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Spotlight on an Indie Bookstore- Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop in La Verne, CA

October 29, 2010
I am so pleased to profile a bookstore in my territory for this month’s Spotlight on an Indie Bookstore (check out the other great stores we’ve profiled here). Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop in La Verne, CA just celebrated its 25th Anniversary last week, so I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to share what makes it so special with the greater world of book lovers! Southern California readers, if you are in the greater Los Angeles area, please make a trip out to Mrs. Nelson’s- it is a charming, unique store and well worth a visit!
First, a little history. Judy Nelson, the owner, started the store 25 years ago when she was a full-time stay-at-home mom of four small children. She and her kids loved to read and spent many hours traveling to other bookstores for author events and storytimes. When it came to starting the business, Judy’s husband, an entrepreneur, encouraged her to give it a try, and she opened her doors. For many years, the store staff changed shifts when Judy and her friends would leave to pick kids up at school and retired older women would take over! In 1991, the store moved from its previous location in Covina to where it is now, in La Verne. The current location is 3500 square feet and is split between a book section and a toy section.
Today, Judy is retired, and two of her children help run her businesses- the retail store, a library services company, and a bookfair business. The manager of the retail store, Andrea Vuleta, is one of the smartest, most dynamic and creative book people I have met. She is also President of SCIBA, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association. Andrea took the time to answer my questions about what sets Mrs. Nelson’s apart, what her role is, and what they offer their community.

Mrs. Nelson's staff, Andrea front and center, and three of the Nelson family members in the back row, including the famous "Mrs. (Judy) Nelson"!

 So, Andrea, what exactly is your job at Mrs. Nelson’s?
I think of myself as the “wearer of many hats”.  I am completing my 5th year here at Mrs. N’s. I am a huge reader and advocate of the books I love.  I make sure that the staff sees everything that I feel is wonderful.  But I also pay attention to their faves.  So I direct ARC’s their way if it is something they will enjoy, and I order titles based on what they appreciate as well.  I also have a small following of customers of my own, folks that I talk to and from whom I get feedback, especially teachers and librarians.  As they are often the gatekeepers, I need to be able to give them selections that fit their individual needs (gritty/urban, conservative, what-have-you). 
I try to keep up on trends with kids and educators, recently this would encompass things as diverse as bullying, adult/teen crossover, SillyBandz, autism, and the economic downturn.  Yes- there are actually books for all of these.  So we have had promotions and events for nearly all (okay, not the SillyBandz, because I do not need to push those.)
I am currently handling most of the bookkeeping and buying, and stepping in on events as needed. I have worked hard to train our staff in to work in all areas of the business.  I feel it is the wisest course these days for the staff to be as flexible as possible.  It has not been easy, but they are troopers!  We have been able to run on much tighter payrolls during these tough times.

The new picture book wall.

What sets Mrs. Nelson’s apart from chain stores or online competitors?
I do not know if we do anything unusual, however, we do really try to present ourselves as experts on boyish books.  Some of the staff really do have that preference, and we have a built-in customer base with the boys’ school across the street.  They come here for required reading, but if we can connect them to other books, so much the better!  And for categories that are often required (mysteries, biographies, and historical fiction) we do keep more boy-friendly titles on hand.
What, if any, new things are you doing to stay competitive during these tough times and to serve the needs of your customers?
We are working to connect with the extended family more.  So we are featuring some titles and events that have crossover (adult/whole family) appeal. We are highlighting grandparent gift recommendations.  We are offering local delivery during the holidays and gift wrap.
 What kinds of creative events or storytime events have you done? 
We have done very well with “girly” parties, and regular story times.  However, to connect with older kids (especially boys) we are going to have some more challenging craft events.  One with recycled t-shirts, and one with duct tape.  These crafts could be outstanding gifts! Also, we have hosted one parent-themed event so far, and have planned for more author events that will connect with parents.  The first was Monica Holloway with her book about raising her son, and one of the future events is a cooking event for busy mothers with Jessica Harper (The Crabby Cook).
What books have you made bestsellers at your store because the staff got behind them?
I always try to be ahead on this, but sometimes the staff falls in love with a particular title unexpectedly.  And they have become quite adept at finding ways to contact authors or build events around books they love.  We really love books that have appeal across generations.  In store you will find a section of books that is dedicated to “crossover titles”.   Our bestsellers thus far this season have been the School of Fear series by Gitty Denshvari, My Name is Not Isabella by Jennifer Fosberry, and Zero by Kathryn Otoshi.
How important are your e-newsletter and your new blog to your customer outreach?
We get a nice result from our newsletter and blog.  Our highest read on the blog was for the piece on Speak and censorship.  The most feedback is from teachers and librarians, generally.  The newsletter click-throughs seem to be mostly for events. 
How do you feel about business going into the holiday season?
I feel fairly positive.  We have had an increase in book sales this year, with a decrease in toys.  So we are planning to focus on that trend for the holidays.  Toys will be offered, but not highlighted as much as before.
What are your favorite titles out this fall?
We have many books we love this fall! Some favorites include: The Search for WondLa by Tony diTerlizzi; Guys Read: Funny Business edited by Jon Scieszka; Zero by Kathryn Otoshi; Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly; The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee; On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells; The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith; Brain Jack by Brian Falkner ( we totally blew through his books last year, and he told all the kids about this one!); The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter; Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea (big staff support!); Absolutely Beastly Children by Dan Krall; The Sea of Bath by Bob Logan; The Twelve Bots of Christmas by Nathan Hale; Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee; Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon; Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst; Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown.

The staff favorites section.

Andrea and staff members in front of the events wall.

The awesome Dr. Seuss section!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Isabell permalink
    October 30, 2010 12:09 am

    I visit Mrs. Nelson’s bookstore frequently and use the items I buy there (both books and other items) for my own tutoring business as well as for my job in different school districts. This is a store in which you can wander around for hours and get inspired by book titles, toys, and the way the store is decorated.
    I highly recommend this store!

  2. Christina permalink
    November 1, 2010 1:24 pm

    Oh so jealous that LA has such a great kids bookstore! Would love to get my hands on their list of recommended picture books for boys!

  3. erin permalink
    November 1, 2010 1:28 pm

    Christina, Warwick’s and Yellow Book Road are both fantastic and close to you! I know the buyers at either store could give you wonderful boy book recommendations, but I can send along some from Mrs. Nelson’s to you as well 🙂

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