Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop: A Kid-Friendly Haven in Southern California

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When Judy Nelson and her husband, Byron, built a location for their children's bookstore, Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop, in La Verne, California, they made it as inviting to kids as possible. "The current location looks much like a home from the outside, with a lawn, flowers, and bay windows," said store manager Andrea Vuleta. "The interior of the bookstore is contemporary, with carpeting and tile, in shades of blue with red and yellow. It is very kid-friendly with benches for reading and play tables."

Judy Nelson, a former occupational therapist, was inspired to become a bookseller by the pleasure she found in reading with her four children. "I discovered the joy of enjoying books together and we spent a lot of our time visiting libraries and bookstores together," she said. "We became book junkies. When the kids were all in school and I started thinking about returning to work, I knew that owning a children's bookstore would be a dream come true."

Now, two of the Nelson's four children, Laura and Pat Nelson, work in the business' book fair division and will take over most of the responsibilities for the entire business by the end of 2011.

Mrs. Nelson's opened in 1985 in a 1,200-square-foot space in nearby Covina. Several years later, Judy and Byron Nelson moved the store to a 6,000-square-foot location they built on a busy street that links the historic downtowns of three older cities, La Verne, San Dimas, and Claremont.

Of the store's 35,000 titles, middle-grade fiction is the biggest category, followed by picture books, and easy chapter books. State-driven curricula also play a role in Mrs. Nelson's book selections, which meet the needs of neighborhood teachers and parents who are home-schooling their children. Toys make up about 35 percent of the business, with that percentage increasing over the holiday season. A series of baking kits -- including ones for making pizza and pretzels -- from Sassafras is a top seller.

Mrs. Nelson's contributes generously to its community. "Once or twice a year, we 'clean house' and donate older merchandise in the form of books and toys to several local charities," said Vuleta. "Each holiday season, we work to provide books to organizations that work with children. Our book fair branch gives back a percentage of sales to the sponsoring schools, either in cash or a larger percentage in books. Last year schools received about $85,000 from us in book fair earnings."

The store also contributes in the form of weekly story times and in-store programs. "At this time, we are starting to see adults come to the store because of their childhood memories," said Vuleta. "Our hope is to continue being the store that connects kids with literacy, and a resource for all of our educators. With that in mind, we have set as a goal for the next school year to get two authors into each of our local schools. Based on the strong results of our most recent Young Authors Contest, we plan to help kids succeed in their dreams of being writers by providing more resources and workshops."

Since BookExpo America is in L.A. this year, most of Mrs. Nelson's staff will be attending, as well as taking advantage ABA's Day of Education on Thursday, May 29. Vuleta and staff held a strategy session to ensure coverage of as many educational seminars as possible. "I am very excited to have BEA in our back yard!" she said. "My main educational interests this year are: 'Leveraging Localism,' 'Give It Away to Get It Back,' and 'Independent Retailing.' Fortunately, many other Mrs. Nelson's staff will be able to attend since it's in Los Angeles. We'll be able to cover all of the events so I won't feel I am missing anything!" --Karen Schechner