The Red Balloon Defends the First Amendment -- and Makes New Customers

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On Thursday, February 8, The Red Balloon Bookshop, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based childrens bookstore, was host to a panel discussion on free expression. The innovative idea grew from an incident last November, when a Red Balloon Bookshop customer wanted to ban a book she had never read. The patron (an educator, in fact) came to store manager, Roxanna Markie, incensed that the bookstore carried the book Little Black Sambo. Based only on the title, the educator assumed the book to be racist. It isnt. "The book is about an Indian boy who loses his clothes to tigers and tries to get them back," explained Markie. "She understands this now, but [because of the incident], I thought it would be interesting to have a forum to discuss free speech."

The panel, entitled "Freedom to Read," was the culmination of that November confrontation. Planned by Markie as primarily an open forum to discuss First Amendment Rights, she also noted in a recent interview that she believed the forum's setting in a children's bookstore would garner attention in the media and, potentially, attract new customers.

It did both of those things. The evening was heralded as "The Literary Event of the Week" in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and "there were new faces in the crowd last night," Markie said. "There seemed to be more educators than anyone else, concerned about which books to use for their students."

Surprisingly, from start to finish, the task of organizing and publicizing the event "wasn't a long one," Markie said. But it did take some hard work.

First, Markie needed to find knowledgeable guests to speak at "Freedom to Read." More importantly, the speakers needed to be fairly well known if she was to get any kind of turnout.

"It took about seven to 10 days of calling people," Markie recalled. "I would try to get so and so to speak and they wouldn't be able to, but they'd recommend this other person."

Luckily, the phone tag paid off, and Markie wound up with four renowned panelists for the event: Archie Givens, president of the Givens Collection of African-American Literature for Children; Mary Treacy, director of communications for the Children's Minnesota Law Center; Sandy Berman, columnist for the Unabashed Library; and Karen Westwood, head of outreach, Minnesota Law Library. "Once the panelists were in place, we all met to discuss how the evening should go," Markie explained.

With the evening's topics decided, the event could be publicized. Information about "Freedom to Read" was posted on the store's Web site,, and Markie wrote an article about the event in the store's bi-monthly 6,000-circulation newsletter. She also depended on word-of-mouth. "I was walking around with this 'Free Speech' button," she said. 'I'd go to church each Sunday and one time the reverend asked me, 'What's that all about?' and I told him. So, he publicized the event in the Church's monthly bulletin!"

Another key to a successful event is taking care of the little things -- having enough room for the crowd, for instance, or making sure everything starts on time. "All of our bookshelves are on wheels, so that allowed us to create a larger space to bring in chairs for the audience," she said. "Also, we had reserved parking for the panelists so they didn't have to worry about finding a parking space."

In the end, "Freedom to Read" garnered an inquisitive crowd of over two-dozen people, Markie said, many who had never been to The Red Balloon before. More importantly, the discussion was intense. "The panelists were fabulous," she said. "And the crowd was very interested. It was a good opportunity to take time out and think about these things."

-- David Grogan