Corktown Bookstore Serves the Young and Young at Heart

The kids who come in to Ladels Children's Book Boutique in Corktown are treated to something different.

Owner Lauren Walker Thomas and her mother Debra Walker have stocked the shelves of the Brooklyn Street shop with international and multicultural selections, as well as other books that can't be found on the shelves of mainstream bookstores.

Moving away from the big business, money-making focus of selling books and getting to the development of children and community are Lauren and Debra's ultimate goals.

So no Disney, Nick Jr., or kiddie pop culture stuff here; Lauren wants something more for her customers, not to mention her own 7-year-old son. "I wanted to kind of steer him away from that force," she says.

Humble beginnings

Lauren says her experiences as a bookstore clerk inspired her to open the now year-old shop. "About 12 years ago I worked for Borders, and I got stuck in the kid's section at one point. It was awesome!" says Lauren.

"The kids were so passionate about what they wanted to read, and so I wanted to open my own children's bookstore," says Lauren.

She made it happen. They started off small, working with small vendors and spreading the news through word-of-mouth.

Both Lauren and Debra are from Detroit. Lauren and her family live in Corktown — the neighborhood they serve — and Debra lives on the riverfront. Being familiar with the city gives Lauren and Debra an advantage in making their boutique a success.

What they're all about

From the second you step into the store, it's obvious this environment is family- and community-oriented. "We get children all the time who ask us if they have to buy the books, because they don't see it as just a store," Lauren says. "There aren't racks anywhere. There aren't price tags all over."

Ladels' goods range from traditional Yiddish books to Harry Potter, from 1960s tinker toys to stuffed animals from the African savanna. Ladels is more than just a store — it's a whole new world for everyone who comes through the doors.

"We're book junkies—we collect beautiful things in the house," says customer Sabrina Nelson, associate director of admissions at the College for Creative studies and a mother of three. "I end up collecting them not only for the information that's in them, but for the beautiful illustrations."

And while the bookstore is geared toward kids, the term "children's" must be used lightly here because not all of their customers are children.

"Someone could come in and find a book that takes place in another country," Debra says. "We see ourselves as social entrepreneurs." They also sell mind-stimulating toys—none that require batteries—classic style puppets, gadgets and crafts.

"There are certain things that people have attachments to from their childhood, and when they see a book as an adult that they had as a child they go crazy," Lauren says.

If you want to get a vision of what Ladels is all about, think of it as the retail version of a library — with a little added taste.

"What libraries do is kind of what we like to do. We aren't librarians, but they are a part of the community," Lauren says. "We wanted to do that but also have the retail aspect."

Retail is a loose term too when discussing Ladels, because as far as bookstores go Ladels is in a class of its own. The books face the customers so you can see all of the covers (not the spines), and most of the books are only stacked as high as a small person can reach.

Ladels holds story time as well, twice a day, every day. It's a time to embark on a new journey with interactive skits and songs. They also host birthday parties, baby and bridal showers, group activities, children's shows and other events.

Community is key

Being a part of the community and being easily accessible are important to Lauren and Debra. Corktown, immediately west of downtown, is centrally located enough to allow people from all over the city and the metropolitan area to visit the store, as well as those in surrounding neighborhoods.

"It's very personable. When you come in and it's got that old store front feel, that mom-and-pop store feel that we have lost -- you know the art of having customer service where it's not a drive-thru bookstore," Sabrina says. "To me, it's not about the purchase it's about the experience."

Deciding to set up shop in Corktown wasn't pre-planned, Lauren says, it just worked itself out. "Corktown chose us," she says. Over time they've built close relationships with the community and other neighborhood businesses, including Mudgie's, a new restaurant next door.

"You can say location, location, location — but think outside the box. Make the store work with your vision," Debra says. "It's really the best of all worlds here."

Detroit can thrive on independent businesses like Ladels, Debra and Lauren say. "Everyone else is downsizing, but Detroit can lead the way in independent businesses," Debra says.


Books line parameter wall inside of Ladels Books

Story time with Lauren Walker Thomas

Lauren Walker Thomas

Books and toys capture our imagination

A neighborhood bookstore

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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