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Nonprofit profile: New foundation fosters literacy and the arts in the South Valley

BookSmart forms nonprofit to help enhance services

Published in the June 21 – July 4, 2017 of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photo courtesy BookSmart Foundation
From left, Cinda Meister, Rene Spring, Nick Gaich, Brad Jones, Karen Fitch, and Emily Shem-Tov. The six are founders of the new BookSmart foundation.

For 22 years, BookSmart has been the South Valley’s premier independent bookstore, feeding local minds with its literature material and bodies with its cafe and ice cream parlor. Earlier this year, it decided to take its local service to an even greater level. The store worked with several residents from the region to form a nonprofit foundation designed to enhance the service it provides residents of Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy.

“BookSmart Community Advantage was born out of our passion for literacy, the arts and our community,” said Brad Jones, co-owner of the popular store, which is located in a shopping center across the street from Morgan Hill’s Nordstrom Park on the East Dunne Avenue. “We love books and believe that education and love are the answer to all the problems of the world. Books teach, entertain and inspire.”

In the past decade, Jones and his wife, Cinda Meister, co-owner of the bookstore, realized the ability to make a living selling books had become far more difficult against big box chain bookstores. If they wanted to continue their work to support literacy and the arts, they would need to find a new way to do it than traditional bookstore business models.

“We are very involved in the Northern California Booksellers’ Association and at a NCIBA workshop we heard a novel idea by the owners of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park,” Jones said. “They had spun off support of their author and reading programs into a nonprofit foundation called Peninsula Arts and Letters. PAL allowed them to continue doing the work that was previously supported by the store but was no longer feasible.”

After the store moved last year from its site in downtown into the former Concept Cyclery shop on the east side of the city, it was obvious to the couple that with the narrow profitability, which is the new reality of bookselling, they must do something similar to continue supporting the community programs they felt so passionate about. They met with several BookSmart fans and worked together to form a working group called the “Tiger Team.” These supporters from the community helped the store work through the transition of their move. The team went to Kepler’s for a seminar on how their foundation worked and evolved. Out of that meeting and the Tiger Team, BookSmart Community Advantage was born.

Organizers created it to serve not only Morgan Hill but also San Martin, Gilroy and other cities in the region. The nonprofit is under the fiscal stewardship of the Morgan Hill Community Foundation, said Neil Gaich, president of the group’s board of directors.

“Under their wings, BookSmart Community Advantage extends and complements both our community advocacy reach and foundation’s mission to foster literacy and community through reading, writing, art and educational programs,” he said.

The foundation’s board is made up of Morgan Hill residents who commit their time and expertise to advance the nonprofit’s mission to serve South Valley. Members include those with a wide-range of expertise including business owner, community advocate and knowledge of law, social media and organizational planning. Emily Shem-Tov serves as the vice president, Michael Ramoneda, is treasurer and Cinda Meister is the community advocate.

“All of us share a common passion for literacy appreciation,” Gaich said. “My love for Morgan Hill and my desire to support a generational legacy of literacy education was a driving force for me to participate as a board member. My wife and I are fortunate to have raised our son and daughter — and now watching our two grandsons — both grow and prosper in our town. Serving as the foundation’s president is one way for me to give back for all that we have received from our community.”

With two daughters in local schools, Shem-Tov for many years has frequented BookSmart on fun outings to enjoy family events, ice cream treats, and, of course, books. She believes in the store’s mission to be more than just a business but also provide activities that promote literacy and the arts for all. A recent event produced by the nonprofit organization was the Mad Hatter Tea Party for young children June 10 that was done in conjunction with South Valley Dance Arts, she said. The event brought many children to the store to enjoy tea and dances with characters from SVDA’s latest ballet production along with crafts and activities. The nonprofit also will hold Summer of Arts events throughout July that will give families some of the range of activities, workshops, and events that the organization hopes to bring to the community on an ongoing basis.

Shem-Tov is excited to be a part of the organization because it works to bring more family-friendly events to the South Valley. It also helps keep BookSmart a vibrant community centerpiece, she said.

“I’m passionate about the mission of BookSmart Community Advantage to foster literacy and community through reading, writing, art and educational programs,” she said. “As a parent, I love seeing all the great programming around arts and literature we can offer kids in the community, and I love meeting so many other people and working together with them to enrich the community’s cultural offerings and to support other local groups and initiates through this new platform we’re building.

BookSmart Community Advantage offers many ways for local people to get involved. The organization is supported entirely by volunteers and donations, so it relies on the support and involvement of the community to be able to provide the events and activities its organizers have planned.

“People who are interested should reach out because there is a way for everyone, whatever their interest area, to get involved and to be a part of this great way to promote arts and literacy in the South Valley,” Shem-Tov said.