By Craig J. Heimbuch, Photo By Joe Simon

John Hutton is a hard guy to track down. Like every entrepreneur, he’s got a million to-dos on his list and not enough hours in the day. But Hutton is not only the owner of one of Cincinnati’s most beloved businesses – the Blue Manatee children’s bookstore on Madison in Oakley – he’s also a pediatric resident at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Yeah, great business and a career in medicine, this guy has a few things on his plate.

Still, Hutton was willing to do an interview the new old-fashioned way, over e-mail, and share his experience as a passionate business owner, a visionary and a dreamer for whom the reason for doing business has more to do with ideal than profit. But, as mentioned, he’s a busy guy and, in case he’s reading, let’s cut to the chase.

What was your inspiration for getting in to the children’s book business?

I have always been a fan of great books and of great children’s books in particular and the stores that sell them.  Blue Manatee, then called The Blue Marble, was two days from going out of business, and I did not want to see it get sucked into the void as too many independent retailers – bookstores in particular – have been over the past 10 to 15 years with the rise of the chains. Not so long ago, most cities of reasonable size had a children’s bookstore – I grew up in Lexington and ours was The Owl and the Pussycat – but now we, like manatees, are an endangered species.  I strongly feel as I did then, that they are critical as sanctuaries of quality, whimsy, and inspiration; places where kids, parents, and the young at-heart can go, slow down, and spend quality time together. As a pediatrician, I am also passionate about the innumerable benefits of reading, especially parents and kids reading together. Anyway, after a chat with the Story Time Lady, Katie LePage, we contacted the owner, and within a week had signed a contract in crayon – really. I think it was green, but blue would have been poetic.

What is the one thing you have learned from the business that you wish you had known before you got involved?

How difficult it is. I had envisioned myself sitting luxuriously in back sipping espresso and reading The Lorax or maybe a few Shel Silverstein poems, greeting customers as they peruse the stacks. But this is an incredibly tough business, under siege on multiple fronts – aforementioned big boxes/chains, the Internet, recession, video games, and a decline in overall readership, and the recent utterly maddening construction on Madison Road, among them. This would at least have allowed me to stock up on Tums.

Looking back, what would you do differently? What would you do all over again?

I would use blue crayon.  I would react faster to the recession, tightening inventory, etc.  I could not imagine a better group of people to work with.

How do you measure success, for the business and for yourself?

Leaving the world more interesting, and hopefully better, than I found it.  Inspiring young minds and helping bring a few smiles to kids and families.  Taking the risk to try something unusual.  For the business – keeping the lights on, the colors bright, and swimming mightily upstream against the electronic/strip mall current.

A little more salient to your business- what’s your favorite book?

Impossible question.  I favor subversive, e.g. Steig, Dahl, Seuss. “The Big Orange Splot” by Daniel Pinkwater?

How does an independent compete against the Big Box Chains?

The secret is customer service and this includes passionate people, creative events, and a unique ecosystem that inspires customer loyalty. Locally-owned businesses must make themselves a destination worth the trip.  If a customer were blindfolded and taken to Blue Manatee, we want them to have no doubt where they are when the blindfold is removed. As a rule, eyes opened in a big box/chain could be anywhere, nowhere, or both.

To what do you ascribe the customer loyalty the shop has engendered? What brings people back?

Our people and the million wonderfully quirky things not-so-hidden inside of our store.  We hope that every visit offers something different – for this is how kids see the world – and is a reminder of life beyond the chains. We also appeal to people who recall or pine for a slower pace, and who enjoy bringing their kids in to browse and choose books together that are worth reading over and over and keeping for a lifetime.  We want to be the store that today’s kids remember fondly going to when they are parents.

Do you have a favorite moment in business?

Hmmm.  On a daily basis, reading to my daughters.  Specifically – how about a 2004 author event with Sandra Boynton, when I picked her up at her hotel and she met me in the lobby carrying a 5-foot-tall stuffed chicken.  This is the kind of thing I envisioned going into the kids’ book business.