Small Successes

Children's independent bookstores keep young readers turning the pages while competing in a tough market.

May 28, 2000|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,Sun Staff

They are the Harry Potters of the business, the underdogs using both fantastical and practical means to their advantage as they try to lure ever-younger readers into the fold. They are the few, the scattered, the children's independent bookstores.

Thanks to Harry-mania, attention has been lavished on children's books, and children's bookstores are reaping the benefits too. Devoted entirely to the literary needs of the young, these places offer what bigger stores often don't -- a knowledgeable staff, a diverse inventory of both new and older titles, and a willingness to buck retailing trends by staying small.

"They give such individualized attention to folks. I'm impressed with their level of expertise and commitment to customers," says Mary Alice Bond, a mother of two young children and a curriculum researcher at Johns Hopkins University who frequents the Book Rack in Timonium. "If they don't have what you want, they'll go out of their way to find it for you. I wouldn't go anywhere else."

Karen Abernathy, a mother of a 4-year-old daughter who shops at the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park, says: "It's a very welcoming environment. It's OK to ask questions, and there's always this exchange of ideas. It's really difficult to have that kind of rapport in [chain] stores."

Teachers and educators are especially faithful patrons. A 1996 survey by Publisher's Weekly revealed they are most likely to shop at children's-only bookstores, where they account for nearly a third of the customers. "Supplying to teachers is a major way that some children's-only stores have bolstered their business during the past few years," reported the publishing trend watcher.

Selma Levi, head of the children's department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, says: "At the chain stores, the salespeople use computers to look up information, and at the independents they walk right to the shelves. They know their stuff. They're closer to librarians in that they're trained to ask particular questions."

Adds Barbara Keifer, who chaired the 2000 Caldecott Awards committee for children's books: "Independents know more about books. You're more likely to get a good match with your child. They carry wonderful books from the backlist and it's nice to have access to that. Chain stores seem to run mostly current books and award winners."

Children's book publishers, too, are recognizing that bigger doesn't always mean better. Last fall when Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling made personal appearances across the U.S., Scholastic, her publisher, booked the popular author into a mix of independents and chain stores. Locally, her book signing at the Children's Bookstore guaranteed that legions of fans and their media followers would flood the store.

But life hasn't always been easy for these retailers. Children's bookstores had their heyday in the mid-1980s when there were 400 stores nationwide. Currently, there are about 250 independent children's bookstores in the U.S., according to the Association of Booksellers for Children. Maryland is home to only a handful of stores that count children's books as their dominant offering.

What they're up against are the superstores. Take, for example, the Barnes & Noble at the Power Plant in downtown Baltimore. It's hard not to be entranced by all that's here: the caf, toys, CDs and, of course, lots and lots of books. But not as many as you might think are for children -- in fact, B&N's inventory of 20,000 titles is about equal to some local children's specialists.

The stock at the four local children's independents ranges from 8,000 to 20,000 titles. In size, they vary from a petite 750 square feet to a comparatively sprawling 4,500 square feet.

"As soon as the superstores came in, the independents couldn't compete. What many of [the independents] didn't realize was that this is hard work," says JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of the Children's Bookstore. "You can't just open a store just because you love children's books."

"There's so much competition. It really surprised me to find out that bookstores have surpassed restaurants in failure rates," says Georgette Fraser, owner of the Book Rack.

About a dozen independent children's bookstores now open every year in the U.S. To be more competitive, they now also sell toys, games, puzzles and gift items.

Those within 30 minutes of downtown Baltimore are profiled here.

Children's Bookstore

737 Deepdene Road, Baltimore

10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday

410-532-2000

Established in 1978, this is the grand dame of the local independent kid lit scene. It's survived in a volatile industry and now has the sling-shot swagger of a David who's whipped Goliath but good. Authors and illustrators regularly pay tribute to it by doing in-store readings within its 750 square feet stuffed with 20,000 titles.

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