Cincinnati pediatrician trades ER for bookstore
Written by JOHN FAHERTY, The Cincinnati Enquirer   
Sunday, 14 April 2013 06:53

CINCINNATI (AP) — It is a testimony to loving books and children. It exists because doctors chatted in an emergency room one night at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and noticed they were seeing different injuries than the expected.

Children were no longer coming in with broken arms and bee stings. Instead, the doctors saw problems related to obesity and depression and attention deficit disorder.

Dr. John Hutton wanted kids to read books and play outside. He wanted their parents to unplug the kids' televisions and computers.

But Hutton knew doctors had to pick their battles. If a trip to the pediatrician becomes a lecture about eating right, immunizations, staying active and limiting "screen time," parents would begin to tune him out.

So he focused on more books and less screen time. That would be his issue.

During his residency at Children's Hospital, he was required to write an advocacy and research project. He wrote "Analog Kids in a Digital Age," which focused on the benefits of literacy and real-world experiences for children, including building and climbing and roaming and playing, and the dangers of too much screen time.

And then one day in December of 2000, Hutton and his wife, Sandra Gross, drove to their favorite kids' books store in Oakley, the Blue Marble, and saw a sign in the window: "Going out of business."

The owner was ill and the competition from major chains — remember them? — was too much. She wanted to get out.

"We were devastated. We thought, 'This is just awful,'" Hutton said of that day. Then they went inside with their two daughters and felt worse. The story lady, "Miss Katie," was there that day. Hutton and Gross knew her as the woman who could read a book to children and make it magic. "Miss Katie" turned to them and said, "I don't know what will happen to my storybook orphans."

Hutton knew he had to make a stand. If he was a doctor who believed children would be healthier and happier if their parents read them books, then he should be committed to making sure they had a place to make that happen.

The die had been cast.

Within just a few months, Hutton and Gross bought the Blue Marble. They wrote the contract in crayon, and the former owner agreed to help them understand the business.

Hutton wanted to write and to commit himself to literacy projects. He began to think that this would be how he helped children, not being a pediatrician. So he stopped being a doctor.

"But I still always thought of myself as a doctor," Hutton said.

The couple next decided to change the name. They wanted to keep "Blue" as a nod to the past, but they wanted to make it their own. It came down to the Blue Tortoise or the Blue Manatee, a decision they let customers vote on for almost a year.

"It was real close. It felt like two votes," Hutton said. It turned out that as a rule, kids were voting for "manatee" and parents were voting for "tortoise." The kids won and the Blue Manatee was born.

The name also appealed to Hutton and Gross because it spoke to their challenge. "It was symbolic of what independent bookstores go through," Hutton said. "They are nurturing and intelligent and sweet, but endangered."

The bookstore has affirmed for Hutton what he already knew: Reading with a child is rewarding for the parent and remarkably beneficial for the child.

"This is old-fashioned stuff, but it is not just nostalgic," Hutton said. "For a small child, any interaction with a person reading a book is so good for a child's cognitive, language, fine motor skills and emotional well-being."

But running a bookstore is difficult.

"People can buy books anywhere nowadays: box stores, online, anywhere," Hutton said. "We wanted to make a unique and nurturing space."

And they have. There are nooks and crannies and a fireplace mantle and places to sit and read. Their coffee shop next door is child-friendly. Miss Katie has retired, but now two other women are storytellers on staff.

The first thing a visitor notices is the walls. Much of the available space is covered with amazing drawings. This, it seems, is what happens when you have visiting authors and illustrators come to your store.

The walls are covered with pictures of characters well-known to anybody with children. The authors, and their characters include: Jan Brett (Hedgehog), Marc Tolon Brown (Arthur), Jeff Kinney (Wimpy Kid) and Chris Van Allsberg, who wrote "The Polar Express."

"They all say 'yes,' " Hutton said about asking people to write on his wall. "There are so many now, there are real icons up here."

Hutton became so certain that children needed to read and that parents needed to unplug their children that he wrote and published his own series of books called "Baby Unplugged." The titles include "Pets," about the joy of animals; "Yard," which tries to encourage kids to explore outside; and "Blanket," about imagination.

Then, certain that reading to children is important, he decided to go back to doctoring. In 2007, he started over again with a three-year residence at Cincinnati Children's. In 2010 he graduated, and now works a day or two a week as a doctor and the rest at the bookstore.

He is now thinking of full-time doctoring, which might be, he jokes, far less stressful than running a bookstore with more than 25,000 titles.

___

Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

 

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