by Tina Manzer
Dominic Santos, owner of Angelo Teacher Supplies (known simply as “Teacher Store”) in Texas, is getting ready for his 33rd back-to-school season. Teachers start shopping around mid-June, about two weeks after local schools have let out for the summer.
The 6,000-square-foot store continues to get busier throughout July. By August, the store’s hours have been extended and its seven employees are constantly busy replenishing shelves and helping customers.
Good news – he expects business to be up. In fact, his teacher store has been on an upward trend for the past few years.
“Teachers have always used the summer to get a fresh start on decorating their classrooms,” explains the second-generation teacher-store-owner. “Now more than ever, they are treating their classroom like their second home. They spend so much time there! It’s common for them to put a lot of effort into decorating it to make it pleasant and comfortable – not only for the students but for themselves.”
In terms of classroom décor, this year’s crop of colors and designs are generating a lot of interest, Dominic notes. “Social media is a big influence on what teachers buy. They turn to Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration, and often ask for items they spotted on Facebook when they come in.
Other folks in town also purchase Dominic’s seasonal décor and colorful trimmer to decorate churches, nursing homes, and their homes for parties.
The store was founded by his parents Manuel and Estella in 1985. Teachers themselves, they recognized the need in their community for resources and instructional materials. Without a place to purchase posters and other classroom decorations, Estella, a firm believer in visual learning and colorful classrooms, collected the expired promotional banners and POP displays from the city’s grocery stores to decorate her classroom.
Today the store is about 70 percent teacher resources and about 30 percent toys and games, along with a small selection of teacher gifts including mugs and pencil holders.
San Angelo is a cool little city, says Dominic, but somewhat isolated. Austin, San Antonio and Fort Worth are all about 200 miles away. “Our population is a little more than 100,000, but there are never any traffic jams,” he says. “I think that’s unusual. Most people who live here have less than a 10-minute commute to work.”
The city includes a lot of young families and a good-sized school district – San Angelo has 17 elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools. There are an additional 15 to 20 smaller school districts in the surrounding towns. “There’s a really strong sense of community here,” Dominic notes.
“But I never planned to stay here or expected to take over the business,” he continues, telling a story that’s common among mom-and-pop businesses. “I was away at college in Utah when my parents opened it. I moved home a year later – just temporarily, I told myself – and helped out at the store a few days a week.”
But eventually he enrolled in the local college and worked with his parents. They’re retired now. After all, that was 32 years ago.
“Our customers are wonderful – they’re the best in the world, and very loyal,” says Dominic. “They’re the reason we’ve been in business so long.”
He lists interacting with customers as his favorite part of the job. The interaction, combined with Dominic’s love of board games, has helped make the store a community game center. In May, it was named Store of the Month by Blue Orange Games. “To celebrate its customers, Teacher Store [as it is known in the community] hosts in-store Game Days where almost every game in the store is set out to play,” said a Blue Orange blog post. “It’s not only a blast for customers, it also a cherished time for employees since they get the chance to play their favorite games all day.”
“It’s true!” laughs Dominic. “We actually have a permanent table set up next to our demo games so that when people walk in, we can immediately sit down and play with them. On slow days, the staff plays games together. It’s great training, and definitely helps them enjoy a game well enough to sell it.”
San Angelo Teacher Supplies became a game center “somewhat organically,” explains Dominic. The majority of customers are teachers and, “They came in looking for activities to do with their students; sometime they would request specific games. Favorites include Quizmo, Kingdomino, Go Go Gelato and standards like Left Center Right and Spot It. Some single player games – puzzle games like Coggy, for example – are also strong sellers.”
In addition to teachers’ suggestions for new products to bring in, Dominic gets ideas from Ed Dealer’s Retailers Recommend column. He avoids carrying products that are sold at big-box stores. “We try very hard to remain unique and ‘specialty.’”
Other profit centers in the store range from laminating services (“It allows us to be a one-stop shop. Lamination appeals to the entire population and we get a lot of walk-ins) to its half-priced children’s books section. “People like having a library in their classroom or in their home,” says Dominic. “We offer an inexpensive range, from board books to chapter books, that we’ve picked up from different sources.”
The store also has play stations, including a KEVA block table “that lets children’s imaginations run wild.”
Dominic’s biggest challenge these days is product selection. “Things that were constant sellers for us aren’t anymore,” he explains. “Sales of pens and markers – products that at one time were so popular – have dwindled. Our arts & crafts section in general has shrunk because art is not a big focus in today’s schools. Same with the materials to teach cursive writing. It’s a skill that just isn’t being taught here anymore.”
On the positive side, the store still carries close to 60,000 SKUs. “We have a good POS system. We couldn’t function without it.”
Teacher Store operates in a 115 year-old building with a full basement, so there’s plenty of storage. However, it’s rumored to be haunted. “The old hardwood floors will creak, and occasionally employees will report strange occurrences. It was originally a hardware store, B & H Hardware, but in the basement was a ‘pharmacy.’ During Prohibition, you went there for a cure for what ailed you – gin, rum or whiskey were traditional medicines. I’m told that back in the day, there were probably 15 ‘drug stores’ in San Angelo.”