Service and selection may be bookstore essentials, but unusual and interesting store designs, coupled with the old adage "location, location, location," are often the determining factors in getting a customer to walk, skip or toddle through the door for the first time. Most successful stores have a single theme or image that they project from the front entrance to the bathrooms and the parking lot. It might be offbeat humor and the sheer fun of reading, like the Reading Reptile: Books & Tapes for Young Mammals in Kansas City, Mo., which promotes its homey, "remarkably lived-in look" on its store materials; or whimsy and fantasy like White Rabbit Children's Books in La Jolla and Costa Mesa, Calif. Whether the goal is to create a sense of open space and infinite possibilities à la Mrs. Nelson's Toy & Book Shop in La Verne, Calif., or sheer animal energy like the Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, Minn., every architectural decision has to create a special look that will stay fresh.

To find out how some innovative booksellers have transformed ordinary selling spaces into castles, lighthouses and woodland homes, PWcontacted a dozen booksellers from different parts of the country. Their approach to design is as unique as their selection for the 12 and under set.

The Experience Bookstore

Ellen Davis, owner of the six-year-old Dragonwings Bookstore in Waupaca, Wis., a tourist community north of Milwaukee, tries to make sure that her store offers customers a special experience. To do so, she has brought the outdoors in, literally. "We wanted to create an experience for our customer," Davis explained. "It's one of the things independent bookstores do best, because we have the freedom to create whatever we want. In these times, service is not enough."

Two years ago, when Davis moved Dragonwings into a larger, 1,500-square-foot location downtown, she decided to make a native cottonwood tree the store's focal point. "It's a sculpture made from a real tree that's six feet across," said Davis. "I wanted to bring a piece of artwork in the store that's completely touchable. There's a bench on the inside, and the whole base is a foot-and-a-half off the floor and forms a bench right around the tree."

Recently, Davis has begun incorporating the tree-inspired nature/fantasy theme throughout the store. She added a small tree to the front window, and attached saplings to each island display. Above the bookshelves are tree branches, which she decorates according to the season, and back in the science area, there's even a little woodland pond with saplings.

Shopping at the 10-year-old Wild Rumpus can also best be described as "an experience," one that more closely resembles what it's like to be in an animal house. Co-owner Collette Morgan visited a lot of children's bookstores in the U.S. and England before opening her own. "The main thing I came away with is, they're so boring," she said. To make sure that didn't happen to her store, she gutted both the hair salon and yarn store that had been there before, and incorporated them into one big space with the help of an architect friend, who won an American Institute of Architects award for the store's design.

Although Morgan wanted Wild Rumpus to feel like a "normal" bookstore when customers first enter, there's nothing ordinary about it. For starters, the entrance has a purple door with a child-size door cut into it that's an exact replica of the bigger one. Then, too, the sounds of birds, chickens and other animals fill the air. Wild Rumpus is probably the only store in the country where the booksellers have to make sure that the chicken and the ferret are not out of their cages at the same time. Fortunately, the rats never leave their glassed-in condo in "the haunted gardening shed" section of the store. Even the bathroom has a menagerie: of fish that are hidden behind a mirror made of two-way glass and can only be seen when the lights are out. "I joke," said Morgan, "that every kid in town knows how to go to the bathroom in the dark."

Even regulars don't always catch all the nuances of the space. According to Morgan, it took one customer years to notice the boots of the tree trimmer, who, according to store legend, got stuck when the sheetrockers finished the ceiling. Tucked into a corner of the store is three-quarters of a tree that seems to grow right through the ceiling, with a large ladder leaning next to it. The ominous boots are at the top of the ladder; Morgan uses the lower rungs, which are closer to eye level, to display books. At another spot, where the ceiling is 16 feet high, there's a huge crack that sheetrockers really did make at Morgan's request. Careful observers, i.e., kids, can spot a kayak and a body floating up there.

While these design elements have been in place from the start, Morgan looks at her space as fluid. "It changes in small ways," she said. "At one time, I wanted to have a stream going through the store. I ended up settling on a wishing well. I'm always looking for new ideas. For the last two years, I've had authors sign wall tiles, and I've got my Authors Wall of Fame going up."

The More Things Change

Change is also key to the 5,000-square-foot Enchanted Forest Books for Children in Dallas, Tex. "We keep our bookstore very dynamic," explained owner Jennifer Anglin. "We shut down Memorial Day weekend. That's when we rebuild the store to have something new over the summer." Since the BEA convention this year was so close to Memorial Day, Anglin moved up her construction by a month and gutted the party room, repainting it just in time for an autographing with Julie Andrews. One year, she constructed a freestanding castle that children entered through the arch of the turrets to get to the chapter-book area. Last year she built a gingerbread cottage to create a store-within-a-store to sell clothing and shoes.

True to its name, the Enchanted Forest has pillars that are decorated to look like trees, a sky-blue ceiling, signage that resembles clouds, and grass-green carpeting. A train zips along an oval track high in the air. Some weeks, Paddington Bear is the engineer, and other times Winnie the Pooh does the driving. The overall impression that Anglin seeks, she said, "is for kids to think that books are fun."

At Hobbit Hall Children's Bookstore in Roswell, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, "We've broken all the rules," said co-owner Anne Ginkel proudly. "We're in a historic house that's zoned residential and commercial." She has no regrets about design decisions that have been made since the store opened in 1992, including the bridge/ handicapped ramp that marks the store's entrance. It crosses over a goldfish pond, or moat, and is a popular spot for birthday party photos. "We've always been happy with the bridge. It sets us apart from chain bookstores that look like every other bookstore," Ginkel said.

As at Dragonwings, the outdoors plays an important role at Hobbit Hall, which has a strong focus on nature. "When we expanded the store six years ago," said Ginkel, "we added more windows and skylights. We have many more windows than most children's bookstores." Out back, readily accessible from the two downstairs program rooms, is a large and inviting backyard. School groups often stay for lunch, eat at the store's picnic tables, and then play in the replica of a 200-year-old barn. The front of the barn has a stage, which is used for author presentations, as well as Hobbit Hall's summer drama camp.

Space has not been an issue for Judy Nelson, owner of Mrs. Nelson's Toy & Book Shop, since she moved her store in 1990 from its original strip-mall location into a 6,000-square-foot house. "We would have taken more space if the city hadn't been so restrictive," said Nelson, whose store is located in an area that is zoned residential. "The way we designed it, it's one big space, but you go through doors to get to the office and the bathroom."

On the west side of the store, Nelson keeps a large open area that can be filled with chairs for big events. For smaller story times, she usually just pulls out a quilt for the kids to sit on. Other parts of the store have ceiling-high book towers as well as shorter bookcases that are connected by trestles. That's where Nelson displays many of the plush characters that are sold in the store.

(S)mall Is Beautiful

Making an interior entrance stand out is not always easy to do in a suburban mall. At Mr. McGregor's Garden Children's Books and Toys in Fort Wayne, Ind., "We used canvas-striped awning on the windows outside and a cedar front, so it really seems like a house," said co-owner Debbie Stafford. In keeping with its homey image, Mr. McGregor's Garden hired a local artist to paint the soffit above the cash-wrap area, which proclaims "Where Children Love to Grow." When the store moved to its current location three years ago, it also replaced its homemade shelving with Franklin fixtures. "That's probably the best thing we did," said Stafford. "It made all the difference in the world. Now we have endcaps and a better way to display books. They make so much better use of your space."

When Susan Malk opened a second White Rabbit bookstore in Costa Mesa last year, she wanted the new store to stand out. "It's difficult being in a mall," she said. You have to have something to draw people in." Instead of having a regular door for an entrance, she designed a wrought-iron gate with a cutout of a child reading a book in the center. "It's meant to give a feeling that it's a little magical," she said.

Nor has Malk ignored the stroller set. She's been careful to include plenty of displays that young ones can look up to in both stores. In Costa Mesa, a mobile of the Little Prince hangs above the counter, and in the back, there's a mock skylight framing a train that represents the Little Engine That Could. In La Jolla, red and yellow airplanes hang at the front of the store. Toward the middle, a tinker-toy-like fixture breaks up the space and can be used to display oversized plush toys. In the back, a train track is suspended from the ceiling. "We have two trains, which is very exciting for the kids," said Malk. "They think they're going to crash."

Last Christmas, Books, Etc., located in a tourist-oriented section of downtown Portland, Me., expanded by opening a store in the nearby bedroom community of Falmouth. According to children's buyer Donna Gerardo, the new store has a much stronger children's area. "When I review sales for the week, for the downtown store, I might have to review 60 books, and here in Falmouth, it's 900." To reach Falmouth's children's section, customers must walk under a suspension bridge, which is also used to display books. Plenty of young customers can't wait to cross over and see the store's giant lighthouse, which is big enough for several kids to sit in and tall enough for an adult to stand up comfortably. The steps leading up to the lighthouse are used as seating for readings. "The best part is," Gerardo said, "it's whatever the kids want it to be a hideout, a castle, a lighthouse. I think it really is a destination. I'd say one out of every three customers says, 'Let's go see the lighthouse.' "

The tree's the thing that captures the attention of would-be customers at five-year-old Treehouse Readers, located in a new shopping center in Kingwood, Tex. Unlike the tree at Dragonwings, this one was built from cedar shingles and seems to disappear up into the ceiling. It has lots of kid-size doorways, and inside are big stuffed animals and pillows that kids can sit on while reading.

"There are times when I think, 'Boy, I wish I could move the tree over,' " said owner Susan Kent. "But it's where it is because there was a huge I-beam in the middle of the store." Everything else moves. "All our fixtures are on casters," said Kent, "and we can get 250 kids in here."

The one thing that can't move is the store itself. "We're kind of stuck with this location," said Kent, who has augmented her 2,500-square-foot space by adding shelves to every bare wall. The store's signature pieces the tree and hand-painted murals that decorate the walls would be impossible to bring along to give a new space the same warm, relaxed atmosphere.

Cammie Mannino, owner of Halfway Down the Stairs Children's Book Shop in Rochester, Mich., has managed to make do with less than half of Treehouse Readers' space. As the name implies, her store is four steps down from the sidewalk. Even so, Mannino has some of the city's most eye-catching windows. This summer for Rochester's sheep campaign, a city-wide promotion similar to the cow campaigns in other cities where animal-theme art work has been installed in city parks and public places, she decided to feature "ewe-phemistic" books in her windows. Among her sheepish classics are If Ewe Give a Mouse a Cookieand Guess How Much I Love Ewe.

Like other booksellers large and small, Mannino recommends movable furniture. But in her case, none of it has wheels. "Instead of using island fixtures," said Mannino, "we bought antique furniture. The nice thing about using tables is, it makes the store seem airier. Nobody looks at anything below their knees anyway." The tables are light enough to move around easily.

One of Mannino's biggest store draws, however, is something that was already there an electric fireplace left behind by the furniture store that originally occupied the space. "We moved it and put it against the wall and put tiles around it," she said, "and there's a braided rug. I've found it to be wonderfully adaptable. We keep that fireplace going all winter long; we take it down for the summer. Of course, one of the big things kids want to know is if it's real and then how it works."

Pete Reptile, co-owner of Reading Reptile, was the only owner to describe his store as "dirty. It looks like a bunch of two-by-fours and papier-mâché everywhere and paintings. Our whole goal in the beginning was, we didn't want to have white shelves. We didn't want to be a store where people feel funny about touching books." As a result, he estimates that kids destroy about $2,000 worth of books each year, but Reptile doesn't mind. He wants kids to regard books more like toys. "We're the anti-slick," he said. "What kids see is, they're surrounded by books and imagery. It doesn't overwhelm them, but it makes parents nauseous."

About 50 paintings done by kids and adults decorate the floor, and colorful papier-mâché sculptures hang from the ceiling. One of the store's most recent additions is a 10 x 12-foot play area, fronted by a gigantic figure of Big Eddie, a character in local author Lisa Campbell Ernst's story about a singing cow, When Bluebell Sang. To enter, kids have to crawl between Big Eddie's legs. "We have more of a bad-boy attitude here," said Reptile, who recently redid the front desk of the store using plywood, orange vinyl tiles and aluminum siding. "It hasn't increased sales," he conceded.

And there's the rub when it comes to bookstore design: balancing aesthetics with selling books. While other booksellers might not have chosen the same approach, each of these stores has found a store style that works. Whether they're located off the beaten track, on Main Street, or in a new shopping center, they have each found a way to personalize their space and to make reading fun for kids.