Top Shelf

You won't find videos or mochas at the Children's Bookstore. Instead, owner JoAnn Fruchtman stock it with quality literature and a staff that knows -- and reads -- kids' books.

October 19, 1999|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN STAFF

Their Harry Potter books in hand, children, parents and grandparents formed a tidy, eager line on a shady little street in Roland Park yesterday. They were ready for the literary event of the Baltimore season: Joanne Rowling, creator of the fantastically popular Harry Potter books, had traveled here to sign books in the small back room of JoAnn Fruchtman's bookstore.

On a whirlwind U.S. tour, the small blonde British author spent two full hours behind a blue card table in the Children's Bookstore because of Fruchtman's reputation with Rowling's publisher.

And presiding over the event, keeping parents, children and author happy, was JoAnn Fruchtman, herself a local legend in bookselling.

Once upon a time, way, way back in the 1970s when Rowling was about the same age as her famous student wizard, Fruchtman decided that Baltimore needed a bookstore just for children, a bookstore dedicated to books of quality.

In 1978, the tiny Children's Bookstore was born as part of a renovated rowhouse near the Cross Street Market, a neighborhood more about bars than books. Now on Deepdene Road, in a community decidedly more about books, the store continues to flourish, despite super-bookstores and Internet booksellers.

The three-room bookstore is a step not so much back in time as out of it, a kind of gourmet shop of literature. Well-stocked with classic tales, richly illustrated picture books and fantasy series, the store offers its customers travel, adventure -- endless possibility.

"You walk in and get a feeling of hand-picked gems," says Baltimore poet Elizabeth Spires, author of "The Mouse of Amherst," who shops at the store for her 8-year-old daughter.

"They actually read their books there -- and not many bookstores do!" enthuses Jean Craighead George, author of the award-winning "Julie of the Wolves" and "My Side of the Mountain" who has appeared often at the store. "It's clear that JoAnn loves what she does. And everyone who steps into her bookstore knows it."

A native Baltimorean, Fruchtman cultivated her love for books at Park School -- the old Park School on Liberty Heights Avenue -- and reveled at home in a world of "Little Women," "Nancy Drew," "Black Beauty" and adults who read to her.

As an elementary school teacher, she searched for books that spoke artistically as well as verbally; her quest intensified when she had three daughters of her own. And when she entered book-selling dedicated to promoting the best in children's literature, she joined a constellation of kindred spirits. Children's book publishing was still home to legendary booklovers like the late Ursula Nordstrom, the editor of Maurice Sendak and Laura Ingalls Wilder, to people who considered their jobs to be missions.

Gradually, by the late '80s, Fruchtman says, things had changed. Parents were taking fewer books out of the library and buying many more for their children.

"Companies realized that children's literature meant big bucks. You began seeing board books, all that stuff," she says. "It was just huge amounts of mediocre stuff."

(According to the Book Industry study group, the market for juvenile books has grown much faster than for adult books in recent years. Last year, Americans spent $2.5 billion on juvenile trade books, about a 33 percent increase over the previous five years.)

"It used to be that I could look at a book and make a pretty good guess of which company had produced it," Fruchtman laments. "Now, you don't know what company it is because every company is owned by somebody else. ... That's not to say that there aren't wonderful books out there, but it's all become about making money."

Just books

Somehow, over the years, her bookstore has managed to keep literary videos off the shelves and still pay for itself. When the Children's Bookstore opened, Fruchtman shared ownership with Nancy Struever and her daughter Molly, then bought them out several years later.

In 1980, the bookstore became one of the first tenants at Harborplace. The Inner Harbor location was expensive but brought exposure that meant Fruchtman could sell a lot more books. Pretty soon, she acquired a national reputation with publishing companies. And authors began coming to the store for book signings. In 1985 she moved to Roland Park.

Arnold "Frog and Toad" Lobel, Lloyd "Prydain Chronicles" Alexander, Maurice "Where the Wild Things Are" Sendak and scores and scores of other authors and illustrators have paved the way for J.K. "Harry Potter" Rowling.

The Children's Bookstore is known as a friendly oasis in the often blistering landscape of book tours. Yesterday, for instance, Fruchtman made sure that Rowling had breathing room between signings. With a wrist taped from such a heavy signing schedule, the author could occasionally put down her pen to chat with her admirers, graciously accepting a gift of Walker chocolate-chip shortbread from one fan, telling another youngster about her 6-year-old daughter loving the swimming pool at the hotel.

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