Sunday, June 12, 2005

Brian and Mary Melzack hold their children, 4-year-old David and 3-year-old Arianna, at their WeePlay & Learn center in Hawaii Kai.

Growing small

Brian and Mary Melzack turn their
growing family into a way to expand
their already successful business

It's a weekday morning and Brian and Mary Melzack, the couple behind Bestsellers Books & Music and the WeePlay & Learn interactive children's center, are hard at work blowing bubbles and singing happy tunes with their children.

art "This is the reason that I was put on the face of this earth. Everything pales in front of my two children," said Mary, taking a break between songs at the children's center she opened 11 months ago in the family's book store at Koko Marina Center in Hawaii Kai.

The Melzacks are among the few businesspeople who can say becoming parents actually enhanced their career paths. By responding to their family's changing needs as a household with young children, they created a retail concept that appeals to a broader demographic than their independent bookstores in downtown Honolulu, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Honolulu Airport.

The arrival of David, now 4, and Arianna, 3, inspired the couple to develop a combined bookstore and children's play center, creating a specialty niche that positioned their store so it could compete with chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders Books & Music for space in neighborhood shopping markets.

"Independent bookstores don't work in neighborhood centers. You have to have a coffee shop or a cafe. WeePlay allows us to compete," said Brian, who along with Mary has plenty of experience with big-box operations.

Brian is the former chief executive of the Toronto-based Classic Bookshops, a chain of 150 bookstores in Canada and the United States. The business, which merged with W.H. Smith in 1987, was purchased in 1992 by Chapters, a Canadian big-box company similar to Borders Group Inc.

Vincent Nasrallah, 15 months old, looked out Thursday from a play tent at WeePlay & Learn children's center.

Mary, whose specialty is in retail concepts and real estate, is also a formidable entrepreneur. At 19, she opened her first retail store, Lady II, which was similar to Merle Norman in Toronto and grew it to a five-store chain. After she sold the chain, Mary made a second career in high-end retail shopping center development, developing Hazelton Lanes in downtown Toronto.

The couple met in Canada when Mary turned Brian down for space in one of her centers in the late 1980s, when he was in the final throes of his merger.

"He called me up and said, 'Do you realize no one has ever turned me down before,' " Mary said, adding that he never got the lease in the center, though she was charmed enough to later marry him.

"I wouldn't let Brian open a bookstore in Bayview Village so he created a movie store called Feature Presentations, which later rolled out to 35 stores," Mary said. "That's when I knew I had met my match."

WeePlay & Learn children's center has 45-minute classes for the children.

After Brian sold his Toronto interests, he had a five-year no-compete clause so the couple decided to travel to Hawaii for what they thought was a sabbatical or retirement. But they arrived in July 1995 and never left. They opened their first Hawaii bookstore in 1998 when they bought Honolulu Book Shops in Bishop Square and adopted their first child in 2001, which has led to expanding their business.

"My husband and I have developed a lot of businesses in our careers, but this is the most gratifying thing that we have ever done," Mary said. "We're thrilled to be able to give back to the community."

Moms like Candace Lau and Amy Weintraub say they are grateful for the social and learning opportunities WeePlay has created for their children and for each other.

"It's been really great to meet other parents and make friends," said Lau, who has become a WeePlay regular with her 2-year-old daughter Cora. "We actually get together outside of WeePlay."

WeePlay & Learn children's center has 45-minute classes for the children, including 4-year-old David Melzack.

WeePlay also provides a greater opportunity for parents to bond with their children, Weintraub said.

"It's a time that only Amelia and I share," Weintraub said. "It's a very warm and special place."

The concept has done so well that the couple has a five-year plan to open more combination bookstore and interactive play centers in Kapolei, Pearl City, Kaneohe, Mililani and Kailua. Memberships at the WeePlay center start at about $25 a month.

"In less than a year, we have attracted 800 Weeplay members, which have helped boost sales at Bestsellers," Brian said, adding that cross promotion between the two stores has boosted bookstore sales by 25 percent.

In addition to more combination stores, Mary is developing commercial WeePlay music CDs, DVDs and a Web site.

"Anything you see at our stores, you can buy," Mary said. WeePlay members also get book discounts.

Billie Weisiger, 7, makes faces in mirrors at the WeePlay & Learn center in Hawaii Kai.

Next month, the Koko Marina WeePlay center, which caters to the under-5 group, will begin offering interactive activities for children up to age 9 and their parents, including language, art, music and fitness classes. Members are already trying out the new offerings.

The success of their endeavors has brought the couple full circle.

"When we were dating, I used to call his secretary for an appointment," Mary said. "Now, with young children and our businesses, we're passing each other in the halls."

And making a play date is as easy as going to work.

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