Indie Spotlight

Indie Spotlight: The Red Balloon, St. Paul MN


Sue Cowing for MIXED-UP FILES:  Since it’s founding twenty-eight years ago, the Red Balloon Bookshop  ( has become famous among writers and readers as a top-notch children’s book store.  Today we’re talking with the shop’s new owner, Holly Weinkauf.

MUF:  Minneapolis-St. Paul must be a community of readers to sustain so many bookstores!  What is the Red Balloon’s particular appeal to those readers do you think?
HOLLY: Red Balloon Bookshop is in Saint Paul.  Even though Minneapolis – Saint Paul is really one big city, people who live here have strong neighborhood loyalty.  And fortunately we are in a community that supports the arts and literature and supports local businesses.

screenshot_684We are in a beautiful and very walkable neighborhood (when it’s not below freezing!) We provide great storytimes, author events and many other fun ways to engage kids and grown-ups with books.Our customers know they can come here to discover new books or find old favorites.  They know that when they come in we will be happy to help them find what they are looking for, make suggestions, and have a great conversation with them about books or anything else.  Everyone at Red Balloon loves connecting people of all ages with books.

MUF: What was it like to take over the reins of such a well-known and beloved shop?  What plans do you have for its future?
HOLLY: Exciting and a bit overwhelming.  I’ve learned a lot and continue to learn.  When I became the owner I knew and still know this is what I want to be doing.  Red Balloon is a combination of all of my passions – books and stories, children, families, community and small independent business.

A Hobbit celebration

A Hobbit celebration

While Red Balloon is well known and has strong community support, I’m surprised by the number of people who don’t know about us. Usually those are people who are new to the Twin Cities. One of the things we’ve been working on is letting people know we are here, reminding people we are here, and letting them all know that we have new energy at the store.

I’m excited to build on the strong bookstore community that Michele Cromer – Poire and Carol Erdahl began 28 years ago.  Red Balloon will continue to be a welcoming and inspiring place for everyone who loves children’s and YA books.


RAVEN BOYS and their girl fans, with author Maggie Stiefvater

MUF: What do customers see and experience when they walk into The Red Balloon?  On the days between events, the browsing days, how do you go about connecting customers with books they will love?
HOLLY: We make a point of welcoming everyone who walks through our door.  We have a well -lit and colorful space with fun displays.  To connect people with the right books, we talk with them and we have shelf talkers and displays highlighting particular books for certain readers.  When a regular customer comes in, we often know what sorts of things he or she will like and we can show them what’s new.  We also send out a monthly newsletter with our events and a few book reviews and we connect with people on Facebook and Twitter sharing interesting book related info.screenshot_677

MUF: How do you “curate” the books you sell in your shop?  What do you keep an eye out for?
HOLLY: This is something we’re constantly working to get a better handle on.  We look at each section, what’s selling and what’s not, what do we have too much of what do we need more of…. and what do we know our customers like.


William Alexander reads from GHOULISH SONG

MUF: We’re authors, so we just have to ask: what titles, fiction or nonfiction, do you and your staff most often recommend these days to middle-graders who come to The Red Balloon?
HOLLY: All of us who work at Red Balloon have our favorites and what we recommend changes depending on who we’re talking to and what’s new.  But most recently we’ve enjoyed selling William Alexander’s books.  Not only is his story a great story, a debut local author wins the National Book Award, but all of us at the store who’ve read Goblin’s Secret and Ghoulish Song have really enjoyed them.

MUF: Over the years, some of the most exciting children’s authors have appeared at The Red Balloon, and many of their books have made their debuts at your shop. In a few weeks you’ll be hosting the launch of an exciting new book of novel-like nonfiction called Wild Boy by Fairy Ring author Mary Losure, right?

WILD BOY publication party, Saturday April 13th at 2 pm.

WILD BOY publication party, Saturday April 13th at 2 pm.

HOLLY: We are definitely looking forward to celebrating Mary Losure’s book!  Events like these are another way we help connect people with books and have those terrific book related conversations.  Amy Oelkers, our Events Coordinator, does a great job of adding something special and unique to each of our events.

I truly enjoy the events we do with local authors and illustrators. It’s great to see grown-ups and kids excited about our local talent (we have a lot!) The local authors and illustrators often have a number of family and friends who come to the events and that definitely adds to the community feel of Red Balloon.

MUF: What are your plans for World Book Night, April 23rd?  What other organizations and community events does The Red Balloon get involved in?
HOLLY: We have a few givers who pick up their books at Red Balloon and we will have a reception for them.  We partner with many, many community organizations throughout the year.  This month we worked with an organization called Success Beyond the Classroom for an amazing “Young Authors” conference.  In April we will be working with the Minnesota Youth Reading Awards to promote the Maud Heart Lovelace Award.

MUF: We encourage our Mixed-up Files readers, especially those who live in towns without an independent bookstore, to make children’s bookstores a day-trip destination.  For those visiting The Red Balloon from out of town, are there family-friendly places nearby where they can get a bit to eat after browsing?  Anything else unique in the neighborhood they should be sure to see?screenshot_671
HOLLY: We are in a terrific day-trip destination neighborhood. Our beautiful, historic neighborhood has lots of great shops.  Bread & Chocolate is a few doors down from us with sandwiches, cookies, coffee, etc. Grand Ole Creamery is nearby for ice cream, Tru Berry for yogurt, and Creative Kids Stuff for toys.  You can learn more about our shopping district at

Downtown St. Paul is just a few minutes away with both the Minnesota Children’s Museum and the Science Museum of Minnesota.

MUF:  Thank you so much, Holly, for taking the time to visit and answer questions about your shop.  Readers, have you been to The Red Balloon? heard about it? think you’d like to go?   Please leave comments here for Holly  and other readers and/or share some children’s bookstore experiences.  Notice I don’t have to say independent children’s bookstores, because they’re all independent!


Sue Cowing lives in Honolulu and is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel YOU WILL CALL ME DROG (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012)



Indie Spotlight: [words] Bookstore, Maplewood NJ


Mixed-Up Files posts monthly interviews with the owners of children’s-only bookstores and there are still many more of those to feature, but I’ve recently discovered [words] bookstore in Maplewood, N.J. (, a general independent bookstore with a strong emphasis on children’s books, and most importantly with a unique and hopeful mission. This is a bookstore with a heart, and I’m eager to spread the news. Today I’m talking with [words]Co-owner Jonah Zimiles.

[word] Co-owners Jonah and Ellen Zimiles

[word] Co-owners Jonah and Ellen Zimiles

MUF: I gather you first got into the bookstore business because the only bookstore in Maplewood was closing? How brave!
Jonah: Thank you. We have lived in Maplewood for twenty-three years and raised our two children here. When the economy deteriorated in the Fall of 2008, we wanted to find a way to help our community. My wife and son were walking in town when she saw a sign saying that the bookstore was closing in a month. Ellen thought that we should buy the bookstore, even though we did not have retail or book industry experience.

MUF: Your store has also taken on the unique mission “to help Maplewood become a model community of inclusion” by acknowledging and serving a special community, families with members on the autism spectrum. How did that come about?
Jonah: In addition to assisting our community buffeted by the recession, we were interested in providing a model vocational training program for young people with autism. Our hope is that through our bookstore, we will inspire other for-profit businesses to hire employees with autism. Our son, who is now 17, has autism. We have always found Maplewood to be a warm and welcoming community, and we wanted to play our part in furthering that culture.screenshot_639

MUF: Tell us about your “Second Sundays.”
Jonah: Our Second Sundays programs were created to provide parents of special needs children the opportunity to sample for free many activities that are often available for typical children but unfortunately not for the special needs population. At the same time, it allows us to acknowledge and publicize service providers who are offering these services or to give new ones considering this market a chance to try out working with our kids at our store. Activities include: yoga, karate, arts & crafts, drama, sewing and cooking, to name a few.screenshot_629

MUF: Not only do you welcome autism syndrome kids in your store and provide programs they can take part in, you also employ them as part-time workers and provide vocational training. Tell us how that works.
Jonah: Most of our kids come to us through job sampling programs in their school. They come in small groups with job coaches once or twice per week and progress through a series of jobs depending upon their skill levels and interests. We also have paid employees on our staff with autism.

MUF: Say a ten-year-old comes into your store looking for “a good book.” Do you have some favorite titles, fiction or nonfiction, that you are especially recommending to middle-graders right now?
Jonah: Our middle graders love Rick Riordan, Jeff Kinney and Dan Gutman. One of our favorite books is R. J. Palacio’s Wonder.screenshot_631

MUF: I’ve just re-read Marcello in the Real World for a workshop. It seems there have been a slew of original and engaging novels for children in the last few years whose main characters are somewhere along the autism spectrum——Mockingbird, London Eye Mystery, The Blue Bottle Mystery, Colin Fisher — and that these stories have the positive side-effect of creating insight and understanding in the general reader. Are these books popular at your store? Have any of their authors come for a visit?
Picture 30Jonah: We have seven or eight autism authors visit our store for readings during April for Autism Awareness Month but these authors so far have been non-fiction authors. We have tried unsuccessfully to get Jodi Picoult to our store. Some of our favorites have included practitioners like Ricki Robinson, author of Autism Solutions, researchers like Martha Herbert, author of The Autism Revolution, and parents, like Priscilla Gilman, author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy.

MUF: [Words] became an instant community center in another sense after Hurricane Sandy hit, didn’t it?

[words], a haven during Sandy

[words], a haven during Sandy

Jonah: Yes! Most of the power in our town (including in the homes of our owners and most of our employees) and the surrounding towns were knocked out for a week, but power was maintained on the block where [words] is located, so we became a community center to which people came to charge their cell phones and computers, learn the latest news, and to get some needed respite from the travails of the storm and the power outage.

MUF: If a family from out of town came to visit your store, would there be a family-friendly place nearby where they could get a bite to eat after browsing?
Jonah: Yes, dozens! Arturo’s across the street is extremely popular and delicious, and the Laurel offers a terrific relaxed atmosphere with great food.

MUF: And if they could spend some time in Maplewood, are there some family activities or sights in the area that they shouldn’t miss?
Jonah: In addition to our quaint village with many fine shops, we have a beautiful park in our town that is well worth a visit, as well as a gigantic nature preserve, the South Mountain reservation. Of course, the best reason to come to Maplewood is to meet the Maplewoodians!screenshot_636

MUF: Any exciting programs coming up in March?
Jonah: Many! Two are of particular note. On Saturday, March 2, we celebrate Read Across America, with a kids’ Pitchapalooza featuring four local children’s authors. On March 20, Harlan Coben kicks off his publicity tour for his exciting new thriller, Six Years.

MUF: Thank you so much , Jonah, for sharing the goals and programs of your store with us.

Readers, if you’re as inspired as I am to read about what Jonah and Ellen are doing at [words], I’m sure they’d love to hear your comments–and have you visit!screenshot_624

Sue Cowing is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog, published in 2011 by Carolrhoda Books and in 2012 by Usborne UK




Indie Spotlight: Hicklebee’s Books in San Jose

Today we’re talking with Valerie Lewis, founder/owner of the award-winning Hicklebee’s Books in San Jose, California ( Think of your  ten favorite contemporary children’s authors.  Chances are at least nine of them have appeared at  Hicklebee’s Books and sing its praises!  It’s not only a wonderful bookstore and gathering place for performances and author appearances, it’s also a unique and growing museum of art and artifacts from children’s books and their authors.


Mixed-up Files:  Hicklebee’s has become widely known and loved among authors and booklovers.  How and when did your shop get started?
Valerie: We–four friends– opened our store in 1979 in a small space across the street from our current location.  We were not experienced in retail but had young children and buckets of enthusiasm.

MUF: Describe the atmosphere children and their adults walk into when they open the door at Hicklebee’s.
Valerie: One might call it chaos.  The physical structure is made up of shelving from bookstores that have either gone out of business or upgraded their stores. While it began because we could not afford new book cases, we find it’s a valuable asset that adds character.

Not every bookstore has a bathtub filled with pillows for reading in!  Here Lisa Yee & friend enjoy this Hickabee's feature

Not every bookstore has a bathtub filled with pillows for reading in! Here Lisa Yee & friend enjoy this Hicklebee’s feature.

MUF:What do you want their experience to be?
Valerie: I want them to feel warmth with a large dose of magic.

MUF:What about the expansion of your Wall of Fame, which has turned your walls into a museum?
Valerie: We’re running out of walls and doors but it’s a priority so we’ll figure out how to keep it going.

MUF: What are some of your favorite items?
Valerie:  I can’t even begin to list my favorites.  Probably the most sought after is J.K. Rowling’s drawing on the door.  Jules Feiffer’s is the one I touch and continue to admire each time I pass it.  David Small’s depiction of G. Bush makes me laugh the most.  And Rosemary Wells continues to send us a variety of items from paintings to artifacts.

MUF:Did Brian Selznik really donate his backpack and dolls? screenshot_540
Valerie:  The backpack is only one of the items he’s donated.  He is clearly one of our favorite authors, full of magic and surprises.

MUF: It’s apparent from your website that you truly select the books you recommend, because they’re not always the ones on everybody’s else’s lists.  Are there a couple of titles , either fiction or nonfiction,  that you’re  especially recommending  to middle-graders at the moment?
Valerie:  The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen; Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker and Wonder by R. J. Palacio.screenshot_554

MUF: You must be true book and story lovers, because you also recommend older books you think deserve to be reprinted and become classics, even if readers have to read them at the library!  Tell our readers about your unique “Worth the Candle” program, both in the store and online.
Valerie: Our Carol Doup Muller created our “Worth the Candle” program years ago.  She reminds us that before electricity people depended on candles for light.  But candles were expensive.  If you used one it had better be worth it.  Ours is invaluable as a resource for the best books published in the past.

MUF: Tell us about your ongoing programs at the store.  Looks like you do a lot of literacy outreach.screenshot_551
Valerie: All of us here at Hicklebee’s are deeply involved in promoting literacy and are key leaders in regional and national booksellers associations, including the Northern California Booksellers’ Association which we helped to found.   We’ve set up a Resource Room at our store as a meeting place for teachers. We partner with schools and libraries, setting up book fairs and author visits for school assemblies, and inviting schools to create window displays.  We’ve adopted Graystone School in Santa Clara county  and a school in Kiev, setting up a pen pal program and holding a book drive for them. We’ve worked with doctors to establish a Read to Your Bunny program.  We also sponsor family reading nights, hold summer reading programs and have a number of books clubs—including one for adults who read children’s novels— and we’ve organized press conferences for Young Adults to meet YA authors.   

MUF: You and your staff actively promote specific titles of books you consider outstanding.
Valerie:  Yes, we have our book of the month club and our annual Book of the Year award. This year it’s Black Dog, by Levi Pinfold.screenshot_555    We’ve reviewed books for newspapers such as The San Francisco Chronicle and the CBS early show, and we’ve created Lewis Previews, a video series of the season’s best titles for K-6 that plays in libraries and bookstores around the country.

MUF: If a family made a day trip from out of town to Hicklebee’s, would there be family friendly places in the neighborhood to get a bite to eat after browsing?
Valerie: The neighborhood is filled with family friendly restaurants.  A stroll on the Avenue usually involves strollers and often pups.

MUF:  And if they stayed in San Jose for more than a day, are there some other unique things to see and do they shouldn’t miss?
Valerie: The Children’s Museum is a fabulous hands-on experience as well as The Tech Museum.  The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has been in San Jose since the 1920s.  Happy Hallow Park and Baby Zoo is another attraction as well as numerous parks.

MUF: Any special events coming up at Hicklebee’s ?
Valerie: Most of our Spring events begin in March.  We are in the planning stages now.

MUF:  Thank you Valerie for taking time from your action-packed schedule to share some details about your store! And thank you for demonstrating what makes a children’s book store great: love of good books and their readers, a sense of curiosity and fun, passionate dedication to reading and reading communities, and imagination about ever-new ways to foster all that.


Children’s book fans, do you know the way to San Jose?  If so— and even if not—I’m  sure, like me, you’re eager to treat yourself  to a book store adventure at Hicklebee’s as soon as you can.   You’ll find Hicklebee’s at 1378 Lincoln Avenue, San Jose CA 95125.  If you have been there, please share your experience in a comment, or if reading about the place makes you want to visit, please let Valerie and us know here.

Interviewer Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda Books 2011, Usborne UK, 2012).