Last fall, Store of Knowledge opened an outlet in the Glendale Galleria. On its heels in the spring came Learningsmith Inc. at the Beverly Center and South Coast Plaza.
In coming months, other Southern California shopping malls are likely to become the settings for a unique competition involving for-profit enterprise and nonprofit public broadcasting. Both the Store of Knowledge and Learningsmith chains offer an array of entertaining, interactive instructional materials for children and have attracted legions of fans among baby boomer parents.
Store of Knowledge is owned by Los Angeles' KCET-TV, Carson-based Lakeshore Learning Inc. and the Los Angeles venture capital firm Riordan, Lewis & Haden.
Learningsmith is jointly owned by Boston's WGBH public television station and venture capitalists.
Critics say the stores, which also sell items such as tote bags and coffee mugs bearing the stations' logos, are further proof that public broadcasting has gone commercial. Broadcasting executives counter that the stores are an efficient way for the stations to augment decreasing government and public funding.
They also say the stores help them fulfill their core mission of fostering lifelong learning. They can do that more effectively, they argue, by helping to make educational books, videos, games and toys available.
"The world is changing, and (public broadcasting is) changing with it," said Maria Eitel, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is urging affiliated stations to explore joint ventures with for-profit partners.
As for the advantage to companies that link up with respected public broadcasters, Learningsmith's marketing director, Ken Zuckerman, said, "We look at the affiliation as sort of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
The broadcasters' stated goals of fostering education and reducing their dependence on the public purse leave some critics unmollified.
"If they're engaging in blatant advertising for consumer goods, they're cashing in on their credibility and their non-commercial status," said Karen Brown, research director for the Washington-based Center for Study of Commercialism. "We see it as part of a disturbing trend: the privatization and commercialization of public broadcasting."
As broadcasters and detractors argue, consumers are flocking to stores that were designed to keep pace with some of the most successful retailers. Learningsmith's South Coast Plaza store, for example, has at times drawn bigger crowds than the Disney Store next- door.
Learningsmith describes its outlets as "general stores for the curious mind" where "learning specialists" invite customers to test-drive computer programs and leaf through books.
Store of Knowledge boasts that it has "culled the best of the best from bookstores, computer stores, video stores and toy stores," said Laura Wynne, Store of Knowledge's chief operating officer.
The stores are in the right place at the right time, said Tony Cherbak, a retail industry expert with Deloitte & Touche in Orange County.
"Education is in vogue right now, especially when it's interactive, which is increasingly important when it comes to getting kids to learn," Cherbak said.
It's no accident that the two chains hooked up with public broadcasters. Executives at both Learningsmith and Store of Knowledge said public broadcasting supporters are better-educated and boast higher incomes than the national average.
Rebecca Sultan has ordered by mail from Learningsmith's Boston store, which opened in 1992. "I'm so glad they opened in Orange County. It's just an incredible store," she said while browsing with her children.
Learningsmith's Beverly Center and South Coast Plaza stores are affiliated with KUSC-FM, a public radio station owned by USC. In October, the chain plans to add a store in San Diego that will not be affiliated with a local station.
Learningsmith also operates stores with WNET-TV in New York, WETA-TV in Washington and WCNY-TV in Syracuse, N.Y.
Unlike KUSC, which accepts royalty payments in return for its Learningsmith affiliation, KCET has taken an equity stake in Store of Knowledge. KCET's managers say the station's for-profit partners put up the cash to open stores and that the deal will not expose the station to undue financial risk.
"Retail is a tough game, but we really like the unique nature of this," said Pat Haden, a former Los Angeles Rams star and a principal with Riordan, Lewis & Haden, which once counted Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan as a principal.
The firm also knew that Thrifty Drug Chairman Emeritus Leonard Straus, a KCET board member who helped define the store's concept, "was extremely optimistic about its future," Haden said.
Store of Knowledge plans to open an outlet at Fashion Island in Newport Beach in October, and stores are also planned for Santa Monica, San Diego and the Inland Empire. Store of Knowledge says it hopes to eventually have as many as 100 stores nationwide.