Spotlight on an Indie Bookstore: blue manatee children’s bookstore and decafé
From time to time, we feature in-depth profiles of great independent bookstores around the country. We hope to give our readers a closer look at what makes these bookstores unique and exciting. This week we will spotlight three bookstores from different regions. If you live in any of these areas, please stop by, or check out your local indie to see what makes them special!
Today, I am thrilled to introduce you to blue manatee children’s bookstore and decafé, located in Cincinnati, Ohio and one of the largest children’s only bookstores in the country. They are the perfect example of a store that has become an extension of the community that they serve and they are doing some very exciting and innovative things that set them apart from the pack.
At the core of the store’s philosophy are a strong and passionate emphasis on the importance of reading to and with children, the belief in supporting local businesses and non-profit organizations, and the use of local and organic food and sustainable packaging for environmental health.
The expert staff at blue manatee is fun, friendly and knowledgable, innovative and creative, and the store is bright and cheery and meticulously curated. The bathroom walls are lined with posters signed by authors and the cafe walls are painted with floor to ceiling murals. And just about every day of the week you can stop by and see kids participating in some type of creative, hands-on, book-themed event or storytime.
You’ll have a chance to read all about an awesome new program called blue manatee boxes™ that they launched earlier this year and I encourage you to take a moment to check out the website (and get some early holiday shopping done!). You can also click here to see a gallery of original artwork by many beloved authors and illustrators created just for blue manatee boxes™ – I promise it’s something worth seeing!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about blue manatee, John! Can you give us a little background on the store?
Originally opened in 1989 as The Blue Marble, saved from going out of business in 2001 and renamed blue manatee. Contract for this was penned/signed in green crayon. Our name comes from our daughters’ love of manatees, and a play on the term “humanity.” Kids were allowed to vote on this name change: blue tortoise vs blue manatee, and manatee won in a landslide. Owners are a pediatrician, Dr. John Hutton, and a former Montessori teacher and current artist, Sandy Gross. Added decafé in 2005, a kid-friendly café specializing in local, organic, kid-friendly treats, smoothies, and hot chocolate/coffee drinks (all book-themed, e.g. The Big Orange Splot, and coffees too e.g. The Lorax Latte). We are in an older neighborhood in Cincinnati called Oakley (former home of Annie Oakley) in a row of child-focused independents named “Kid’s Row.” We have won many awards, including Best Kid Friendly Café, Best Story Time, Best Children’s Books, as well as best bookstore (non-chain) in Cincinnati for 6 years running. We are one of the largest children’s bookstores in the nation, stocking ~25,000 titles, ranging from board books, picture books, fiction/non, and a smattering of grownup. Our store’s walls are decorated with signatures and drawings by authors who have visited, e.g. Sandra Boynton, Loren Long, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson…
Developed blue manatee boxes, Summer 2011. (more on this below)
What is your role? Day to day job responsibilities? And what sets blue manatee apart from chain stores or online competitors?
Ordering – books from publishers and sidelines. Marketing – partnering with non-profits and other groups in events and promotions. Content creation (in collaboration with events coordinator Kelli Gleiner) – ads, press releases, events. Hiring. I do stress that all of this is collaborative, our staff very much like a (functional) family or coral reef, each serving a critical role with specific background and insight.
Focus on mission: our store is fueled by a mission for and passion about the importance of reading – and especially shared reading – for kids, in the face of a trend towards “digitization” of the childhood experience, where once-treasured experiences such as pets, books, and playing outside are replaced by screen-based activities. The result is a spike in such epidemics as ADHD, obesity, sleep problems, and depression. Thus, the core: we seek to preserve the ritual of grownups and kids spending time together doing things like reading, playing, and exploring. To slow down! We also are passionate about the importance of local business for healthy neighborhoods and economies, and local/organic ingredients as well as sustainable packaging for environmental health.
Our focus on and expertise with our core niche – children – sets us apart. Our staff is comprised of passionate, creative people, savvy with the unique needs of kids and who are children at heart. Most have a background/degree in teaching, many in art, art education, library science, and a pediatrician. Our baristas are expert, as well.
We are nimble and always seek to create unique, individualized programming, e.g. story times for different ages (e.g. ManaTots for under 3 y/os), foreign language, art (Make A Mess at the Manatee, Build A Book), nature, and seasons (e.g. Boo Manatee for Halloween), alongside traditional signings, costume events, etc. We seek to be a destination for families, a magical place like no other. When you are at blue manatee, you know you are at blue manatee. We also seek to be the place that grownups remember fondly visiting with their kids AND as kids.
A cool logo! Who doesn’t love manatees? And he/she looks great with all manner of getup, e.g. Boo Manatee (holding pumpkin), Humanatee (holding Earth), TeamManatee (as vampire). We find that he/she is lovable, and conveys a definite trust and compassion that is comforting for kids and lets them know they’re in a safe, fun place.
What, if any, new things are you doing to stay competitive during these tough times and to serve the needs of your customers?
Increasing focus on our core expertise and demographic, “circling the wagons” around younger readers, esp under 12. Though books are here to stay, older readers, we predict, will be increasingly enchanted by gadgets and e-reading. If younger readers can be given an enchanting foundation and positive experience with reading real books from real, wonderful stores, read to them by real people who love them, we’ll be ok.
***** Innovation: blue manatee boxes™. This is a novel approach to packaging and gift giving via e-commerce for kids 3 and under, where the package itself is not only locally sourced and eco-friendly, but designed to be part of the gift, i.e. transformed into a hands-on activity. Suggested activities for “box play” are derived from pediatric developmental stages as well as road-tested art projects at Make A Mess at the Manatee. The mission statement: The mission of blue manatee boxes is to provide unique gift boxes for babies and young children featuring books and materials that promote reading, creative play, and parent-child engagement, in a fun, affordable, sustainable, and developmentally-sound manner.
We hope for blue manatee boxes to be a national extension of our store, reproducing the intimate book/gift-buying experience online for busy digital grownups in a meaningful, sustainable way.
**** We are also producing our own original content via blue manatee press. A new board book series called “Baby Unplugged” was written by our owner, a Baby Einstein antidote, to encourage simple, hands-on, “old-school” activities and playthings not involving screens, batteries, or power cords. The first 3 titles are Yard, Pets, and Blanket, with more in the pipeline. These are consistent with American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines encouraging no screen time for kids under 2, and limited for older kids. We hope to distribute these nationally, as well, perhaps via a national publishing partner. For older readers, we published “Tito’s Inferno: Descent Into TitanMart,” a funny, dystopic allegory of Dante’s Inferno for advanced middle-grade readers sure to change readers’ views of shopping in big-box stores. We hope to continue to expand our range, which help differentiate us in an era where distribution is increasingly commoditized while content is valued. Our core list and focus will be children, and reinforcing the importance of the primary, hands-on, unplugged-or-in-moderation, adventure. Ironically, Tito’s Inferno is available as an e-Book, though!
We are rolling out an enhanced, digitized Frequent Buyer Card offering a store credit reward + support of partner non-profit + special deals on café and store items.
What kinds of creative events or storytime events have you done?
Lots! Here’s just a sampling…
Costume events – manatee, characters
Make A Mess at the Manatee – art with recycled/found materials
Build a Book/Muse Manatee – book making
ManaTots – for younger children and babies
Benefit/block parties for non-profits
And here are some pictures from this year’s Boo Manatee, our annual Halloween party!
Can you tell us more about your new blue manatee boxes initiative.
This is our most exciting new initiative, which we think defines us perfectly: targeted at your core customers, reinforcing the idea of shared reading and creative play for lifelong health and happiness, eco-friendly packaging, custom service and content. Press release attached. We hope to go national, and have thusfar had orders from as far away as AZ, CA, NY, Canada, and Hong Kong. Integrity is key here, with all content and packaging true to our mission, more than just a bunch of products in a box. Of note, our boxes feature original artwork by featured authors/illustrators that we use on custom, reusable gift enclosures.
Boxes come in 3 sizes: 3, 6, or 9 books, with optional ManaGear including shirts/onesies, sibling books, and the ability to support one of our Give Back Box partner organizations. Our boxes have shipping included in the price, which typically results in a ~10-20% savings. We support a different, child-focused “Give Back Box” partner every 3 months, with a portion of sales plus the ability to add a small donation. Our current partner is ProKids, which supports neglected and foster children.
Blue manatee boxes have been endorsed by prominent pediatric, natural play, and developmental experts, including Audubon medalist Richard Louv, learning specialist Dr. Jane Healy Ph.D., and Dr. Robert Needlman, MD, founder of Reach Out and Read.
What books have you made bestsellers at your store because the staff got behind them?
Otis and the Tornado/Otis, The Hunger Games (before it was cool!), Squish Rabbit, How Kind! (by Mary Murphy), The Mysterious Benedict Society, Ivy & Bean series, Mr. Putter & Tabby Series, Elephant & Piggie series, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda
How important are your e-newsletter and social media to your customer outreach?
Very – we have an active FB page, large email list targeted at bookstore as well as boxes; we do notice spikes with email release. We try to make these custom and fun, fitting the store.
How do you feel about business going into the holiday season?
Optimistic, especially for blue manatee boxes and its potential as a convenient way to ship a unique, meaningful, and hand-picked gift anywhere in the US. We plan a significant advertising push to promote this. In-store sales are up thusfar heading into the holidays, but you never know!
What are your favorite titles out this fall?
Squish Rabbit by Katherine Battersby. Grandpa Green by Lane Smith. The Bippolo Seed by Dr. Seuss. Otis and the Tornado, Loren Long. Baby Unplugged and Tito’s Inferno by John Hutton! Seriously Norman by Chris Raschka.
Lastly, click here to read an informative article, Unplug the Kids, written by blue manatee’s Dr. John Hutton and featured recently in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Thanks so much for joining us today, John and blue manatee!