By: Lucy May CINCINNATI — One of the region’s most beloved bookstores will soon be back in business. Blue Manatee children’s bookstore will reopen next month as a nonprofit organization aimed at boosting local children’s reading skills. The Blue Manatee Literacy Project will open April 2 with many of the staff members that regulars at the Oakley bookstore know and love, said Amanda Kranias, one of the two directors overseeing the project.
“The vibe of the space will be the same. It’s going to be this great hub for parents and children to come into, shop for books, find gifts, come to author signings,” Kranias said. “But there’s this whole bigger mission, this whole bigger drive.”
The team behind the nonprofit calls that mission “curated literacy,” said Kevin Kushman, the other director working on the reopening. The idea is to purposefully connect books and experiences for children between the ages of four and eight who are at risk of falling behind in reading, he said. For every book that someone buys at Blue Manatee, the nonprofit will donate another book to a needy student, he said, adding that the program also will provide instruction and mentoring.
“Allowing them to grow into their skills so they’re as proficient as possible once they get to school age,” he said.
Former owners Dr. John Hutton and Sandra Gross operated Blue Manatee children’s bookstore for more than 17 years. They announced in December the store would close in January if a new buyer could not be found. Hutton’s online post welcomed proposals from people or teams interested in acquiring the business, and he and Gross received more than 150, Kushman said. Kushman proposed transforming the store into a nonprofit, and he said Hutton and Gross loved the idea.
“Blue Manatee’s really being reimagined,” Kushman said. “You’re supporting literacy as soon as you enter the store.”
Unbridled enthusiasm wanted
The concept also positions the bookstore so its focus isn’t “trying to compete in a very pressure-filled independent bookstore environment where you have the likes of Amazon and online retailers,” he said.
The literacy mission matches the larger purpose that Hutton and Gross have always seen as the Blue Manatee’s role, Kushman said. Neither he nor Kranias are experts in literacy or education. But both have experience as entrepreneurs with startup companies.
Kushman is president of Integral Analytics, Inc., a data science software company based in Newport, Kentucky that serves the energy industry. Kranias helped establish operations at Hillman Accelerator, a local nonprofit business accelerator. She left that role recently and is working on the Blue Manatee re-opening full time.
Kranias and Kushman didn’t know each other until Hutton introduced them and suggested that should work together to launch the Blue Manatee Literacy Project.
“We both move at the same speed,” Kranias said.
Kushman said they have been careful to craft an approach that complements other literacy efforts in the region. It could be particularly effective because it aims to go beyond simply providing books to disadvantaged children, said Rolando Fernando, the senior manager for research and evaluation for StrivePartnership/KnowledgeWorks.
Fernando said a case study at a local school completed last year showed that young students need access to quality books to succeed, but they also need a quiet reading environment and someone they can talk with about the books they read, too.
“These kids, they just want to have somebody who has their back, who can encourage and fortify the process they go through,” he said. “Just providing the materials alone will not do it.”
Kranias said the store will be fully stocked by its reopening. (Lucy May | WCPO)
Kushman said the Blue Manatee Literacy Project aims to help connect young students with older students or community members who can mentor them as they learn.
He, Kranias and members of the nonprofit’s board of directors are seeking the community’s “unbridled enthusiasm for its new mission, whether that’s help with governance, programs or money. In the meantime, they have a few weeks left to paint the store, restock the shelves and reconfigure the space just a bit to place emphasis on the new mission. It’s one they’re confident fans of the Blue Manatee bookstore will embrace.
“When people come in, they will feel like, ‘oh great – we’re in the Blue Manatee! It’s still here!” Kranias said. “But at the same time, ‘we’ve done something good today.’”