Stepping into Young Heart Books and Toys in Westmont is a bit like stepping into an attic crammed with unusual items you may never have seen before. Each visit leads to new discoveries.
Jeff Masterson and his wife, Ann Kelly, opened the shop May 5, 2018 and, while it may appear they have a little bit of everything, the couple say they are selective when picking merchandise.
“When I try to figure out what we are going to have in the store, I do the research,” Kelly says. “Will someone be able to buy this at a lower cost at Walmart or Amazon? Is it durable? Is it good? Is it educational? Is it a quality product? I want them to come here and see something they can't find someplace else.
“I want it to be something that can last a lifetime, that they will hand off to their children.
“We have See 'n Say, checkers, juggling, yoyos and the things that kids don't even have an idea of what they are, but the parents and grandparents come in and they say. 'Oh, I remember that.' And then they introduce it to their children.
“We have toys that teach kids to problem solve. Instead of an electronic that does everything for you,” Kelly continues. “You see a lot of advertising – especially this time of year – for flashy toys. Really it's pre-canned imagination. They don't get to use their imaginations anymore.
“We have things that fire up the imagination and make you think.”
The couple says children get very excited when they step into Young Heart Books & Toys. “Having them come through the door and their eyes open and they are scurrying from one thing to another is just wonderful,” Kelly says.
“It's gotten to where I warn parents and grandparents that, if they bring their child or their grandchild, they will not get them out,” Masterson says with a laugh.
Kelly, who also holds down a full-time position with Somerset County Head Start and Early Head Start, says they want children to feel welcome in the shop. “Parents are, 'Don't touch that. Don't touch that.' I tell them, 'Don't worry, I will put everything back when you leave. It's alright.'”
Masterson and Kelly also are passionate about books and reading. “It's sad, because books are pretty much disappearing,” Kelly says. “I think the only children who get their hands on real books (as opposed to electronic reading) are the ones whose parents value them. I can tell if a parent loves books.
“You can't stick a child on a digital device and expect them to get the same experience. They are not cuddling with somebody. They are not being read to, so most of the time they are losing human contact. The touch of the page and the pictures and the discussion around it – I think that is slowly disappearing.”
Young Heart Books and Toys isn't Kelly and Masterson's first foray into retail. Previously, they owned and operated a shop by the same name in Somerset. Kelly says she visited the shop frequently prior to purchasing it. “Every time I went there, I would say, 'This is my dream job.' So when the owner retired, she called me and asked if I wanted it and, when I hung up the phone, I called Jeff and said, 'Do we want it?'
Masterson had retired after a career as executive director of Community Action Program. “I had learned how to play Pickleball and a few other things,” he says with a laugh. Nevertheless, deciding to buy the store was not that difficult. “She called and asked if we should buy it and it wasn't so much, 'Should we buy it?' but, 'When are we buying it?' Because it really was her dream.
“I said, 'Let's do it.'”
The real dream, however, was to have a shop close to their home in Westmont. One day, while enjoying a cup of coffee at Mill House Café & Co., they realized the shop next door was available.
“This site was open and it worked out well for us,” Masterson says.
For a time, the couple tried splitting duties and running both shops. “It drove us a little crazy, trying to do that,” Masterson says. “We came to the point where we knew we just couldn't do it any longer.”
The couple says closing the Somerset shop was a difficult business decision to make. “It was very tough for me to close that store, because I had made a lot of really good friends,” Masterson says. “But it has been a tremendous move for us. The community has been very, very welcoming.
“It is so nice to wake up in the morning and realize that you have less than a 10 minute drive.”
Masterson hasn't really missed his retirement. “It's really been great,” he says. “I get to meet so many different people and I get to work around all these books and the kids – they are what really make it worthwhile.”