by Tina Manzer
A foundation does more than hold up a house. It prevents threatening elements from seeping in, and resists movement of the earth around it. Deb Mulherin was the foundation of The Learning House, a chain of four teacher stores in West Tennessee. She started the business in 1981 with five other partners including her husband Pope, and then worked hard the next 37 years to grow it. When she died last May after an 18-month battle with cancer, the business carried on because of the solid groundwork Deb had laid.
It’s not easy losing your business partner – much less your life partner – and we wondered how Pope and The Learning House were doing. We recently talked to him about the growth of their business, Deb’s role in it, and the changes, good and bad, he’s seen in the industry.
Ed Dealer: Why did you open a teacher store, Pope?
Pope Mulherin: Deb was the one who came up with the idea. She was a classroom teacher, and the nearest teacher store was 100 miles away.
She taught kindergarten when I was in pharmacy school in Memphis. When we moved to Jackson, she taught third grade. Deb became frustrated with having to stay on me to make different graphics for her classroom. I never will forget the straw that finally broke the camel’s back – she had me draw a dinosaur and an octopus.
So she floated the idea to me of opening a teacher resource store and I said sure. I asked my cousin, whose wife was also a schoolteacher, if they would be interested in joining us in this venture. They were. We also proposed the idea to Deb’s father and mother, who also said yes.
With everyone all in, we started setting up the business during spring break. On Deb’s birthday, May 8, we were up and running in an old 900-square-foot house in Jackson, Tennessee. The Learning House was located across the street from the school our children attended.
Our business grew, and five years later, we moved to a larger location – 3,500 square feet. It remained there for six years before expanding again to the 13,000 square foot space we are in now.
Over the years we added three other stores: in Union City with 3,000 square feet; in Dyersburg with 3,500 square feet, and in Memphis with 4,500 square feet. All of them are destination locations.
What did Deb do at the store?
She probably knew the educational products we carried better than any of the reps did. She knew all the products from all the companies and understood the best ways to incorporate them together on our shelves.
Her relationship with manufacturers was fabulous, but she did not mind telling them what she thought, even when it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
It is impossible to fill the void Deb left, but for the past two years, Cynthia Welch here just did things that needed to be done without having to be asked. She was Deb’s right-hand person for 25-plus years, so she knows what she’s doing. Cynthia has been absolutely fantastic and so have the rest of our employees.
What is The Learning House selling to schools these days – what are schools and teachers looking for?
Still a lot of consumables like construction paper, art rolls and primary tablets. Currently, we seem to be selling books that are more directed to personalized educational deficiencies and toward what parents – and teachers, too – feel students are missing.
Cynthia tells me that Confetti and Home Sweet Classroom décor from Teacher Created Resources are hot sellers right now, along with Schoolgirl Style from Carson-Dellosa. After the holiday break, teachers will be in here buying books and manipulatives for the next chapters they’ll teach. That’s when we show them manufacturers’ brochures so they can see the new products that are coming in next.
Do you serve the same type of customers at all your locations?
We do, but we seem to be serving more parents than we used to. It appears that they feel their children are not getting everything they need in school.
We reach teachers with our Catalog Solutions catalog, which we try to hand-deliver to all the schools, boards of education, daycares and churches in West Tennessee and Memphis. We send an email each week to all the schools, plus another email each Sunday to a list of more than 4,000 people who have signed up for the stores’ “Secret Sale” that we have every Wednesday and Thursday.
While school POs account for the largest dollars per sale, most of our business is a combination of bricks-and-mortar sales, and catalog and online orders.
Where do you get ideas for new products to bring in?
We joined NSSEA – now EDmarket – in 1984. We were also members of EDSA, another school supply trade group back then.
We never missed a spring or fall show; they were a way to see what was new. But they were more than that: they were an opportunity to interact with other members of the educational community; dealers and manufacturers alike. In those days, it was so much like a family. Everyone got along and we were friends, even though we were competing with each other for business.
Cynthia does all the buying, and she and I attended Catalog Solutions’ We Connect in November. It was excellent. It was like NSSEA used to be, and it is what the industry needs. Brian has done an absolutely fantastic job putting the event on. It is a 110-percent success!
We Connect proves that the original model of NSSEA still works. I hope EDmarket has the opportunity to see what a successful event looks like and how everyone can benefit from it.
I have been very disappointed with the EDmarket leadership concerning the intent of the association and what it was established to do. I understand when they talk about trying to adapt and do things differently, but my question has always been this: if it’s not broken, why try to fix it?
How’s business? How has it changed over the years?
Business is okay, but of course it could be better. We are looking at nontraditional revenue streams to supplement the traditional school-supply-store business. I am sure everyone else in the industry is doing the same.
The business grew over the years because of our efforts to provide the best quality products at the best price, and because of our personalized service. As a result, our customers remained very loyal. I would attribute our longevity to their loyalty.
But when the internet came along, people put price first. They care more about price and less about quality and even service, even though we continue to provide great service. It is my biggest challenge right now to compete when people have that mindset.
Who are your competitors?
Everyone is a competitor! Today, companies and individuals who have nothing to do with education enter our market just trying to sell anything to anybody.
Do you still enjoy your work at The Learning House?
I am actually a pharmacist, retired, and I say the same thing about the store that I always said about being a pharmacist. The absolute, without-a-doubt, best thing about it is the people. I enjoy my association with people on a daily basis, and the relationships that I have built over so many years.
What’s next for you and stores?
Deb set the example. She never stopped working until the day she died. Everything was arranged on card tables and TV trays around Deb’s recliner in our living room, and her two cell phones, her landline, her computer and her fax machine were always within reach.
Deb never gave up, so what’s next for me? To carry on!