Posts Tagged children’s book stores. middle-grade readers

Indie Spotlight

Our Indie Spotlight shines today on Barstons Child’s Play, in McLean, Virginia.

The combination toy/bookstore actually has four locations in the Washington, D.C. metro area, and has been around for about 30 years.  MUF spoke to the whole team responsible for curating their wonderful book collection: Molly Olivo (Book Buyer for all 4 stores), Sara Hemming (McLean Book Manager), Bregette Poore (McLean Store Manager), and Steven and Simmie Aarons (Owners/Founders).

MUF: What does your bookstore (within a toy store) offer that makes you a special place to for readers to go buy books?

As a company, we are big believers in the importance of finding the joy in childhood reading (and play).  We pride ourselves on finding the right book for every child and building relationships with our customers. We focus our attention on the kid reader- what they find interesting and what they want out of their reading experience.  If we can spark a love of reading in a child with a book picked especially for them, we have completed the most important step in creating a lifelong reader.  We have worked hard to create a book store that is solely for the kids.

– Molly Olivo

We are able to capture a unique audience of kids that includes avid readers and kids who might never step into a more traditional book store. It is a real joy to see both sides of the store evolve and grow with our customers.

– Simmie Aarons

MUF: What’s your favorite part about this job?

The kids! Being able to discuss Ron Weasley with a 10 year old who just finished Harry Potter or discovering a giggling 6 year old with their head stuck in the Day the Crayons Quit is incredibly rewarding.

– Molly Olivo

Talking to the kids every day makes the job not feel like work. The real reward for me, however, is having a child that we almost lost as a reader come in for their second or third book that week. It sometimes takes setting aside all projects for the day and sitting with a child, reading the first page of stacks of books to find the one that ignites the spark. Not every child will love reading every book, but our goal is to get every child to love reading.

-Bregette Poore

MUF: What are your strategies for competing with big bookstores and online retailers?

Big bookstores and online retailers can never give you the indie experience.  We are providing customers with high quality service, staff that care about their kids, and individualized recommendations that have nothing to do with publisher marketing budgets or algorithms.  At the end of the day, our passion for books and kids has helped to set us apart, and we hope that our customers continue to value that and keep coming back.

– Molly Olivo

MUF: One of the many things to love about your store is the obvious care you take with making books look interesting. Browsing is so much fun here!

One of our favorite features is that we’re always changing the department and displays. One of the considerations in our displays is representation and diversity. We had a kindergarten teacher come in whose student was not engaged in reading because none of the stories were about anyone like her. She was shocked at how many options we had to build up her classroom library. We sometimes forget the importance of representation until you hear a kid exclaim, “Finally! Someone who looks like me!” when picking up a book. Every year I’m surprised by the emotional response to our Black History and Women’s History month displays when we think that is the bare minimum for a bookstore to cover.  We were also proud to promote the Children’s Book Council’s Reading Without Walls Challenge last year that awarded children for reading outside their comfort zone.

– Sara Hemming

MUF: Another fabulous new feature is the “blind date with a book”— books already wrapped up with just a few clues about what’s inside. What fun, to guess what’s inside the packaging and then get to read it!!

MUF: As middle grade authors, we’re always curious to know what titles, new or old, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourself recommending the most to readers ages 8-12? Which books seem to be flying off the shelves right now – on that same age range?

Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid has been one of our favorites recently.  Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis work so incredibly well together, and it is such a fun adventure with something for everyone.  

Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic from Armand Baltazar is really fun and unique. 

Graphic novels have also been super hot recently.  Amulet and Nimona are always favorites at Child’s Play.

One of our favorite underappreciated backlist titles is The Seventh Most Important Thing, by Shelly Pearsall.  It is empathetic, surprising, and incredibly interesting. It also has the added bonus of being set in DC and based on a piece of art that is at the Smithsonian.


MUF: We’re so glad to get to know you all. Congratulations on your continued success and huge thanks for being such a strong supporter of books and kids.  


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)