The Red Balloon Bookshop, a children’s specialty store that has been a fixture in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the past 27 years, is now under new ownership. On August 1, founder Carole Erdahl and business partner Michele Cromer-Poiré sold the store to Holly Weinkauf and Amy Sullivan. For the past two months, business has been going “really, really well,” said Sullivan, and the store’s author events and storytimes have been “just marching along.”
Weinkauf, who has a degree in library science and has held jobs as both a librarian and a childbirth educator, led Red Balloon’s storytime for about a year and a half before learning that Erdahl and Cromer-Poiré were interested in selling. She was immediately interested in purchasing the store and discovered through mutual friends that Sullivan had a similar dream.
Sullivan had been directing a program to help single mothers get into college and teaching women’s studies and history at the University of Wisconsin in Lacrosse — a two and a half hour commute from her home in St. Paul. “I was enchanted by the idea of owning a bookstore,” she said, “and also desperately needed employment closer to home.”
Although they bring a different set of experiences to their new roles as bookstore owners, Sullivan noted that “families are a big part of what both of us do, so it feels like a really natural fit.”
Weinkauf and Sullivan are equally focused on maintaining the store’s 27-year-old legacy, as well as making small changes to “bring it forward and make it ours,” said Sullivan.
“We respect what it has been in this city for all these years, and we are honoring that and just [focusing on] what we can do to make it a sustainable business in the market now.”
Because of their professional backgrounds, Weinkauf and Sullivan come to the bookstore first and foremost as educators and hope to use that perspective to form relationships with other community establishments.
Sullivan recently reached out to a nearby charter school for the deaf to inform them that author Brian Selznick would be visiting the store along with an ASL interpreter to promote his new book, whose main character is deaf. “They were just so touched and appreciative that we thought of them,” said Sullivan. “There’s a lot more outreach like that that we’d like to do.
Weinkauf and Sullivan, who are both parents of young adults, have a particular interest in developing the store’s appeal to the YA market. They will be bringing in teen bloggers on the store’s website as a way to bring in new customers.
The new owners signed the Red Balloon purchase agreement the day before this past spring’s BookExpo America, and they were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome they received from their peers at the show.
“Other independent booksellers have been so warm and welcoming and generous with their ideas and support,” said Sullivan, who has recently been consulting other stores about which point-of-sale system to use in her store. “I just can’t believe how much time people have spent with us on the phone,” she said. “The sense of community has been something that we didn’t expect, but we are so happy to have found that and be embraced by it.”
In addition to the bookselling community, Weinkauf and Sullivan have felt welcomed by everyone they’ve encountered — from neighboring businesses, to customers, to authors and illustrators who consider Red Balloon their home.
“People were just so happy that we were able to keep it going,” said Sullivan. “With the economy the way it is, no one would have been surprised if they just closed it, but I think there is kind of a spirit and a commitment, a real love of the place, and we’re trying to think about ways of making that part of the bookstore stand out.”
Sullivan made it clear that they are not trying to compete with big box stores, but rather want Red Balloon to be known as a destination and a community gathering place, because “that’s where our magic is,” she said.