Sue Cowing for MIXED-UP FILES: Since it’s founding twenty-eight years ago, the Red Balloon Bookshop (www.redballoonbookshop.com) 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.
We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 http://www.grandave.com.
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)