Last month we featured Green Bean Books, a small new neighborhood bookstore in Portland, Oregon. This month we’re visiting the largest independent children’s bookstore in the country, blue manatee children’s bookstore and decafé in Cincinnati, Ohio. Back in 2001, pediatrician Dr. John Hutton and his wife, Sandra Gross, refused to accept the death of their favorite children’s bookstore, The Blue Marble, bought it, and created blue manatee in its place. Five years later, they added decafé, a child-friendly coffee shop. Now, more than ten years later, their store, unlike its mammal namesake, is anything but endangered!
MUF: What a challenge! John, what was the vision that kept you going in those first years?
John: Memories of the importance of books and reading from my own childhood. The value of reading with my own children. And a commitment to the precious and irreplaceable ritual of parents and kids reading together from the youngest age possible, creating lifelong memories and a love of reading. The process of going to an actual store creates opportunity for parents and kids to slow down and spend time together in these rushed times. And mostly to preserve a little magic and whimsy in the world in the face of increasing homogenization and chain store overgrowth.
MUF: Although yours is a large store, I get the sense that it’s still important to you to stay tuned to the neighborhood.
John: Absolutely. We live or die for our local customers. We tailor our inventory, albeit a large one of over 20,000 titles, just for them. We also partner with community non-profits, parent, and school groups.
MUF: I’m especially struck by two unique features of your store, one you preserved and one you created. Tell us about “The Wall.”
John: Starting on 1989, illustrator Jim Borgman drew a picture of a child with a balloon on the wall during a store visit. That expanded into a tradition of having visiting authors an illustrators autograph and/or draw pictures on the wall – now pretty much all of our walls, counters, and even shelves–during visits. This include such luminaries as Katherine Paterson, Sandra Boynton, Gary Paulsen, and Robert Sabuda. Customers love to discover their favorites.
MUF: Since we encourage families to make a children’s bookstore their family day-trip destination, we ask bookstore owners to recommend family-friendly places to eat nearby. In your case that’s easy–at blue manatee, you’ve created your own! Tell us about decafé and how it relates to your store.
John: Blue manatee decafé is a truly child-friendly coffee shop, turning the traditional model on its head. Its decor is designed with kids in mind, with small chairs, custom I Spy tables (we do have one for grownups with the molecular structure of caffeine) lots of color, and an adjacent party room with a dreamy manatee mural created by a local not-profit, ArtWorks, employing teens in the arts. We focus on healthier fare, all local pastries, organic and Fair Trade. We feature custom blended smoothies named for some of our favorite books–the Blueberries for Sal, The Big Orange Splot, But Not th Hippopotamus–as well as a full suite of hot chocolate (our neighbor is a 100 year-old ice cream store and we use their bittersweet syrup) and coffee drinks also book-themed: Matilda’s Mocha, Chocolate Fever, Lorax Latte, and the The Little Engine That Could (espresso). It’s a magical place for children and their oft-sleepy grownups.
MUF: What kind of atmosphere do you try to create in the store, and how?
John: Magical, inspiring, and welcoming. A sanctuary of color and imagination. We want customers to know exactly where they are–at the one and only blue manatee in Cincinnati. We want ours to be a place children fondly recall visiting and feeling welcome and loved. Also a great place to sit and read–lots of fun nooks for that, including a handmade tree.
MUF: Apparently you’ve succeeded, and not just with children. Here’s what author Lois Lowry said about a recent visit: It was just about a year ago that I was at the Blue Manatee. Not my first visit; I’d been there before over the years. But I remember it being near the time of my birthday, last year, and I can’t think of any better place to celebrate getting OLD than in a bookstore designed for the YOUNG! So much color and laughter, always.
John: Absolutely. Our commitment is to creating sanctuary for families and children and promoting the critical mission of shared reading and creative play, both healthy and vital for optimal development. This synchs very well with my work and focus as a pediatrician, where I advocate for reducing screen time and promoting parent-child bonding. Books are among the best catalysts for this. The characters and stories are cool, too.
MUF: How do you decide what books to order for the store?
John: It’s based on experience with our customers as well as discriminating eyes among our staff to choose only books worth taking home, reading over and over, and keeping forever. We are book snobs, and do not carry mass-marketed books or products that were cartoons first or promote mostly movies or TV. We also listen to our customers and take lots of suggestions.
MUF: As Middle-Grade authors, we’re curious– what is your favorite fiction title– classic or recent–for this age? Nonfiction?
John: Anything by Roald Dahl, though my favorite is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He was an absolute genius, capturing the inherent playful subversiveness of children and the need to questions grownup rules. For nonfiction I am partial to books inviting children to explore nature and make up games.
MUF: Have some well-known Middle-Grade authors appeared at blue manatee? What upcoming events or activities are you excited about?
John: Yes: Katherine Paterson, Gary Paulsen, Meg Cabot, Brian Jacques, Lois Lowry. We are thrilled to be hosting the Magic Tree House Live Reading Bus Tour partnering with our local soo on Wednesday April 4, at 11 AM. Ivy and Bean’s April Fool, A Grownup Day, is Saturday April 7. Public Radio’s “90 Second Naturalist”, Thane Maynard, is bringing an animal show to the store April 7, as well. Our new house rock band, “the blue manatees,” is performing a concert Friday, April 13. Author Kelly DiPucchio is coming for a signing of Crafty Chloe, Saturday April 28, along with a craft workshop.
MUF: For people who live at a distance and visit your store, can you suggest some other nearby family activities they might enjoy while they’re in Cincinnati, maybe one outdoors for good weather, and one inside in case of cold or rain?
John: The Cincinnati Zoo is one of the best zoos in the nation, with a fantastic manatee house, as well. In the Summer, King’s Island theme park is amazing and fun. The Newport Aquarium across the river in Kentucky is excellent. The Cincinnati Nature Center has wonderful trails and a new Nature Playscape where kids can romp. And our Contemporary Art Center has a special Un-Museum on the top floor for kids. Just up the road from us is a fabulous glass studio, Brazee Street Studios and School of Glass, which has lots of kids’ programs making bowls, ornaments, and more.
MUF: Thanks, so much, John, for taking time out to answer our questions. Readers, if you’ve seen blue manatee in person, or if reading about it here makes you want to head for Cincinnati, please leave a comment here. And if you know another wonderful children’s bookstore that deserves the Indie Spotlight, tell us that, too. Next month we’ ll be in Falmouth, Massachusetts, browsing among the books and puppets in The Eight Cousins Children’s Bookstore.
Heads-up to teachers, librarians and book club leaders: The Mixed-Up Middle-Grade Skype Tour Bus is still on the road! To find out how you could win a Skype visit from a Middle-Grade author, go to: https://fromthemixedupfiles.com/for-teacherslibrarians/mixed-up-middle-grade-skype-tour-faq/.
Author Sue Cowing, with her weakness for whimsey, wishes she could take a long trip across the country just to visit one children’s bookstore after another. Drog, her talking hand-puppet, adds: “My sentiments, exactly.”