By Pam Hersh
The big guy – with the giant bushy reddish beard, shaved head, and arms covered with tattoos – initially may appear a bit intimidating to the young kids he greets as they bound into jaZams, the magical toy store on Princeton’s Palmer Square. But it only takes a few seconds for the big guy’s Pied Piper/Santa’s helper personality to engage and win over adults and kids alike, according to Joanne Farrugia and Dean Smith, the husband/wife team that owns jaZams.
Thirty-three-year-old Mark Chelminiak became part of the jaZams family eight years ago, when the “hobbyist” illustrator with a fine arts degree wandered into jaZams at 25 Palmer Square E. in search of a job. He figured the retail work would be temporary until he found his true calling. Mark discovered, however, that his true calling was working at jaZams. Starting out as a “garden variety” sales associate, Mark now is a manager within the jaZams business enterprise comprising a store in Princeton and one in Lahaska, Pennsylvania. It’s a “perfect” job that combines his love of people with his artistic creativity, he said.
“There is nothing that makes me happier than making people smile,” said Mark, who acknowledged that these days he himself has a particularly big smile on his face. He was selected as the illustrator/creator of the official poster for the upcoming Princeton Public Library’s annual Children’s Book Festival, this year a virtual event entitled “Book Jam,” co-produced by jaZams, on Saturday, Sept. 12.
“It took very little time for us to fall in love with Mark and his creative, free spirit. He passed with flying colors our ‘paper bag’ application. (Every applicant is given a plain, paper bag and told to transform the bag with their own creative design.) It was clear right from the beginning that his skills as an artist, his big heart, and his interpersonal and problem-solving skills, as well as good business sense would be invaluable to us,” Joanne said.
Dean recounted how Mark, in the midst of pandemic stress and chaos, showed not only his resourcefulness, but also his humanity. “When were operating only online and shipping all items to the customers, a customer was heartbroken when a beautiful wooden rocking boat, which she had purchased, arrived damaged. The customer was further devastated when I told her that the wooden rocking boat was one-of-a-kind, and we could get no more. We would refund her money, but that was the best we could do.”
Moved by the customer’s genuine passion for the boat, Mark had another idea. After the money was returned to the customer, Mark suggested to Dean that he would try to fix the boat. Dean thought ‘whatever floats your boat’ and told Mark to go ahead. He restored the toy to perfect condition, delivered the rocking boat to the customer who was charged nothing. The customer never will forget Mark’s kindness, thoughtfulness, and obviously, his talent as an artist, Dean said.
Mark has a presence in the store all the time, even when he is absent physically. One of his job responsibilities is to create chalkboard artwork on 10 chalkboards displayed throughout the store and enhancing the already joyful ambiance. Some of his chalk masterpieces are on exhibit for only a few weeks, others are part of a permanent collection. Loving life, reading, diversity, seasons and holidays are among the themes of the boards, which draw a lot of attention from customers big and small, who sometimes get to watch him as he actually draws a chalkboard masterpiece.
The chalkboard themes are reflected in the Book Jam poster he created. “My overall goal for the poster itself was to communicate a love of reading and the interpersonal connections through reading. This year when we are distanced and separate, we still can still connect through books. I want to celebrate enduring and inspiring bonds among people – no matter how different and diverse they may be – who are reading a book together,” Mark said.
Also enduring and inspiring is jaZam’s role in this library event. For the past 10 years, jaZam’s not only has been responsible for ordering and selling the hundreds of books from the authors featured at the Children’s Book Festival, but also has been a generous donor to the library – even in very difficult economic times like right now. JaZam’s commits to donating to the library 20% of the gross book sales generated from the event – last year that amounted to nearly $17,000,” Joanne said.
“Sure, people can buy the books online, but if you buy them from us, you get a signed copy and are making a donation to the youth services programing at the library,” she said.
In the past, Joanne and Dean have hosted a pizza party at their house for all the authors, illustrators and workers at the festival. This year, of course, the pizza will be virtual, but “I hope the enthusiasm for the program will be very real. We have some amazing talent on display for all ages of children and grownups,” Joanne said.
Mark will be one of those grownups tuning into many of the discussions and activities, because his next goal for himself is to be a book illustrator who someday would have the honor of being celebrated at the Princeton Public Library’s Children’s Book Festival.
Book Jam, a special virtual presentation of the Princeton Public Library’s Children’s Book Festival, is an interactive event featuring nationally renowned authors and illustrators of children’s literature for all ages. It will take place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 12 via Crowdcast.
The event features 10 sessions that book lovers of all ages can join throughout the day to ask questions and participate in lively discussions with panels of authors and illustrators. Two sessions will include chances for readers to offer prompts to illustrators who will draw in a “sketch-off.”
Book sales will be handled by jaZams, who will donate a portion of the proceeds to the library for youth services programming. Books will include a bookplate signed by the author and/or illustrator.
For more information, visit https://princetonlibrary.org/childrens-book-festival/ or https://princetonlibrary.org/childrens-book-festival/authors-and-illustrators/