Local business thrived in 2018

A look back at the stirrings of Morgan Hill's economy

NO GENERATION GAP Specialized CEO and founder Mike Sinyard, right, with global marketing head Mark Cote pictured inside Specialized headquarters in September 2018.

BookSmart is the little bookstore that could. After owners Brad Jones and Cinda Meister announced the probable closure of the Morgan Hill mainstay in March, it appeared that the final chapter was soon to be written. But BookSmart keeps chugging on after their recent announcement of a move to a smaller location, and the saga of the wandering independent bookstore continues.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Meister said in March after BookSmart announced its likely closure. “This is our passion, to be part of the community and to support literacy and the arts. It’s a safe place for the community to gather. It’s much more than a bookstore.”

BookSmart’s trouble began in 2016 when they had to move from their longtime location in downtown Morgan Hill to a shopping center at 1295 E. Dunne Ave. Jones and Meister racked up a mountain of debt to finance the move along with renovation costs to get their new location ready for business. As the bad debt grew to $250,000, BookSmart fell behind on the rent.

After being turned down for a small business loan from the City of Morgan Hill, BookSmart earlier this month decided to move once again: to a smaller, and cheaper location at 421 Vineyard Center. The space will be one-quarter the size of the Dunne Avenue store, the cafe will be gone, and the toys section will be smaller. The store will have a new look, but it will live another day.

Again, the future of BookSmart is unclear. With competition like the behemoth that is Amazon, along with remaining big-box bookshops like Barnes and Noble, they will depend on their regular customers to stay in business. BookSmart’s Morgan Hill story is not finished.

Silicon Valley cattle country

Up in the hills, somewhere between San Jose and Morgan Hill, the life of the cowboy and cowgirl lives on. Every May, ranchers Justin and Arleah Fields wrap up a year’s worth of work, riding and roping on the hills of Coyote Valley, tending to up to 500 head of cattle. Being so close to the high tech world of Silicon Valley, Fields and his family carry on a tradition that goes back to the days of the Spanish vaquero, and while his and other ranchers work happens unseen, its results end up on dinner plates of millions of Americans every day.

Many people “ are so removed from the land, they don’t know where their food comes from,” Fields, 46, said. “They don’t realize that their food is actually being produced here.”

Even today, the regional agricultural sector remains an integral part of the local economy, with 33,500 head of cattle in San Benito County and 13,300 head in Santa Clara County, according to the 2016 USDA Agricultural Census.

This year the rate is about $1.55 a pound, or about $1,007 a head at the video auction. Of course, when your payday comes once a year, you need to be able to budget well.

“I brought in our check to the bank, and while I waited the bank manager came out to ask us about investing our money,” Arleah Fields said. “When I told him that was our paycheck for the year, he was like ‘Oh, wow.’ ”

Luckily for the Fields, the American appetite is bullish on beef. On average, an American eats 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry every year. To help feed the hunger, U.S. cattle ranchers produce 100 billion pounds of beef every year.

Rancher Justin Fields rides with his cattle, driving them onto summer pastures. A year’s worth of work pays off at the end of May, when cattle from the Fields’ ranch are sent off to market. It only happens once a year, so they need to budget tightly to make payday last.

Mushroom for growth

The Morgan Hill Mushroom Mardi Gras is one of the most popular local events of the year, and while the festival helps to put the humble and versatile mushroom on the map, not many realize how robust the local mushroom growing industry has become. At Del Fresh Produce between Morgan Hill and Gilroy, mushrooms are grown by the ton, contributing to a $79 million a year industry in Santa Clara County.

They need help too. Farmworkers are on short supply, and Del Fresh Produce requires mushroom harvesters, and at $.22 a pound, a mushroom picker can make up to $80,000 if they can average 100 pounds an hour—“if you’re breathing and look like you can pick up 25 pounds,” joked Del Fresh Food Safety Coordinator Emily Bettencourt. “A lot of times they come here for a couple of days, and they’re gone. They want a lot of money for very little effort.”

Overall, the mushroom growing business in California ranks third in the world, behind only Pennsylvania and Canada. And it all starts with the compost, nearly 100 tons a month.

“Composting is like, if a tree falls in the woods, it takes some years for that tree to break down into the soil, but we rev it up here,” Del Fresh Produce owner Don Hordness said. “We add nitrogen to the straw, and we grow these thermophilic bacteria and fungus, and those little guys break it down. We build tight piles that build up the heat, between 130 and 160 degrees. That’s when you see the steam rising off the piles—that’s when the bacteria is eating up the nutrients.”

Two wheels to the future

The future on two wheels happens to be home in Morgan Hill. Specialized Bikes, an industry-leading company in bike technology, is headquartered right here in Morgan Hill, and that’s for a good reason. Morgan Hill has a lot to do with the company’s success, says Mark Cote, head of global marketing and innovation. Downtown Morgan Hill’s continued upgrades, with new bars and restaurants, help Specialized attract new hires.

“It helps business, and it helps lifestyle,” Cote said of Morgan Hill’s appeal to young workers. “We look at the top of who’s coming out of universities. Where are they going to live? In the last two to five years, it really has become a place where our newer and younger employees can say, ‘Yeah, I can totally see crashing in Morgan Hill; it’s a pretty cool spot.’”

At Specialized, where you work is where you live, and Morgan Hill offers the downtown atmosphere that helps attract the best and brightest new employees, but also new clients. With the city’s embrace of the AMGEN Tour of California, it appears that both Specialized and Morgan Hill are on together for the ride.

“If you take that with what our brand is trying to do with cycling globally, and what Morgan Hill did for alignment, I don’t think the community has ever been so vibrant with cycling,” Cote said.

The bike industry is changing, though. With the rising popularity of bike and scooter sharing companies like Bird and Uber Bikes, Specialized is still confident that the demand for high-quality, high-performance bikes remains strong as ever. They’re not scared of the competition; they embrace it.

“I think it’s had the opposite effect,” Cote said. “If you look at it its smallest form, it’s competition. We have a ton of riders who have never considered cycling as their main form of transportation, now it’s being promoted by Uber. Instead of talking about a car, they’re talking about bikes. That’s awesome.”

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