Their Harry Potter books in hand, children, parents and grandparents formed a tidy, eager line on a shady little street in Roland Park yesterday. They were ready for the literary event of the Baltimore season: Joanne Rowling, creator of the fantastically popular Harry Potter books, had traveled here to sign books in the small back room of JoAnn Fruchtman's bookstore.
On a whirlwind U.S. tour, the small blonde British author spent two full hours behind a blue card table in the Children's Bookstore because of Fruchtman's reputation with Rowling's publisher.
And presiding over the event, keeping parents, children and author happy, was JoAnn Fruchtman, herself a local legend in bookselling.
Once upon a time, way, way back in the 1970s when Rowling was about the same age as her famous student wizard, Fruchtman decided that Baltimore needed a bookstore just for children, a bookstore dedicated to books of quality.
In 1978, the tiny Children's Bookstore was born as part of a renovated rowhouse near the Cross Street Market, a neighborhood more about bars than books. Now on Deepdene Road, in a community decidedly more about books, the store continues to flourish, despite super-bookstores and Internet booksellers.
The three-room bookstore is a step not so much back in time as out of it, a kind of gourmet shop of literature. Well-stocked with classic tales, richly illustrated picture books and fantasy series, the store offers its customers travel, adventure -- endless possibility.
"You walk in and get a feeling of hand-picked gems," says Baltimore poet Elizabeth Spires, author of "The Mouse of Amherst," who shops at the store for her 8-year-old daughter.
"They actually read their books there -- and not many bookstores do!" enthuses Jean Craighead George, author of the award-winning "Julie of the Wolves" and "My Side of the Mountain" who has appeared often at the store. "It's clear that JoAnn loves what she does. And everyone who steps into her bookstore knows it."
A native Baltimorean, Fruchtman cultivated her love for books at Park School -- the old Park School on Liberty Heights Avenue -- and reveled at home in a world of "Little Women," "Nancy Drew," "Black Beauty" and adults who read to her.
As an elementary school teacher, she searched for books that spoke artistically as well as verbally; her quest intensified when she had three daughters of her own. And when she entered book-selling dedicated to promoting the best in children's literature, she joined a constellation of kindred spirits. Children's book publishing was still home to legendary booklovers like the late Ursula Nordstrom, the editor of Maurice Sendak and Laura Ingalls Wilder, to people who considered their jobs to be missions.
Gradually, by the late '80s, Fruchtman says, things had changed. Parents were taking fewer books out of the library and buying many more for their children.
"Companies realized that children's literature meant big bucks. You began seeing board books, all that stuff," she says. "It was just huge amounts of mediocre stuff."
(According to the Book Industry study group, the market for juvenile books has grown much faster than for adult books in recent years. Last year, Americans spent $2.5 billion on juvenile trade books, about a 33 percent increase over the previous five years.)
"It used to be that I could look at a book and make a pretty good guess of which company had produced it," Fruchtman laments. "Now, you don't know what company it is because every company is owned by somebody else. ... That's not to say that there aren't wonderful books out there, but it's all become about making money."
Somehow, over the years, her bookstore has managed to keep literary videos off the shelves and still pay for itself. When the Children's Bookstore opened, Fruchtman shared ownership with Nancy Struever and her daughter Molly, then bought them out several years later.
In 1980, the bookstore became one of the first tenants at Harborplace. The Inner Harbor location was expensive but brought exposure that meant Fruchtman could sell a lot more books. Pretty soon, she acquired a national reputation with publishing companies. And authors began coming to the store for book signings. In 1985 she moved to Roland Park.
Arnold "Frog and Toad" Lobel, Lloyd "Prydain Chronicles" Alexander, Maurice "Where the Wild Things Are" Sendak and scores and scores of other authors and illustrators have paved the way for J.K. "Harry Potter" Rowling.
The Children's Bookstore is known as a friendly oasis in the often blistering landscape of book tours. Yesterday, for instance, Fruchtman made sure that Rowling had breathing room between signings. With a wrist taped from such a heavy signing schedule, the author could occasionally put down her pen to chat with her admirers, graciously accepting a gift of Walker chocolate-chip shortbread from one fan, telling another youngster about her 6-year-old daughter loving the swimming pool at the hotel.
Handing out lightning-bolt tattoos -- Harry Potter has a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead -- and helping move the fans along were sales people, friends and family members. Jack Fruchtman Jr., an author of seven books for grown-ups, collected timed tickets for his wife, greeted Potter fans and chatted with the security guard who seemed a bit taken aback by such a ruly crowd.
What might have become a nightmare turned out to have an intimate, neighborhood feeling; Fruchtman wanted her regular customers, folks who had signed up for tickets weeks in advance, to feel as if they weren't in a crush.
"The small personal bookstore is the real nerve center between books and readers. It's the difference between watching a television show and having a human being personally read to you," says author Alexander, a longtime fan of Fruchtman's.
These days, Fruchtman recommends books to the children of the children who first browsed in her store. You still won't find the "Babysitters Club" or "Goosebumps" series -- although she will always make special orders for her customers. There are no "literary" computer games. Some Beatrix Potter stuffed animals have crept in, along with book and musical tapes, but they seem quaint compared to the high-tech toys and mocha lattes at other bookstores.
Lessons for grown-ups
Perhaps the most important part of her job, she says, is teaching grown-ups about the rich diversity of children's books, about the world beyond "Harry Potter."
"A lot of people have come into the store recently to say 'My child's read all three Harry Potter books. Now what?' That's really disturbing to me," she says. "What I do think is important is that parents are reading these books and realizing there is this literature out there that's really wonderful.
"Many times after kids start reading for themselves, parents don't know what these books are about. ... There's a lot of beauty here that is not in adult literature. These authors are writing and teaching at the same time."
Whenever Fruchtman holds book signings -- instant pictures of many authors decorate her wall -- she strives for moments kids just won't forget. When Jean George visited recently, for instance, the author explained what it's like to howl with wolves as well as write about them.
"To me, the best thing about the book signing is the discussion beforehand, the give and take, the children asking questions," Fruchtman says. "Do you think children really care if they have an autograph in their book?"
But they do care about owning it. The best news to come out of the Children's Bookstore this month is that Fruchtman has established the Children's Bookstore Educational Foundation to help put children's literature into the hands of those who can least afford it.
Impressed by the number of public school teachers who have bought books for needy students at her store, Fruchtman hopes the foundation will begin funding proposals to give teachers multiple copies of books they are assigning.
It is this kind of opportunity -- to promote good books and introduce more people to them -- that still revs up the bookseller at the end of a long afternoon of playing hostess to an international phenomenon.
"There have been times when I've been tired by the business, but not tired by what it all means," she says. "... The most rewarding thing for me is that the store has remained pure. ... It's still the same place. It's still the same mission. I still think the children need what I have to offer."
And so do the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and all the other grown-ups who waited patiently yesterday on her shady little street.
Marlowe Boukis, age 12, in a brand new green Bryn Mawr sweatshirt, stood starry-eyed in the book-signing line with her 9-year-old brother, Adam, and her equally enthusiastic dad, Gary.
In Marlowe's literary heaven, Harry Potter is on the same level as The Hobbit.
"I did a report on J.R.R. Tolkien in the fifth grade, and I think he and J.K. Rowling are both geniuses," she said. "She's awesome."
In a teasing kind of way, Adam said he really likes the villain, Voldemort. Gary Boukis said the last important book-signing he attended was in 1982 in Boston. It was for Joseph Heller. He reckons he felt much the same way about "Catch 22" as his kids do about "Harry Potter."
The Boukises emerged from their signing aglow. Gary Boukis reported that not only does Rowling write fast, but she also signs fast. But not so fast that she couldn't chuckle when he told her how he can't wait until his kids finish her third book so they'll go to bed on time.
At least they don't quarrel over the Potter books, like some people they know.
"When some friends drove out to the Grand Canyon this summer, their two kids fought the whole time in the back seat over who would read the Potter book," Boukis said.
"They never looked out the window," his daughter added. "They missed the Painted Desert -- and most of Arizona."