Cinda Meister stays involved with nonprofits including Leadership Morgan Hill and AAUW

Cinda Meister, who along with her husband, Brad Jones, own BookSmart in Morgan Hill and started the BookSmart Community Advantage nonprofit that gives out free new and like-new books to students within the Morgan Hill Unified School District. Photo by Kelly Barbazette

By Kelly Barbazette

Kelly Barbazette

Cinda Meister is more than just a businesswoman. With a deep love for books and an unwavering com-mitment to fostering a community of readers, the vibrant co-owner of BookSmart sees herself as a “connector” between people and the stories they cherish.

“That’s what’s rewarding is matching people with books and have it be a good fit and helping reluctant readers find something they like,” she said.

I recently chatted with Meister, who owns BookSmart in Morgan Hill with her husband, Brad Jones, in the back room of their cheery, bustling shop, South Valley’s sole independent bookstore.

Born in Michigan, Meister, 65, never set out to own a bookstore. After graduating from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in social work and psychology, she was on track to attend graduate school.

“But then life swerved,” she said. “I never thought I’d open a bookstore, but I’ve always loved reading.”

Upon graduating, she moved to Colorado to “be a ski bum for a year.” Five years later she met Brad. The couple moved to Arizona in 1989 to help a friend open a restaurant in downtown Tempe. Two years later, while visiting San Jose for Brad’s sister’s wedding, they met an old neighbor of Brad’s who wanted to open a restaurant in Morgan Hill.

They moved to Morgan Hill and helped open Mushrooms Grille and Bar and were operating partners of the restaurant from 1992 to 1994.

The couple married in 1994. While Meister was working for a caterer that same year, Brad drove by BookSmart, which at the time sat at the corner of Second and Monterey streets, and noticed it was clos-ing. He asked Meister what she thought about taking it over. After processing the question, Meister liked the idea.

“I said, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ It had a café in it. We had been in food all throughout our lives. And it had books. We knew customer service and we thought how hard could it be?” she said, laughing.

They quickly discovered the business’ particular challenges.

“We were learning all new systems. We were flying by the seat of our pants,” she said. “But we were re-ally embraced by the community. They wanted to keep a bookstore.”

For a while, they operated the business on a shoestring budget, buying a book, then selling a book.

“Owning a bookstore will never make one rich,” Meister said. “It feels like we’re much more stable now.”

The shop has moved four times. It now resides in a 1,500 square foot store in the Vineyard Town Center, where it’s been for the past four years.

While they are happy in their new location, they wish they had a bit more space.

Photo by Emily Shem-Tov
Cinda Meister of BookSmart Community Advantage shows some of the diverse books ready to be distributed.

Meister’s favorite part of owning BookSmart has been watching children grow up with the store and people returning and telling them, “The book you picked for Uncle Joe is perfect.”

The finances have proven to be the most challenging aspect.

“I think that’s always been the changing climate and adjusting to what people are thinking or what they’re wanting,” she said. “The pie keeps getting smaller. Though I think books and bookstores aren’t going away. They will always be there.”

She credits their resiliency for the shop’s longevity. Meister and Jones formed a nonprofit group called BookSmart Community Advantage, which allows the couple to accept donations and give new and like-new books to students within the Morgan Hill Unified School District.

“There’s nothing sadder than a home without a book,” she said.

They also received grants and donations to start the Stop the Summer Slide program, which gives class-rooms of Title I schools books so students can continue to read during summer months.

They also have regular in-store events, including author meetings, book signings, and talks. In the fall, the shop is starting a new initiative where principals of Morgan Hill schools will reward students with BookSmart gift cards when they “catch them doing something good.”

“Brad and I never had children. We have a village of kids,” she said. “We have employees who are like family.”

Meister with Jones and three part-time employees work to keep the store open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“We keep thinking we need a day off, but there’s not a day that works,” she said, laughing.

During the pandemic, the store’s hours changed. However, it was able to remain open because Meister is a public notary, a service she has provided for the past 20 years.

When not at BookSmart, Meister said she loves to cook, bake, and take walks.

“Those are my big things. I read a lot. I volunteer a lot,” she said.

An alum of Leadership Morgan Hill, Meister sits on the nonprofit’s board. She serves as the co-chair of the Leadership Excellence Dinner, and she volunteers for the American Association of University Women, Morgan Hill branch.

The love of literacy and sharing that love is her driving motivation. The Harry Potter books were the big-gest thing during her career that everyone could enjoy. She recalls seeing three generations — a grand-mother, mother, and child — buy the fifth book.

When asked what advice she’d give to other women pursuing their goals, she said to make sure to pursue something you love doing for long hours a day.

“Because it’s not work, it’s a labor of love,” she said. “If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, no matter how much money you’re making, you’re just going to make yourself miserable.”

Meister counts herself lucky to be doing something she finds fulfilling and enjoyable.

“We just look forward to serving the community for many more years.”

Kelly Barbazette, a former journalist for Bay Area newspapers, is a freelance writer. She lives in Gilroy with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at [email protected].