In an economy where brick and mortar big box book behemoths keep failing, the Red Balloon Bookstore in St Paul has sailed along.
Not that there haven’t been bumps in the road admits Michele Cromer-Poiré. She and Carol Erdahl founded and opened the store in 1984, and they have remained at the helm ever since, weathering the storms of the book business against all odds.
The Grand Avenue store has become a St Paul institution, with a reputation for being well stocked with both classics and new releases, and as a great place for author readings.
Now Cromer-Poiré and Erdahl are retiring. Cromer-Poiré says they’ve been thinking about it for a while.
“Our husbands have been retired for, actually, decades,” she laughs.
But she says they didn’t want to just walk away
“We wanted to keep it going, and we think of it kind of as our legacy,” Cromer-Poiré said. “We found these fabulous women and we think the Red Balloon has a fabulous future with them.”
On August 1st Holly Weinkauf of St. Paul and Amy Sullivan of Minneapolis will become the Red Balloon’s new owners. Cromer-Poiré is delighted by what she sees as the similarities between Weinkauf’s and Sullivan’s experiences and how she and Erdahl felt as they launched the store.
Cromer-Poiré says she thinks the Red Balloon has survived because she and Erdahl were, as she puts it “intrepid.” They forged ahead, no matter the challenges, while keeping a close eye on finances to keep the store viable.
She says she never thought they wouldn’t make it.
“No, I don’t think that ever crossed our minds,” she said. “One of the smartest things that we ever did was that we managed to own our own space, so we are not beholding to a landlord, and because of that we can control our occupancy costs.”
But it’s taken more than good financial management to make the Red Balloon the success it is. Cromer-Poiré says its a combination of good customer service, by staff with decades of experience, all working towards an important goal.
“We have really been focused on connecting kids with literature, with books, with authors with illustrators, and through that been promoting literacy and fun with reading.”
The Red Balloon has been around for 27 years. When asked to predict how things will be in the book industry in 27 more, Cromer-Poiré doesn’t miss a beat.
“I see the Red Balloon still surviving, I don’t know that childrens books and quality childrens booksstores will go away ever. There’s something special about the relationship between a parent and a child when the child is sitting on the lap and the parent is reading to the child.”
She recalls how people predicted the introduction of audiobooks would spell the end of the paper books. That didn’t happen, and while the Red Balloon does sell ebooks, she says they will never replace a good picturebook.”
She won’t be there behind the counter but Michele Cromer-Poiré says she’ll still be there regularly.
“We wrote into the purchase agreement that Carol and I will get an employee discount,” she said with a laugh. “I’m always going to buy my books from the Red Balloon!”