Despite challenges, Children’s Book World, independent bookstores thrive


Photo credit: Anna Brodsky

Board books are displayed on a shelf in the front of the store. Owner Sharon Hearn carefully curates each collection. “We have such a broad selection of titles,” Hearn said. “I really enjoy picking out the books that the store sells.”

J.K. Rowling. John Green. Scott Westerfeld. Sarah Dessen. Laurie Halse-Anderson. Jacqueline Woodson.

These are just a few of the many authors that have been hosted by Children’s Book World, a specialty bookstore located in West Los Angeles.

The bookstore, which has been called “the best children’s book store in Los Angeles” by Los Angeles Magazine and LA Parent Magazine, has gained attention that extends far beyond the walls of its 2,700 square-foot space.

The Oracle interviewed owner Sharon Hearn, who discussed the bookstore’s struggles, successes and impact on the community.

Where it all began

As a reading teacher in rural Ohio, Hearn had initially planned to open a teacher supply store when she moved back to Los Angeles with her husband. However, once she participated in a book fair, Hearn realized that her true passion lay in literature, not teaching supplies.

Following this realization, Hearn started and ran a book fair company out of her parent’s garage for seven years. Once she had saved enough money, she made the decision open Children’s Book World in 1986.

She ran both the store and book fair business together for the next seven years, but she eventually decided to focus her efforts completely on running Children’s Book World.

“[Running both businesses] was way too much,” Hearn said, laughing. “But I’m grateful for the book fair company, because it gave me the opportunity to earn the money [to open the bookstore.]”

After more than 30 years of operation, Hearn believes that Children’s Book World has grown to fill many roles within the local community. Listen to the audio clip on the left to hear more about these impacts.

Online Competitors

As corporate monoliths, such as Amazon, have overtaken the market, many bookstores have suffered as a result. Two large bookstore chains, Borders and Barnes and Noble, have suffered greatly because of this. Borders was forced to close its doors in 2011, and Barnes and Noble also experienced significant financial losses.

Hearn commented on the rise of Amazon as a bookseller, calling it “a sort of capitalist evolution.”

“I think it’s important to educate people on the importance of local stores–they’re not just places to buy books,” she said. “At a bookstore, you can get suggestions. On Amazon, they do have the computer generated suggestions, but not from people with the same level of expertise.”

Based on national trends, consumers as a whole seem to agree. Although chain bookstores have been negatively impacted, a Slate article stated that sales at independent bookstores have grown about eight percent per year over the past three years, which exceeds the growth of book sales in general.

“Independent bookstores never had to answer to the dictates of public markets. Many of their proprietors understood, intuitively and from conversations with customers, that a well-curated selection was their primary and maybe only competitive advantage,” Zachary Karabell writes in the article.

Hearn expressed similar sentiments in reflecting upon the reasons for the store’s success.

“I think the fact that we’re a specialty store–children’s books–gives us a definite advantage. I think people want to see the books, and they also want to have places to bring their children, to excite them about reading,” Hearn said. “We have a really good staff of booksellers, too. I think those two things are what have enabled us to survive.”

Staff and Stories: The Selection Process

Because of its prominence in the bookselling world, Children’s Book World is a highly sought-after place of employment by literature enthusiasts. Hearn shared her techniques for selecting her staff.

“This is a very surface-level thing, but the first thing I check for is that everything is spelled correctly,” Hearn said. “Obviously, those are the types of people we want working at the store.”

Then, Hearn evaluates the content of the written application, calls the applicant and invites them for an in-person meeting if they seem like a promising candidate.

“The main thing is a love of books, specifically children’s books, because my staff is reading all the time,” Hearn said. “They have to have a manner that I think would be good for interacting with customers, with both adults and kids. Then, I look at their past experience, reliability, and I do call references.”

Photo by Anna Brodsky
A shelf in the young adult section of the store, which features reviews and recommendations from the Teen Reader’s Council and members of the staff.

The staff play an integral role in selecting which books the store orders.

“We get advance copies from sales reps for most of the picture books, and some of the chapter books,” Hearn said. “The staff look at the books, and they leave post-its with their comments, which detail whether they liked the book or not. I make the final decision on what books we order.”

“Business-wise, I really enjoy picking out the collection,” she said.

Additionally, Children’s Book World has a unique approach to selecting young adult literature: the Teen Reader’s Council.

The Teen Reader’s Council is a volunteer program made up of students from grades 9-12. Members read advance copies of books and write reviews for a blog. The group meets every month to discuss the books that they read and select new titles.

Hearn takes these recommendations into account when deciding what material to buy for the store.

“We do order everything the Teen Reader’s Council suggests,” Hearn said. “It’s very helpful because there’s lots of books that we miss. It’s very hard to order the chapter books not having read them.”

Maddie Smith, a teenager who has been a member for two years, shared her favorite part of this extracurricular.

“I like being able to talk about books with people who share my interests,” Smith said.

Community Outreach

Children’s Book World currently has three community outreach programs, the largest of which is called the Book Recycling Center. The program is a non-profit founded by the store, and it collects new and gently used children’s books from customers or others in the community.

It then donates them to literacy programs and other non-profits. According to Hearn, the Book Recycling Center impacts thousands of children each year.

“We’ve given books to over 300 different organizations over the years. There are teachers from low income schools that come in… We give books to health clinics, and hundreds of kids come through those,” Hearn said. “We also give to foster care organizations and to the Children’s Court.”

Another program, called “Readers and Writers Rock!” funded by a grant from James Patterson, allows children who attend school in lower-income parts of Los Angeles to attend author events. At the end of the day, each child receives an autographed copy of the author’s book to take home with them.

An infographic created with statistics from articles in the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post and Business Insider.

The last organization, called “Reading Gives You Superpowers,” which is funded by Dav Pilkey, provides transportation to the store for students who attend school in underprivileged areas and allows the students to each pick a book of their choosing.

“Something that [Pilkey] requested, and I agreed…was that the kids should be able to pick out the books,” Hearn said. “I mean, we can make recommendations, but the kids should be able to pick…because we want them to be excited about books and reading.”

When asked about the main objective of these programs, Hearn stated that the goal was “absolutely” to promote literacy in the community.

“We want books to go to kids everywhere, and not just kids who are fortunate enough to have parents who can buy books for them, who can bring them to bookstores. We think education is really important, and we want all kids to be able to read, and to want to read, so we like to reach out to kids who don’t necessarily have books in the house,” Hearn said.

Hearn expressed her happiness at the reactions she has gotten from both the children impacted by these events and her regular customers.

“People thank me every day that we’re open,” she said. “We’ve gotten some really nice thank-yous from kids from low-income schools at the events, and also from customers. People who are adults now, and bringing their kids, share how much the store has impacted their lives. That’s the best part of [my job].”