It’s 10:15 on Tuesday morning. More than sixty moms, dads, grandparents and nannies have brought their infants to the Red Balloon Book Shop—one of the few remaining independent bookstores in Saint Paul. Adults and babies sit on the floor, eyes transfixed on storyteller Sara Walker as she energetically moves across the room, weaving stories, music and games together. Tuesday morning is story time for infants and the audience is mesmerized.
May 12-18 is national Children’s Book Week, and a great time to visit an independent children’s bookstore—Red Balloon in St. Paul and Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis.
Stephanie Hering, a nanny, admitted the first time she brought 7-month-old Holly she expected just to see someone reading a book. However, because of the way Walker engages the infants, she has returned again and again.
“This is the only one we’ve heard of like this,” Hering said. “She’s very entertaining,”
Co-owners Carol Erdahl and Michele Cromer-Poiré believe story times are the “heart and soul” of Red Balloon since the store opened in 1984. At that time, Erdahl, a school librarian, saw the children’s book industry was beginning to expand. Erdahl joined with Cromer-Poiré, who owned Odegard books in Saint Paul. Together, they have created a successful independent business that has lasted 24 years.
“Before, the market used to be just schools and libraries,” Erdahl said. “The 1980s was a time when more children’s-only bookshops were starting.”
Unlike the typical children’s bookstore that primarily focused on very small children, Erdahl and Cromer-Poiré wanted their store to reach a broader audience. They envisioned a store that welcomed fans of both Curious George and The Golden Compass and, to do that, they needed the right name. Most children’s bookstores had cute names that appealed to very small children.
“No self-respecting 13-year-old was going to walk in [to a store] with a name like that,” said Cromer-Poiré.
They fielded numerous suggestions from friends; however, they did not agree on a name until an acquaintance reminded Erdahl of the popular French book about a red balloon that follows a young boy throughout Paris. Cromer-Poiré sold the book to young and old alike when she owned Odegard Books.
“It was a book that was appropriate for a wide age range,” Cromer-Poiré said. “College students were buying it for their sweethearts. I thought it was perfect. We were going to give the message we were a full-service young persons bookstore.”
Part of their full-service commitment includes reaching out to area schools and the community. They host training workshops for educators, provide books for school libraries and supply textbooks to Saint Paul Academy & Summit School. In addition, they help the Minneapolis Children’s Home Society get culturally specific books to families who have adopted children from China and joined with Minnesota Humanities Commission to have children’s books translated into Hmong.
During the holidays, they help get new books into the hands of children in Twin City shelters with their “Be An Angel” program. Shelter staff provides the store with the book wish list of each child in the shelter. Store customers are then encouraged to purchase one or two books for the children while the store matches the customer spending dollar-for-dollar. When Red Balloon gets a request for a book they do not sell, Cromer-Poiré special orders it for that child.
“Lots of things are donated to shelters, but they are not hand-picked for the individual child—we hand-pick the books,” said Cromer-Poiré. “Then customers and staff deliver the books to the shelters.”
Another program they are particularly proud of is “Celebration of Minnesota Children’s Authors and Illustrators” held annually at the Anderson Center in Red Wing. Each September, for the past nine years, Red Balloon has brought together roughly 14 to 18 award-winning Minnesota authors and illustrators to share their craft with the public for one afternoon. The event consistently draws over 1000 people, all interested in meeting famous authors and illustrators such as Kate DiCamillo, Stephen Grannell, or Alison McGhee.
“It’s a smorgasbord of Minnesota talent,” said Amy Baum, Red Balloon’s Events Coordinator.
Unfortunately, discount chain stores, such as Target, have been cutting into their business. Three years ago, Target began hosting a children’s author event in the Twin Cities. Not only did Target’s book event bear striking similarities to the Red Wing event, it occurs on the same day.
Competiton from mega-stores, like Barnes & Noble, have led to an uphill battle for independent bookstores. As problematic as chain stores are, Red Balloon’s biggest competition lately comes from internet book sales. The ease of online shopping has negatively affected many independent businesses.
“Amazon is our biggest challenge,” Erdahl said.
To combat this, Red Balloon has ventured into the World Wide Web. In addition to having their own website, they also joined BookSense.com, an online community of independent booksellers. Shoppers can order books for children and grownups as they would at Amazon, but Red Balloon receives credit for the purchase.
“The technology behind Booksense.com is the same technology behind Amazon…. So you can order a book from an independent just as easily as ordering from Amazon,” Cromer-Poiré explained.
However, both Erdahl and Cromer-Poiré believe that if more people understood the toll chain stores take on their community, more people would choose independents. While larger stores and internet shopping may offer more convenience or discount prices, shopping from local independents actually strengthens the community.
Cromer-Poiré explained, “We have a local lawyer, local accountant…everything is local. The percentage of money that stays local is greater. Therefore, the health of your local economy is enhanced by local independent businesses. The independent businesses are invested in this community in a way chain stores will never be.”
In recent years, several independent booksellers have closed their doors, leaving only three in Saint Paul. Red Balloon has not only weathered these challenges but has remained competitive. They have made some wise decisions, like purchasing their store building rather than leasing; this keeps overhead cost down. They also have had the same dedicated staff for many years.
“We have teachers and librarians on staff,” Cromer-Poiré said. “The cumulative knowledge of the people who work here is tremendous.”
Erdahl believes one of the biggest reasons Red Balloon has continued to be successful is because it fills a need in the community.
“We are a niche store,” Erdahl said. “Being a specialty in children’s books we have more titles than any Barnes & Noble. We try to make intelligent and caring choices about the books we carry.”
That commitment attracts customers like Kate Delaney who began shopping at the store before becoming a mother. Back then, Delaney came at Red Balloon to buy books for her niece and nephew. Now she brings her two children for story time and comes some evenings with her husband just to read books. The reason Delaney is a returning customer is simple.
“I like the small, personalized, homey atmosphere.”
Deb Pleasants worked as a probation officer for 15 years prior to becoming a stay-at-home-mom. In addition to caring for her son, she is a freelance writer and citizen journalist. She resides in St. Paul with her family.