The late 1970s saw the start of an unprecedented surge in independent children’s-only bookstores opening, just as the eight million boys and girls born during the so-called baby boomlet of 1971–1974 came of reading age. Among the pioneering ventures that sprang up across the U.S. as the phenomenon gathered steam were the San Marino Toy and Book Shoppe (San Marino, Calif., 1975), Cheshire Cat (Washington, D.C., 1977), Children’s Book Shop (Brookline Village, Mass., 1977), Hicklebee’s (San Jose, Calif., 1979), Blue Marble (Fort Thomas, Ky., 1979), Books of Wonder (New York, N.Y., 1980), and Red Balloon Bookshop (St. Paul, Minn., 1984). Remarkably, of this pioneering group, all but one—the Cheshire Cat, which Washington’s general interest bookseller Politics and Prose absorbed in 1999—remains a going concern. As college-educated baby boomers made their own children’s reading lives a top priority, the new stores prospered.

The indie trend crested in the 1990s when an astonishing 750 such stores were in operation. Not surprisingly, their collective success caught the attention of Barnes & Noble, which by 1999 had amassed an armada of 1,000-plus stores nationwide, including many that the company plunked down in close proximity to standalone shops with proven track records. As B&N beefed up its own stores’ children’s and teen departments, consumers were forced to choose between lower prices and customized service. Costco, Target, and other big-box discount chains also entered the fray, and by 2005 fewer than 100 indie children’s-only stores were still standing.

With many big-box stores located in communities that had never before had a bookseller, they dramatically increased overall access to children’s and teen books for the American consumer. They gave teens and preteens a place to hang out and browse the shelves in comparative anonymity and to purchase hot-button titles by Judy Blume, Japanese manga artists, and others that a more knowledgeable bookseller might have balked at. Picture books grew larger in format and glitzier in design in hopes of standing out more distinctly in the cavernous new selling spaces. The term “frontlist” assumed ominous new meaning as shelf lives declined and the looming specter of massive returns left publishers feeling less confident than in the past in their editorial choices, and ultimately more cautious.

Libraries still represented a major market for the publishers of books for children and teens, but by the 1990s the retail side of the business had for the first time overtaken the institutional market in overall sales, and the vagaries of library budget fluctuations, which Library Journal in 2003 characterized as stuck in a “precarious holding pattern,” left it unclear to what extent America’s impressive network of public and school libraries might continue to serve as the sector’s chief stabilizing influence.

Just when Barnes & Noble seemed poised to achieve total retail bookselling dominance, scrambled the equation by introducing an exotic new way to connect with consumers. Many shoppers had their initiation into e-commerce’s instant gratification model on realizing they could order the second and third Harry Potter installments online from England months ahead of their U.S. publication. (To remedy this disruptive situation, a precision-timed simultaneous global release was arranged for books four through seven.) Amazon moved aggressively to lock up the online market, reaching 75% to Barnes & Noble’s 15% by 1999. The latter company looked increasingly like the big fish that had discovered one day that there was a still bigger fish in the sea.

"With many big-box stores located in communities that had never before had a bookseller, they dramatically increased overall access to children’s and teen books for the American consumer."

While the pandemic played to Amazon’s core strengths as an e-tailer with an inexhaustible inventory and contactless delivery, it proved to be a devastating blow for a number of indies. But other independent children’s-only stores stayed afloat and even thrived by aligning with or adopting a hybrid online/in-person strategy that included hosting frequent virtual events that sometimes attracted far-flung audiences. The pandemic period’s broadly based decline in commercial rents even advanced a trend first observed a decade earlier: a next-wave rise in the number of independent bookstores for children and teens.

Few doubted that Amazon and a revitalized Barnes & Noble would maintain their lead positions well into the future. But in a stressful time of information overload and digitized everything, a neighborhood gathering place with unforgettable stories and art to sell, a knowledgeable staff, and a strong sense of community may well have come once again to look like the better bargain to growing numbers of consumers with children in their care.