Great Horned Owl will continue to stock some general adult fiction and nonfiction, as well as regional Colorado titles. Since the store's main focus is children's books, Harrington relies on the ABA's bimonthly BookSense 76 list to guide her when ordering adult books. Her philosophy: "if you make BookSense big, it will be big. We have a top 10 BookSense shelf. It definitely has a prime spot in our store." Last fall, the store went live with its Web site through BookSense. "We haven't gotten many orders from it," Harrington conceded, "but it's good to be connected."

In addition to adult books, Great Horned Owl's sidelines include such upscale children's toys as Madame Alexander dolls, plush and puzzles. Harrington has also responded to customer requests for journals for adults and young adults, stationery and cards. The store's product mix is still weighted toward children's books. Overall, said Harrington, "we have 60% books and 40% nonbooks, but it's all book-related."

Among Harrington's biggest finds this past year was not a book, but a way of promoting her store. In December, Great Horned Owl began advertising on local cable TV, which proved to be surprisingly affordable--and effective. "We're going to up our presence," she said. "We have a sign up near the register saying, 'Have you seen our ad?' and people say, 'I've seen it.' "

Dragonwings Bookstore in Waupaca, Wis., got off to such a good start that in 1999 it moved to a building downtown where it could triple its selling space to 1,500 square feet and its stock to 10,000 items. Owner Ellen Davis, who began by selling books from her home before she opened her store in a mall in 1995, chose to make the switch away from mall retailing because of
The owners of Dragonwings in Waupaca,
Wis., are involved in community affairs,
started a yearly children's art show and
here, hold a tea party.
Waupaca's involvement in the Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thanks to the program, the community's downtown got a much-needed facelift. Davis, who prides herself on having "a very family-oriented store," was also impressed by a Main Street survey showing that 72% of the people in Waupaca are looking for more opportunities for families.
But Davis's strong sales aren't all due to the new location. In part it is what she did with the extra space. Davis credits B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore's The Experience Economy for helping her transform Dragonwings into what she described as "a store that provides a real experience for our customers." To do so, she customized the interior of the new store by bringing the outdoors in. She installed a five-foot-tall sculpture fashioned from a cottonwood tree that kids can climb. There's also a little pond surrounded by an oak bench, and trees that she brought into the store from her own backyard.

Like all good booksellers, Davis has changed her stock to reflect what her customers want. Prompted in part by her 14-year-old son and his friends, she now has a wall of War Hammer rule books, novels and figures. This Dungeons-and-Dragons-like fantasy game has enabled Dragonwings to attract older boys ages 12 to 15, who don't typically shop in children's bookstores.

Davis's community connections also help bring in customers. Even before she opened the store, Davis and her husband organized the annual Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, which last year drew 13,000 people to the small town. Last year, Davis and three other Main Street bookstores launched the first Waupaca book festival. It was so successful that Davis will chair it again this year.

Davis has also gotten a good response from the community for her annual children's art show. Hers is for elementary and middle school students, who are too young to participate in the town's art show sponsored by the local arts council. Just like the art show for high schoolers and adults, Davis's is juried and all the art is for sale. "We wanted to do it this way," Davis explained, "so kids can have the experience of being real artists."

Howdy, PartnerLike Davis, Nancy Stone, co-owner of Children's Book Express in Denton, Tex., 30 miles from Fort Worth, works hard to make shopping at her store special. "You have to do something to compete with the Internet," said Stone. "We try to make it eye appealing, and we have a couple of tapes with soothing music. We have candles and potpourri; we appeal to all the senses." The store d s a lot of displays with books and related items, including bulletin board aids, which it now stocks since a local teacher supply store went out of business.

Going it alone was tough for Stone, and in 1999, she asked her sister, Pat Christensen, to become a partner in the business. "You need another person a lot of times to bounce ideas off of and to re-energize yourself," said Stone. With her sister's help, Stone was soon ready to increase her space. In fall 1999, they moved the store to a nearby Victorian-style building, which doubled their previous space, to 3,000 square feet. "We actually moved by pushing our bookshelves right up the sidewalk on dollies," said Christensen.

The new store, which had been a restaurant, is divided into a lot of little rooms for different age groups. Young children can follow paw prints painted throughout the store to a play area under the stairs. Stone and Christensen would like to continue to build their business with an eye to selling it in the not too distant future. Both of their husbands are nearing retirement age, and the two sisters want the store to succeed after them, when they too are ready to retire.

Last April, CeCe Wilkerson closed Curiosity Corner: A Children's Bookstore in San Carlos, Calif., just one month before its fourth anniversary. She and a friend purchased the neighborhood toy store and renamed it Milo's Toy Chest & Bookstore. "It's been fabulous having a partner," Wilkerson said with enthusiasm. "The first three years I worked every day. In mid-December, I fell and broke my leg. If I hadn't had a partner, it would have been tough."

Wilkerson had to pare down her stock significantly to make the new location, an 800-square-foot store--just half the size of her old one--work. Because of her limited space, Wilkerson has had to give up birthday parties and reduce book fairs to just three a year. But she has maintained her contacts with local schools and still d s a number of author events with them.

As secretary for the Northern California Children's Booksellers Association, Wilkerson has had a chance to compare notes with a number of children's booksellers. Even so, she has no regrets about her reorganization of the store or the shift to a smaller location. In fact, she's found the truth in the old real estate maxim "location, location, location." "One block really makes a
A signing by Eric Carle drew 1,000 people
to Treehouse Readers in Kingwood, Tex.,
where in-store events are key to the store's
difference," she said. She found that her customers value convenience above all. "This store was the better site. There's parking and it's on the main street," She has also found that "the margin on toys is greater and more people want toys. It brings in a lot of new faces." Currently, only one-third of the stock is books, but the new location is going so well that Wilkerson is planning to expand the book section over the coming months. She and her partner are also looking for a larger location nearby.
Soon after Diedre House opened Book Ends & Beginnings in the college community of Oneonta, N.Y., she moved to a bigger space, which enabled her to carry an inventory of 20,000 different titles. Now she is expanding the six-year-old store once again, but this time into toys. It's one way she can differentiate her business from competitors like a local BJ's and a nearby Walden, which discount popular titles like the Harry Potter books. It's far harder to vie with the Internet, which House regards as her biggest competitor.

As a one-woman bookstore, Book Ends & Beginnings d sn't have the staff to host a lot of events, but House works with area schools on author events when she can. She also d s some book fairs and encourages educators to shop at her store by offering teacher and home-school discounts and stocking some teacher resource materials.

Despite her hard work, House is the only bookseller to pass the critical four-year mark and still characterize her business as "tough." Even so, she added, "we're still hanging in there."

Back to BasicsLyndsey Starkey did so well with her two Birth & Beyond stores in the Seattle area that four years after the first one opened, she decided to open a third. At the same time, she felt ready to change her product mix--which ranges from birthing tubs to fertility statues and books--and add more toys. "It was a bad decision," said Starkey, who characterized 1999 as "a scary year." After closing the new store and refocusing on her three biggest draws--books, breast pumps and nursing bras--her business bounced back in 2000. Now, she said, "we're doing quite well."

One experiment that did work for Starkey was the lending library for books and videos on childbirth, breast-feeding and infant care that she set up several years ago. She has found that it has definitely increased sales. "I've had a lot of people check out a book from the library and then come back and buy it," she observed.

Given Birth & Beyond's location in the heart of computer country--both Microsoft and Amazon are located in the area--it's not surprising that her customers are Web connected and that Amazon is a big competitor. "People would come and make lists of the books they were going to buy through Amazon," said Starkey. Fortunately, she added, "We haven't seen that in the last year. People are finally starting to get it. So many little stores have closed."

Starkey has also fought back with her own Web site,, which she launched last year to promote gift items for new mothers. Now that she's gotten the rights to the domain name back from a group of pediatricians who had been using her store's name for their Web site, Starkey has hired a designer for her second site, which will feature books and other nongift items.

Leslye Lawrence, owner of Seeds of Changes in Capitola, Calif., feels like she is starting over personally and professionally after five years in business. Since her divorce last year, she became the sole proprietor of the store, which she founded with her husband. "Doing it on my own and home-schooling my son has been challenging," said Lawrence, who has learned the hard way that "a store only grows as much as people are capable of letting it happen."

Other than cutting back on storytelling events, Lawrence is planning no major changes for now. The store's inventory will continue to be predominantly books and music. "Music and rhythm instruments for kids are probably our biggest sidelines," Lawrence said. After closing for the month of January to regroup and catch up on paperwork, she's looking forward to making the store work. To help get her business back on track--the store had a great year in 1999--she has hired a management consultant.

Flying Pig Children's Books in Charlotte, Vt., is, well, flying high after a great Christmas. Business was up 20% over last year, which co-owner Elizabeth Bluemle attributes to doing "the unthinkable. We did our sale for three weeks before Christmas." The store then closed until mid-January so that Bluemle and partner Josie Leavitt could take a much-needed break. Hiring more staff is on the top of their to-do list for 2001.

As for sales in general, Bluemle said, "Yes, we're in the black. We've actually surpassed what we expected. It's surprised us how ambitious we've gotten. We do want it to keep growing." In the five years since Flying Pig opened, its inventory has more than quadrupled. Adult titles, which it carried from the start, continue to be the biggest sideline, accounting for 30% of sales.

The store has an active events schedule for both children and adults. Bluemle described the authors and illustrators who have visited the store--including Sharon Creech, Thacher Hurd and Steven Kellogg--as "just top-notch, wonderful people." Sometimes the store partners with the New England Culinary Institute for book-and-cook events like the Phantom Tollbooth Square Meal or a Murder Mystery Dinner, at which adults solve an original mystery written by Leavitt.

Five-year-old Treehouse Readers in Kingwood, Tex., is also event-centric. "We hired a full-time events person last year, and I just hired another person part-time," said owner Susan Kent, who previously worked on events with the store manager. The events staff is kept busy with signings like one they had with Eric Carle in October, attended by 1,000 people, and special events, such as the Battle of the Schools, a daylong affair featuring one storyteller from each school. The kids then vote on their favorite storyteller. In 1999, only five schools participated in the battle. Last year it jumped to nine. Next year, Kent is hoping to have all 12 area schools take part.

Kent considered moving to a larger space last year, but, she said, "we decided not to because we have so much money in the expansion and it's a perfect location anyway." Instead, she increased her book inventory, added more toys to satisfy those looking for birthday presents, and put up shelves on every bare wall. The result was what Kent regards as "an excellent Christmas. In the last quarter we actually increased our business 25% over last year. That's our biggest increase for one quarter ever."

While not every bookseller contacted is posting double-digit increases like Kent at Treehouse Readers and Bluemle at Flying Pig, all share a willingness and flexibility to experiment with space, stock and events. They also have similar smalltown settings--whether in college communities or suburban or rural areas--that give their stores neighborhood appeal. As Caron Chapman, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, observed, "Every store is as unique as every person can be." Vive la différence.

More New Stores
If relatively few children's bookstores were opening in 1995 and 1996, today there are even fewer. Caron Chapman, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, still fields a lot of phone calls from people who are considering opening a children's bookstore, but only a handful follow through. "They're talking about it," said Chapman, "but they don't open." Not that she regards the slowdown in new children's stores as necessarily a bad thing. "If there is a good body of booksellers, that may be all that's needed. Probably at any given point, there are 150 good children's book specialists."
The children's bookstores that have started in the last year and a half show the same variety as older independents. Even so, Karen Lee Amey's Under the Storytelling Tree, which opened last June in Cullman, Ala., stands out. An educator and puppeteer for 35 years, Amey needed a way to make a living and be with her extended family.
For her, the bookstore, which was originally a doctor's office, fits the bill, and she has decorated every square inch to encourage reading. Even the huge brontosaurus painted in the boys' bathroom, called Fossil Cave, is shown reading, as is the family of mermaids in the girls' bathroom, called the Blue Lagoon. There's a room for Amey's mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, and expectant parents can join her and read to their babies in utero. Amey can also keep an eye on her two young grandchildren, ages seven and two, in the store. Their mother, Angi Person, is the store's business manager, and is expecting another child soon.
Having a bookstore enables Amey to work with her collection of 500 puppets at storytelling times and at birthday parties, which help make up the difference when book sales are slow. As she sees it, "I'm in the best of all worlds. I'm surrounded by my children and my books."
Eddi Miglavs, whose store is called Mud Puddles Toys & Books in Sherwood, Ore., also made a career change when she opened her store in fall 1999. A child and family therapist for 12 years, she wanted to have a hands-on place, where every book is displayed face out. To date, the store has "just taken off wonderfully well," said Miglavs, who is looking to move a year ahead of schedule. "I have plans to double my space in a couple of months, and the majority of that will be books," she said.
Cathy Goyette wasn't planning to deal with two babies at once, but that's the way it turned out. She opened Big Ideas for Little Peoplein Sierra Madre, Calif., last July, and her daughter is due to give birth anytime now. Goyette's background in television finance also left her a little unprepared for the day-to-day operations of running a bookstore, but she is up to the challenge. "I'm having fun," said Goyette. "I've gotten a lot of support from the community. People think you're going to open your doors and customers are going to walk right in, but it takes time."
Now that former schoolteacher Mary Marlow's kids are grown, she decided to open the Book Mouse Bookshop in Atkinson, N.H., just half a mile from the Massachusetts border. Despite the lure of the ice cream parlor across the way and storytellings and parties for American Girls and Angelina Ballerina, Marlow has been finding the store, which has been open for a year and a half, "a tough sell."
It has been hard for her to get the community to think in terms of shopping locally. For example, even though the teacher discount she offers is the same as Barnes & Noble's, few educators shop at the Book Mouse. Even worse, she said, "People think the preprinted price of my books is higher than the printed-on price at Barnes & Noble."
The Children's Bookshoppe in Cedarburg, Wis., which opened in November 1999, is also struggling. "This has been a dream of my wife's for three or four years," explained Mark Linus, who also owns an electrical contracting business and d s municipal inspections. His wife, who works from home so she can take care of their three kids, handles most of the buying. The first year, the store cleared just over $100,000. "Our goal," said Linus, "is to be in the $200,000 range in three years."
As Chapman observed, "Every store is as unique as every person can be." For those who have the right mix of town and region--with a lot of families with young children--she finds that "if the owner is integral to their community, that's quite often what makes the difference." In the end, successful children's bookselling is about making connections not just with young readers, but with schools, libraries, businesses and neighbors.
--Judith Rosen