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Donna Nasmyth
Feature:
Mrs. Nelson's World

Where imaginations grow.

When I was 6, I moved in with the Berenstain Bears and spent Christmas on the Polar Express. When I turned 7, I had already spent the summer with Little Women, sat under a Giving Tree, walked Where the Sidewalk Ends, and run with Maniac Magee. From a very young age, I was a true, avid reader. My motto became “So many books, so little time.” (In fact, my mom bought me a shirt that said that on it.) I was hooked on the magic of opening a book and being transported to another time and place. I could become someone else for the span of those pages.

Nearly every weekend I would beg my parents to take me to Mrs. Nelson’s Bookstore on Bonita Avenue in La Verne. Five minutes from my house awaited this miraculous place with shelves lined with books. After pleading and showing my parents that I had just finished the book we bought last weekend, we would drive over and walk through the red double doors with blue trim, the bell on the doorknob announcing our arrival. I would feel my heart skip a beat and wander along the aisles selecting “Babysitter’s Club” and “Boxcar Children.” My mom would constantly say, “Erin, put some back. We’re only buying two.” Even though I knew we would be back the next weekend to pick up whatever I had placed longingly back on the shelf.

Mrs. Nelson’s was and still is an icon for the city of La Verne. Families have walked through those same double doors since 1990, venturing to the frequent author signings the bookstore holds or the outside book fairs Judy Nelson (the real Mrs. Nelson) arranges that offer surrounding schools and organizations the opportunity to buy books. The store had originally opened in a strip mall in Covina in 1985, but five years later made the move to a much-needed bigger location—the 6,000-square-foot house it now occupies in a residential neighborhood across the street from Damien High School.
Each month offers a multitude of bi-weekly story times, reading events, and even art classes. While the store is technically called Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop, the customers come in for the amazing selection of books that range from picture books to young adult novels. The toys are plentiful (there’s even an entire science section in the store), but the charm lies on the bookshelves.

I have known employee Anna Morris since we were in preschool. We both spent our childhoods going to Mrs. Nelson’s, and now she works there.

“I have worked at Mrs. Nelson’s for a year and a half,” Morris said. “My favorite part is the story times that I do twice a week.”

Morris is like me, with glowing memories of going to the bookstore as children.

“I definitely have memories of going there as a child,” Morris said. “I remember when my dad took me to get a book signed by the illustrator of ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.’”

The employees that work at Mrs. Nelson’s all express the same joy at working in such a fun and inspiring atmosphere.

“What don’t I love about working here?” Nicole Bolten said. Bolten has worked at the bookstore for one year. She loves getting advance copies of books that haven’t been put on the market yet. She adores reading and being able to recommend or sell books like the young adult novels “I Am the Messenger” and “The Book Thief” by her favorite author, Markus Zusak.

Bolten has also helped with major events like the Henry Winkler author signing last May for his children’s novels “The Hank Zipzer Collection.” Morris also noted this as one of her favorite events the bookstore has held recently.
Weekends at Mrs. Nelson’s range from a frenetic, crazy atmosphere with kids waiting with their parents for the activities to begin, to quiet Sundays with several families milling in and out, purchasing books or toys.

One such Sunday saw Joanne Adams with her daughter, Haley, 5, browsing the toys and books.

“This is only the second or third time we’ve been here,” Adams said. “But it’s so convenient, and there’s a lot to choose from.”

Adams noted that the personality of the bookstore made her more likely to shop at Mrs. Nelson’s than at a bigger chain bookstore like Borders or Barnes and Noble. Adams usually lets her daughter pick out two or three books. With the start of kindergarten this year, Haley has to read at least one book a night. But Haley also explained her favorite part of coming to Mrs. Nelson’s.

“I like playing,” Haley said, offering the toy in her hand as proof. There are several sections of the bookstore where customers can let their children play with the toys on display (often trucks or trains). This is where Haley often waits while her mother selects some books for her nightly storytimes.

As the bookstore has become more and more popular over the past two decades, the business side of Mrs. Nelson’s has also expanded. There is now a location in Pomona, called Mrs. Nelson’s Book Fair Company. The book fairs cater individually to each organization involved, including elementary and middle schools, private/religious schools, and teacher conferences. Each organization receives rolling bookshelves with books selected specifically for their needs. The fairs usually run around a week or so with parent volunteers assisting. On the other hand, teacher book fairs cater exclusively to teachers and last a day. Teachers also receive a 10 percent discount. Not only are the book fairs profitable, Mrs. Nelson’s gives back to each organization a percentage of their net earnings. According to Mrs. Nelson’s Web site, in 2006, the company gave back an astounding $850,000 to schools through their fundraising efforts.

Another business avenue has been Mrs. Nelson’s Book Company, which offers “easy, one-source ordering.” Customers can order nearly any title that isn’t available in the store. The company also offers ordering services for teachers, libraries and school administrators. The lists can be developed by looking at the customer’s specialized curriculum, reading level or subject matter.
Teachers are also fond of Mrs. Nelson’s because they are treated like valuable customers. The bookstore also offers Annual Educator’s Nights featuring author and book talks and special discounts only for teachers. The homey atmosphere of the store also aids teachers in selecting the perfect books for their classrooms.

Now that I’m older I realize that Mrs. Nelson’s isn’t just my special place. There is an entire community that has discovered my secret fantasy land. In today’s race for bigger and better bookstore chains, Mrs. Nelson’s has remained a devoted supporter of the hobby/pleasure/obsession of reading. While I recognize that I will have to share my memories of Mrs. Nelson’s, it makes me even prouder and happier that generations after me have already begun to appreciate the gift that Mrs. Nelson’s gives to La Verne. It truly is a place where book lovers can come to unite and imaginations can run free.