Blue Manatee Historee 1989-2019
It all started with the Blue Marble.
Opened in 1989 by Patricia “Pat” Randolph, just down the street from Aglamesis Ice Cream and toy store King Arthur’s Court, The Blue Marble thrived in its early years, building a loyal clientele drawn to its selection, service, story times and author visits including Rosemary Wells, Chris Van Allsburg, Marc Brown, and Captain Kangaroo. The story time crowd was especially enchanted by “Miss Katie” LePage, and songs such as “Five Brown Buns” and guitar.
The Blue Marble Team established the long-running tradition of visiting authors and illustrators signing “The Wall”. The first signature on the Wall was by Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist for the Cincinnati Enquirer Jim Borgman. For many years, the Blue Marble provided a wonderful selection of books and events for Cincinnati families. However, pressured by the rise of “Big Box” chains and for other reasons, The Blue Marble announced that it was going Out of Business in the winter of 2001.
Driving by on a snowy winter night, pediatrician/author Dr. John Hutton & artist/Montessori teacher Sandra Gross noticed the sign, and stopped in for a visit, four days from closing. Inspired by a conversation with Miss Katie who mused about the fate of her “Storytime Orphans,” John and Sandy were inspired to get involved. After a meeting with Pat, Dr. John signed a half-page “contract” in green crayon, promising to care for the store that she had created and all that it stands for, in exchange for advice on how to do it.
After several weeks of remodeling, including new bookshelves, carpet, polish, lots of paint, and reordering, the Blue Marble reopened in March, 2002.
Sensing a fresh start was needed, John and Sandy decided to change the store name, but were torn between blue tortoise, and blue manatee (they are longtime nature lovers, fond of both). Children and families were invited to vote, and ballot boxes were placed in the store. Blue Manatee won by 4 votes, via a landslide from children. It was the perfect name as Blue Manatee was also a riff on “humanity,” and to them exemplified independent children’s bookstore: nurturing, warm-blooded, peaceful, intelligent, community-focused, yet sadly endangered. The official name change was implemented several months later, and Sandra created the current logo via cut paper.
Despite headwinds from big box stores and evolving e-commerce, Blue Manatee thrived, serving the Oakley community with excellent books, friendly faces and events including foreign language, nature, art, and author/illustrators.
Notable visitors included Sandra Boynton (twice), Kevin Henkes, Katherine Paterson, Brian Jacques (thrice), Angela Johnson, Robert Sabuda, Anita Lobel, Ashley Bryan, Anna Dewdney, Judy Schachner, Meg Cabot, Tony DiTerlizzi, Louis Sachar, Gary Paulsen, Sarah Dessen, Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney and Carl Hiaasen.
Local luminaires and award-winning author/illustrators Louise Borden, CF Payne, Jeffrey Ebbeler, Sharon Draper, Will Hillenbrand, Thayne Maynard and Loren Long, too!
Cognizant that books and coffee are an ideal combination, and that children need a place to go for a healthy snack, blue manatee broke down walls (literally) and created Blue Manatee Decafe’ in the former boarded-up space next door in 2011.The emphasis of the cafe was on organic smoothies, locally-sourced hot chocolate, healthier snacks and coffee drinks. Birthday parties quickly became very popular. Accompanying café renovation, a custom manatee mural was created on the side of the building by ArtWorks.
Putting their own, fun and eco-friendly spin on e-commerce, Blue Manatee boxes was launched in 2012, where customers could order and send custom, themed gift boxes to friends and family. To enhance this, Dr. John contacted notable authors and illustrators to create images of how they would transform a mundane yet iconic cardboard box. These are included in custom enclosures. Blue Manatee Boxes has won a Dr. Toy Best Green Toy award, a Parent’s Choice medal, and more.
Channeling his passion for writing and pediatric advocacy, Dr. John launched Blue Manatee Press in 2013, beginning with the Baby Unplugged series, which he developed during pediatric residency to address the epidemic of excessive screen time in children, and to celebrate reading together as a healthy and nurturing alternative.
In 2013, Blue Marble veteran and beloved story time lady Katie LePage retires. During her lifetime she was constantly inspiring others with her courage to live well, be kind and joyful, and laugh often. The “LePage Stage” is named for Miss Katie. In 2016, Blue Marble employee #2, longtime Blue Manatee manager, jazz aficionado, defender of children and diversity in stories, and “meme” to her Manatee “children” (including John and Sandy), Sheri Hill retires.
Facing pressures from e-commerce, to better focus its energies on its mission of “raising readers,” and wanting to own its own, brand-new, shiny space closer to its sister business, Sleepy Bee Café, Blue Manatee completes the Great Migration a block down the street in Oakley, to its current location.
In 2017, young in years yet equally beloved story time lady, author/illustrator and guitar strumming Miss Sarah (famous for her “Welcome, welcome” jam), moves to Portland.
Dr. John returned to Cincinnati Children’s in 2014, first as a research fellow and then in 2018 as Director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center, where his work has been the first to use fancy brain imaging (MRI) to verify what most parents and grandparents know: that reading together in early childhood benefits the developing brain and makes people happy.
On a snowy night in 2018, after much soul-searching, Dr. John announces that the time has come for a new owner to assume stewardship of blue manatee. He compares this to Willy Wonka’s decision to award a “Golden Ticket” to someone special, to take care of his beloved chocolate factory. Amanda Kranias and Kevin Kushman are awarded the Golden Ticket, as leaders of Blue Manatee Literacy Project, to spread the love and benefits of reading to children throughout the Greater Cincinnati region.
On April 2, 2019, the Blue Manatee Literacy Project (re)opens the doors to the Blue Manatee bookstore. Building on the mission of the previous owners to bring a love of reading to young children, BMLP will continue to provide a diverse selection of books, events and literacy programming. The manatee is swimming into new waters but with the steady guidance and wisdom of it’s founders.