LIVERMORE -- Upholsterer and furniture maker Erik Olofson will never forget the day his business changed from a small-town concern to an international enterprise.
Trained by a German craftsman in Walnut Creek, Olofson moved to Livermore in 1979, where he opened a one-man upholstery business out of his home, doing residential and commercial jobs and developing a loyal, local clientele.
Then came the day in 1998 that changed everything.
"The Pleasanton library called me," he said. "They wanted me to design something for their kids' area; a comfy place with some sort of structure, some type of play area, for reading."
He got busy with a furniture design that included stars and moons with a padded floor. The client said they'd get back to him.
"I'd made a little model," he recalled. "My daughter was 10 at the time, and she said it was kind of boring. She said 'Just make it look like books.' It was so obvious once she'd said it. We sat up until midnight that night."
Olofson and daughter Lindsay built another model, this time creating chairs that resembled stacked books and cushions that mimicked giant pencils. His clients at Pleasanton's library loved the idea and sealed the deal.
"I thought 'Well, that had been a fun job,'" Olofson said. "Then the library asked if they could tell some friends about it. The next morning I had 60 emails from all over the world. They'd posted it online, and I had requests from New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland and around the U.S.
"Now, this is for someone who normally had one email a week at the time. Everyone wanted a catalog, and we didn't have a catalog. We hurried to make up some brochures and I went to a trade show in San Jose. I had to build a bunch of furniture I wasn't planning on. We got real busy all of a sudden, and my living room became shipping and receiving."
Today, Big Cozy Books ships out about $10,000 of product each week all over the U.S. and the world, including Australia, the U.K., Switzerland, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Portugal and Malaysia. The 6- to 8-foot benches are the most popular, along with love seats, chairs, vertical structures and padded sitting areas. Children can perch on upholstered versions of "Harry Potter," sprawl on top of "The Jungle Book" or sink into "Walter the Farting Dog." Clients can request any titles they want -- in any language -- and rest assured it will survive endless classes of second-graders.
"Luckily I hang out with kids a lot," Olofson, 56, said with a laugh. "Kids will beat the heck out of anything you have. And some fabric, while wonderful for family rooms, won't swing it when kids aren't being watched. We found the most durable fabric we've ever heard of, and that's what we use."
He donated some of his first demonstration pieces to Christensen Middle School in Livermore, where they still are in use.
"This is the favorite place for the kids to go hang out," said librarian Diane Monteith. "It's comfortable, a nice chill spot. (Olofson) is very much a craftsman, and with Lindsay's creative talents ... it was perfect."
The furniture also gets a good workout at the Cathedral School for Boys in San Francisco, a private school for kindergarten through eighth grade. Librarian Helen Huber spotted the furniture at a library association conference.
"I wasn't thinking about furniture; I was thinking about how to engage the kids in books and create an environment that did that," she recalled. "As soon as I saw this, I knew it would accomplish the very things I was hoping for -- a way to promote reading."
Her library's "Cozy Corner" includes several of Olofson's pieces and has stood up to untold numbers of sticky, sandy boys.
"It's colorful, inviting and does everything I hoped it would do," she said.
At one time Big Cozy Books had six employees, but now operates with Olofson, upholsterer Rob Estrada and office manager Anne Miller. The business has moved from Olofson's home to a facility on Research Drive in Livermore, but he's keeping future growth in check.
"We've kicked around the idea of pushing to cruise lines, restaurants, all sorts of different things, but you only have so much bandwidth," he said. "I'm not one of those guys who wants it real huge. I have a nice life, and I'm very happy.
"I love going to libraries and seeing kids running around, then settle in and get comfortable, grab a book and start reading," he said. "Anything I can do to make libraries more inviting to kids makes me happy. It's like I'm doing something good for the world in my own tiny way."