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Getting into book business; Store: Fifth-graders encourage reading by selling books to fellow pupils at school at low prices.


Independent booksellers may be having a hard time making a go of it, but pupils at Baltimore's John Ruhrah Elementary School have figured out how to compete with the big guys: undercut their price and have the perfect location.

Their school bookstore has sold $342 in books in two months. The young entrepreneurs are on more than a capitalist mission. They measure success not just in the dollars they collect, but in the 228 books they have put in the hands of schoolmates.

"We don't try to make a profit," said Amanda Branham, 10.

They have sold the classics, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" series about a pioneering American family, to ghostly and heart-stopping horror tales.

"It seems that a crucial part of reading is getting the books in the hands of children," said Peter French, a fifth-grade teacher who helped start the bookstore at the school in the 700 block of S. Rappolla St. in a working-class East Baltimore community.

The youngsters set up their bookstore in the lobby, near the office and the front door. Three days a week, they are open for a half-hour before and after school, so all pupils walk by at least twice on those days.

"In the morning they look at the books and then in the afternoon, when their parents pick them up, they show them the book they want to buy," said Jasmine Kaur, a fifth-grader.

The books sell for $1 to $1.50, so most children can afford one or two, the pupils said.

Some parents are buying for other members of the family. "Some of the mothers come in and get smaller books to read to their children," said Amanda, also a fifth-grader.

French thought of setting up the bookstore after reading an article in a professional publication. He contacted Invest in Children's Education Inc. (ICE) in Deer Park, N.Y., which sells books at 99 cents to school bookstores and provides advice on setting up the business.

ICE was started several years ago by Jess Cohen, who was graduating from Columbia University at the same time his mother, a New York City reading teacher, was setting up a bookstore in her public school.

After an article about her bookstore in Parade magazine, she was flooded with letters from teachers around the country wanting to do the same thing, Cohen said.

Cohen took the letters, talked with publishers and began distributing books to schools from his parents' basement.

Today, ICE has two warehouses full of books and supplies 1,000 school bookstores. Cohen said ICE is able to offer the books at low prices because it buys in volume directly from publishers.

The John Ruhrah store began with a loan of several hundred dollars from Principal Leon Tillet to buy the books. Then it was up to the pupils to make the business work. They set up a board of directors and hired security guards, clerks and cashiers.

Besides promoting reading, the project has taught pupils percentages, the basics of small business and how to get along with each other.

"We fight over the jobs," acknowledged fifth-grader Ashley Kerns.

"But we get it under control," Amanda said.

Fifth-grader Steven Gange said he enjoys being part of the bookstore because it assures him that people trust him.

Several pupils stand behind a folding table to help customers make selections. One is the cashier, one stamps paid-for books and another records the titles.

The children remain excited about the project, but French noted that if a few tire of it, many more are ready to take over their three-day-a-week tasks.

French said it does not require much time from a teacher. He keeps the money in a small locked box, which the pupils get from him at opening time.

Elementary pupils rarely get to do something entirely on their own, French said. "Kids who are normally not responsible will take this and do a good job."

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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