You can get most anything online nowadays, but there are certain brick-and-mortar experiences that are simply irreplaceable. Bookstores — especially children’s bookstores — are one of those things.
For the past 30 years, Cincinnati parents have taken their kids to Blue Manatee for story times, activities and good, old-fashioned snuggles in the store’s comfy corners and crannies. Over the years, Blue Manatee weathered new owners, a name change, the rise of Internet shopping and a significant relocation. But last December, the future of this beloved bookstore hung in the balance. Owners John Hutton and Sandra Gross sent out a desperate call to Cincinnatians asking for someone to take over the Oakley store and its online operations.
Cincinnatians flocked to answer the call: Hutton and Gross received over 160 responses. After much discussion and deliberation, in January, new owners Amanda Kranias and Kevin Kushman took the reins, transforming Blue Manatee Children’s Bookstore into Blue Manatee Literacy Project: a place with purpose.
When Blue Manatee announced it would be closing, did you immediately feel called to respond?
Kevin Kushman (KK): Reading and books have always been part of our family. Our experiences at the original Blue Manatee fostered our kids’ creativity and drove the feelings of nostalgia and disappointment we all felt when we learned the store might close. With so much reinvention of the Madison Road retail corridor, Amanda and I agreed an alternative business model for the store may elevate its presence while preserving its legacy. My proposal focused on expanding the Blue Manatee experience virtually into every neighborhood in Cincinnati.
Blue Manatee is a beloved institution in Cincinnati. Did you feel nervous about taking it on?
Amanda Kranias (AK): I’m still nervous about taking it on! Kevin and I have been entrusted with this Cincinnati gem and both of us are committed to seeing it continue to thrive. Blue Manatee has always been about encouraging children to read; we’re simply implementing new tools and strategies to build on that original passion.
Why reopen BMLP as a nonprofit?
KK: The concept was a result of personal experience working with students for whom a Blue Manatee experience was not only inaccessible, but the foundation in reading skills was often missing. With the wealth of resources available to a bookstore, it just felt right to have BMLP be a nonprofit. It also opened us up to some wonderful partnerships with other nonprofits focused on literacy, young readers and family well-being.
How does the one-for-one book-donation program work?
AK: It’s as simple as purchasing a book through BMLP in the bookstore, website or through an off-site event. For example, every book sold at a local book fair put on by BMLP results in a book being donated. Or if you stop in for story time and purchase a book, you’ve just donated a book that’s purposely matched to an age, cultural and proficiency-appropriate program that will ensure the recipient takes a step forward on their reading journey.
How can the community support BMLP?
KK: One of the most compelling features of BMLP’s structure is that the communities we serve are the true owners of the enterprise. We rely on the community completely for our sustainability, from shopping and buying gift cards to holding fundraisers and school book fairs with us. We rely on Cincinnati parents, grandparents and friends to decide that the convenience of online ordering pales in comparison to using their purchases at BMLP to make a difference.