by Tina Manzer
In January, the owners of The School Shop in Bloomington, Illinois, announced they were liquidating “the only store of its kind off of Route 55 between St. Louis and Chicago,” said the local newspaper. Peg Shea and her daughter had operated the store since 2013, and were moving on to spend more time with their families.
The former bookstore for Heartland Community College opened in 1992. Instead of closing when the college moved to nearby Normal in 2000, the store evolved into a teacher supply store.
When Peg put the business on the market there were no takers, so everything – merchandise, fixtures and even break-room appliances – was priced to go. “By the end of February, we hope the only thing we have left is dust to sweep out the back door,” Peg said. Teachers mourned the impending loss of the longtime and convenient resource.
At the 11th hour, in stepped Charmaine Ringer. “I had just decided to take a break from teaching and do something else, probably in insurance,” she explained. “At about the same time, I read about The School Shop. The teachers in the community were so disappointed about its closing. I wondered if it was the opportunity I had been looking for.”
Until May, Charmaine had taught special education. In fact, she had been the department chair. Charmaine loved teaching; loved the kids especially, but with the birth of a new grandson, it was time for a change.
In a recent interview, Charmaine told us about the store’s re-opening this June, her short-term goals for the business, and her hopes for The School Shop in the long run.
You’re a special ed teacher – what compelled you to become a business owner?
Charmaine Ringer: I’ve worked in retail a lot over the years. I majored in business at Illinois State University – the first time around. When I got my degree I became a retail manager, and then went into the insurance industry. The world headquarters for State Farm is here in Bloomington. I enjoyed it, but decided I wasn’t a ladder climber. When an opportunity came up to go back to school, I took it and got my teaching degree. I’ve taught for 11 years.
After you and your husband purchased the store this spring, what was your biggest challenge?
Filling it up! We wanted to open on June 17 so we could take advantage of the back-to-school season, but when we acquired the store, it was nearly empty. The second challenge was that I had no clue what to order. Luckily, the previous owners were very gracious and helped a lot. They had hated to close the store and wanted so much for us to succeed.
Even with their help, it wasn’t easy getting all the merchandise in here on time to meet all of the demand during back-to-school. We didn’t have everything we wanted, but we had enough to open the store. Sometimes, after processing new merchandise for what seemed like days on end, we’d put it on the shelves and it would fly right out the door. At other times, we were opening boxes for customers who were standing right there, waiting to see if it contained what they needed.
Another challenge was getting the word out that The School Shop was open. We did radio ads, newspaper ads, handed out coupons and delivered fliers to area schools. People are finding out slowly; some of them just come in to thank us for keeping it going. The community has been really supportive.
How important to your business is word-of-mouth?
It’s vital. Teachers talk within the educational community, and with customers driving here from Springfield three hours away, word about the store can spread pretty far. We want it all to be positive.
How many employees do you have?
We had eight during the rush. We have five now; most are part-time. My husband works full time at State Farm, but helps out when we need a handyman.
Did you bring in merchandise that the previous owners did not stock?
Yes, we expanded our children’s book category. Hundreds of books came in. I was a little worried about selling them all, but parents and grandparents love them. I was surprised by the high number of grandparents who like to shop here, and it’s good to see that books are still a thing.
What’s your next step?
Now that August is over and teachers have purchased their bulletin-board sets, decorations, and curriculum items, we’re looking to expand our toy section for the holidays. I would like to bring in some licensed items; I’m looking for vendors. I’m a member of ASTRA, and went to the show in June. It’s ideal for small business owners.
We’ll also take advantage of the Black Friday tradition, and Small Business Saturday. We’re planning some special promotions and in-store events. It should be fun.
Right now we have a lot of classroom materials: posters, name plates for desks, curriculum charts, rewards, and lots and lots of stickers. We’re in the process of expanding our spiritual section with bulletin boards, Bible verse memory cards and trivia games – those sorts of items. For me, the challenge has been sourcing them, but the community is really grateful we are bringing them in. There aren’t any religious stores in town anymore.
I’m also planning to expand our special-needs category. The School Shop always carried fidgets, some materials on sign language, and sensory items. Those sensory items – Crazy Aaron’s Putty and Slime – are among our bestsellers! But I’d like to bring in more equipment for students with special needs. There are very few stores where parents can shop for products that meet those needs. They have to do a lot of searching online. I’d like to change that, and have them shop here. They can feel it and see how it works, and then take it home with them that day if they want to.
How about an ecommerce site for The School Shop?
Expanding the website is our number-one goal. It’s going to take some time to learn how to do it – we want to do it well. Eventually, we’d like to start selling online. In the short-term, we’d like it to feature more information about the products we carry. We’d also like to have a catalog. I’ve been invited to the Catalog Solutions event in November.
I’ve read that your location is convenient.
Yes. It’s pretty accessible in the middle of town, in a strip mall with good parking. Our retail space is 4,200 square feet, plus a small back room and an office. We would love more storage space!
Towanda Plaza has been here since the late 1950s. It has more than 50 stores, restaurants and service providers, most of them independents. We get a heavy amount of foot traffic thanks to their loyal customers.
I am amazed at the way the community values its neighborhood stores. They buy things here that they could easily buy at Walmart at a lower price, but they want to support us and keep us here.
Do you have local competitors?
The closest teacher store is north, in Peoria. It also carries toys. There is an independent toy store in downtown Bloomington, and there’s also a Toys “R” Us close by. Bloomington-Normal also has the typical big-box stores that carry toys.
So far, what have you liked best about your new job?
We are so appreciative of the support from our community. It helps us know that we did the right thing by keeping The School Shop open.
Customers love to shop in stores that support worthy causes
For the past 15 years, Bloomington has hosted a community-wide fundraiser called Day of the Dozer. The event at the fairgrounds features construction and farming equipment for children to see and experience. Proceeds from ticket sales benefit the “Stay 4” Project, a local initiative that addresses the high-school dropout crisis, and helps low-income students who demonstrate the ability to succeed. The kids/family/education focus made Dozer Day a perfect promotional opportunity for The School Shop this year.
“We were a sponsor, so the name of our business was included with all advertising for it. Charmaine explained. “It’s held on the last Saturday of August, about a week after school starts. We sold tickets for it at the store.” More than 10,000 kids have attended Dozer Day since its inception.