Carol Erdahl
Carol Erdahl
Carol Erdahl has long been in the business of keeping books. Over the past 23 years, she's made a name for herself as co-founder and co-owner of The Red Balloon Bookshop, a St. Paul store specializing in children's literature. Yet many of her loyal customers aren't aware that Erdahl wasn't always an entrepreneur. Before opening The Red Balloon, she was a school librarian.

Erdahl took a year-long sabbatical from her school position to study children's literature in Boston. "Low and behold, there were children's bookstores in Boston," she said. "When I came back to Minnesota, I took a leave of absence from my job to see if I could start my own children's bookshop." She started by hanging around local bookstores and chatting with the staff. She put out the word that she was thinking of opening a store focused strictly on children's literature. Eventually, someone told her she should contact Michele Cromer-Poiré.

"Michele and her former husband ran a store called Odegard Books in St. Paul," Erdahl explained. "We met for lunch, checked each other's references and realized we each brought our own skill set to the table." While Erdahl was well-versed in children's literature, Cromer-Poiré had real-life experience running a bookstore. Yet they remained uncertain. Was it smart to start a business with a stranger? A friend suggested they take a trip together. If they could travel together, the friend reasoned, they could work together. They took a road trip from Toronto to St. Paul; in 1984, The Red Balloon opened.

"It probably was better that we weren't friends. We were a 50-50 partnership instead," Erdahl said. "So many people say that you can't make a 50-50 partnership work. It always turns out to be 70-30 or 60-40. I think the people that say this are probably men. Women have a better way of relating to one another and doing business together. A business partnership is like a marriage. You're never going to agree on everything, but you compromise. You manage your commitment."

Loyal customers ask about the store's finances, said Erdahl, who added, "The advent of Barnes and Nobles and Borders did impact us, but we kept going. We're always on the lookout for new places to sell our books and for new events to host." The Red Balloon buys books for school libraries, sells textbooks to St. Paul Academy students, gives book talks to area groups and features books at member events for the Children's Home Society, St. Kate's and more.

"We manage," Erdahl said. "We're not losing money. We're probably not making as much as the big stores, but we do make a profit. But really, we do this because it feels like a mission-to get young children interested in reading."