Staying BookSmart

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Brad Jones and spouse, Cinda Meister, left longtime careers in the restaurant business for bookselling. "We thought that after 25 years in the restaurant business we'd do something we thought was exciting and still in the field of enjoyment," said Jones. "We had retail but not bookselling experience. But we had lots of reading experience." BookSmart in Morgan Hill, California, will celebrate its 14th anniversary this May.

The general bookstore, which moved about a year and a half ago to a new location that more than doubled its footprint to 7,500 square feet, stocks about 50,000 titles and looks like an "old barn" outside, said Jones. Inside the store has hardwood floors and carpeted areas and fixtures built from a mixture of cherry and oak. Book sales are divided about evenly between children's and adult titles, with fiction and self-help leading adult sales. BookSmart includes Book Sense Bestsellers in a rotating display and sells the Book Sense bestselling hardcovers at 20 percent off.

BookSmart's new location features roomier aisles, onsite parking, and a full cafe. Along with the cafe's offerings of coffee, sandwiches, and ice cream, Jones said the bookstore's free Wi-Fi is a big draw. "It attracts people all the time. It's something everyone who has a cafe or community area should do. It really doesn't cost anything to do it."

Jones and Meister brought toys into the bookstore one Christmas and have kept them on since, expanding the section to 2,000 square feet in BookSmart's new space. "We specialize in educational toys and toys that have educational value," Jones said. "But it's not a toy if it doesn't have play value as well." Top sellers include classics like Playmobiles and science and craft sets, along with wooden toys from Melissa & Doug.

BookSmart runs a monthly arts-and-crafts event called BookSmart Art for which it usually charges a small fee (up to $10) for materials. Costs are kept down by using promotional materials from publishers. A typical Saturday morning audience is about 20 to 30 kids, with projects running the gamut from Christmas ornaments to simple sculptures. At a recent event, kids made hats based on Cat in the Hat.

The biggest fans of BookSmart Art might be the moms and dads. "Parents love BookSmart Art to death," said Jones. "They think it's the greatest thing." The bonus, he added, is that they buy books while they wait. And occasionally parents get a BookSmart Art event of their own. "Before Christmas we did a champagne and gingerbread-making event. We had about 15 moms show up. They had a great time."

BookSmart will hold its 14th birthday party a little early this year -- in May instead of on the actual date in late November. Festivities will include live music, toy demonstrations by vendors, and plasma car races.

Other communities have courted Jones and Meister to open a bookstore in their neighborhoods, but for now they're concentrating on doing more of what they're already doing -- hosting events and clubs and selling books -- in Morgan Hill, without any plans to expand. "One reason we liked this space is because it's got enough room to make ourselves a 'third place,'" said Jones. "That's our goal ... to be a place where people can go that's not their home and not their work.'" --Karen Schechner