Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Couple reviving Blue Marble

Stiff competition may hurt survival

By Mya Frazier
Enquirer contributor

        What's going to happen to the Wall?

        In early December, when the closing signs went up in the windows of The Blue Marble, a children's bookstore and Oakley Square landmark since 1989, customers asked the question again and again.

[photo] John Hutton and Sandra Gross bought The Blue Marble bookstore and renamed it Blue Manatee.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        On the “Wall” in question were handwritten messages, illustrations and autographs by the greats of children's literature: Jan Brett, Mark Tolon Brown, Chris Van Alssberg and dozens more. Each had visited for a story time, delighted children and autographed books.

        Like other longtime customers, Indian Hill residents John Hutton and Sandy Gross, married and the parents of two young girls, took the demise of The Blue Marble hard.

        Once again, an independent bookstore was falling to the chains. This particular closing, though, struck the couple as particularly dismal, because it would mark the end of an era in Cincinnati, as another vibrant, independent children's bookstore closed.

        “We were crushed when we saw the signs,” Mr. Hutton said.

        So Mr. Hutton, a pediatrician turned novelist, and Ms. Gross, a Montessori teacher turned sculptor, took a chance on yet another career venture.

        Without lawyers, they hashed out a $5,000 buyout of former owner Pat Randolph. It fit on a one-page handwritten contract. As for the Wall, it stayed, although the contract stipulated that Ms. Randolph retained ownership. A friendly and easy deal, Mr. Hutton said: “We actually joked about doing it in crayon.”

        What won't be easy, though, is survival. Located in a bookstore war zone, success isn't a sure thing for the store, renamed Blue Manatee. Joseph-Beth Kids is less than a mile away; Barnes & Noble a two-minute drive away in Hyde Park.

        “We can't be a sleepy independent,” Mr. Hutton said.

        To forge a new identity and spruce up the interior, the couple invested $40,000 in paint, carpet, shelves, computers and an inventory of 10,000 volumes.

        The bright red and green paint is gone, replaced by a muted color scheme of pastel blues and greens. A cloud scheme decorates the ceiling. Giant manatees smile out at a child's eye level on the outside of the checkout counter.

        The manatees prompted the new name, along with the potential of a legal dispute with Tina Moore, founder and owner of the Blue Marble in Fort Thomas. Ms. Randolph originally partnered with the 24-year-old children's bookstore, but in the early '90s, the two stores parted ways, Ms. Moore said.

        “They've got a tough battle ahead,” said Neil Van Umm, chief executive of Joseph-Beth Group, a regional bookstore chain based in Cincinnati, which operates six superstores in the Midwest, including the Rookwood Pavilion Joseph-Beth Booksellers. “It's tough being an independent, period, much less starting as a new one. I wish them luck.”

        Industry trends might be on Blue Manatee's side for now, though.

        “Children's books are one of the success stories over the last few years,” said Frank Daly, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group Inc. “It's a good, solid growth category, in part because parents like to look at a children's book before buying, not just a cover on Amazon.”

        Overall, the bookstore industry remains dominated by the chains, but last year, for the first time in a decade, independents held at 15 percent of the market share, according to the American Bookseller's Association.

        “Before you can ever grow again, you have to stop the bleeding,”said Michael Hoynes of the ABA, a national trade organization for independent booksellers, which has watched its membership drop from 5,000 a decade ago to about 2,000 today.

        Mr. Hutton and Ms. Gross want profits but don't expect to turn enough to make a living the first few years.

        “It's not about making money,” said Ms. Gross, sitting cross-legged on a giant, blue dot in the store's reading nook, a carpeted riser with a faux fireplace she hand-painted. “We just think this is really important. We see it as a mission.”

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