by Kristen Dow
On any typical day, Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop can be in a complete state of chaos. “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends” wooden train cars are strewn about where children have abandoned them. Little girls’ dress-up clothes are thrown on the floor in large piles of hot pink feather boas, brightly colored sequined skirts and white straw hats with flowers.
Yes, when children are present, the La Verne store, located just a few blocks from the San Dimas border on the southwest corner of Bonita and Damien avenues, is always in for a remodeling of sorts. However, sometimes there is a small window of time when there is peace and quiet. That is when Mrs. Nelson’s employees have the opportunity to transform the establishment from a battleground back into a toy and book store.
“Is there really a Mrs. Nelson?” This is the most frequently asked question by new customers. The answer is “yes,” and her name is Judy. At the moment, Nelson is sitting at her desk in the back room, enjoying a moment between appointments with book publisher sales representatives.
Sales Associate and University of La Verne student Jennifer Wilkie’s voice comes through the speaker on Nelson’s telephone: “Judy, Lisa’s on line one for you.”
“OK, thank you,” she politely replies. Nelson chats with Lisa and doodles on a canary-colored note pad with a green lettering pen, drawing squiggles and wavy lines.
Many people who frequent Nelson’s store do not realize that Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop is not just a retail establishment. Nelson and her employees devote their time and energy to making their store something unique and special. In addition to the vast selection of quality toys and books, the store provides “story times” for children of all ages, author and illustrator visits, art classes, teacher seminars and much more.
What is it that draws people into Mrs. Nelson’s? It could be her excellent selection of books, ranging from picture books to teacher aids. It could be her educational toys. However, most people would argue that it is the atmosphere. Disney tunes quietly pour out of speakers, employees are always friendly and helpful, and Nelson always goes one step beyond to ensure the satisfaction of all who enter her store.
Upon ending her conversation, Nelson apologizes for the delay and describes how she and her husband Byron chose the La Verne location because it was affordable, and it was apparent to Nelson that “traffic on Bonita would only increase over time” resulting in more business.
Nelson explains that she had a difficult time at first trying to convince the city of La Verne that the bookstore would be a worthwhile venture. Because Mrs. Nelson’s is located in a residential area, approval needed to be granted by the local neighbors before the land could be developed. “They [the neighbors] were probably pretty happy to have it stay a vacant lot,” Nelson says jokingly.
Prior to Nelson’s appeal to purchase the property, local residents had turned down all other businesses that wanted to develop the land. “I think there was a 7-11 that wanted to go in here,” says Nelson. She mentions that there was a gas station in the lot previously, but it had been leveled long ago.
The turning point in the project’s development occurred at a La Verne City Council meeting. A man she recognized as a frequent customer in her Covina store stood up and spoke highly of her shop, which swayed the vote in her favor. Only later did Nelson realize that this man was the mayor of La Verne, Jon Blickenstaff. “The mayor of La Verne was a teacher at a middle school in Azusa so he knew us already from the old location,” Nelson explains. “That was sort of lucky.”
After purchasing the property, an architect was hired to draw up plans for Nelson’s new 6,000 square foot store. The design of the building is that of a large house with inviting bay windows and soothing cream-colored walls with gray-blue trim.
“The city had specific requirements [for the design],” Nelson says. “It had to fit into a residential area.” Lush landscaping surrounds the store, adding to its warm and homey atmosphere. Fuchsia-colored flowers and fresh grass line pavement pathways leading up to the entrance, fashioned with a set of French doors.
Nelson is pleased with her choice in location, and considering how her business has thrived in the past 9 years, considers the move from Covina a smart one. “We’re really visible, right on the corner. We’re not competing with anyone else,” Nelson says with a smile.
Wilkie’s voice comes through the speaker again, announcing another caller for the owner.
This reporter’s time with Judy Nelson has reached an end. She must go on with the rest of her day-scheduling meetings, talking to children and parents, and helping teachers select appropriate materials for their classes.
I pass poetry anthologies by Shel Silverstein and a book about Koko the gorilla and her kitten. I glance at the shelves stuffed with staff picks and spot the “new book wall.” I can see why small children often cry in protest when their parents tell them it is time to leave Mrs. Nelson’s. It is somewhat of a fantasy land for them, filled with Curious George, Winnie the Pooh, stickers, Tyrannosaurus Rexes and endless possibilities of imagination.