SCHENECTADY – In 2013, Janet Hutchison told her loyal customers that when the right person showed up, the Open Door bookstore and gift gallery was for sale.
– Yes, and I still think about it. And that’s always something I would love to do, ”said Hutchison, who, along with her husband, John, has owned and operated the monument in downtown Schenectady since 1992.“ We have reached a certain age, we are there. had in 2013, but we won’t sell the store to just anyone. It must be someone who loves the store as much as we do. It must be a labor of love.
This year, The Open Door, located at the corner of Franklin Street and Jay Street Walkway, celebrates 50 years in business. Betty Fleming opened the store in 1971, and around the same time, Hutchison was just starting to work in the children’s room at the nearby Schenectady County Public Library.
“When Betty first opened, it was a very small children’s bookstore, and she was always at the county library in the children’s room looking for books she wanted to buy,” Hutchison recalls. . “I saw her sitting in the room looking at all those children’s books, and I finally went to ask her what she was doing. I wanted to know what she was doing. Was she taking a children’s literature class or what?
This encounter led Hutchison to accept a job offer from Fleming in 1983, and soon after she was running the store for the owner, whose husband, an engineer at General Electric, had taken a position at Princeton University. .
“Betty ended up managing the store remotely and at one point, I think she was in her sixties, she let me manage the store,” Hutchison said. “Finally, she told me that she had decided to put the store up for sale, and John and I were like, ‘Great’. We were very interested.
So in 1992, Hutchison and her husband, who she said warmly approved of the idea, became bookstore owners, a business opportunity she had never really thought about earlier in life.
“I started out as a major in music, I changed for history and for a while I thought I was going to teach,” said Hutchison, who grew up in San Bernardino, Calif. , and received her undergraduate degree from Pomona College in Claremont, California. “But eventually I changed my mind and entered this library internship program at Syracuse University. They paid for your schooling as long as you worked for a public library and took your classes at night.
When John Hutchison, whom Janet met at Pomona College, landed a job with General Electric, the young Southern California woman would become a permanent resident of the far Northeast.
“When we moved to Schenectady, I had already spent two horrible winters in Syracuse,” Hutchison said with a laugh. “Then everyone told us that the winters are not as bad in Schenectady as in Syracuse. I was told it doesn’t snow as much here as it does in Syracuse. But the year we moved here, it was a horrible winter.
Hutchison survived the cold and snowfall very well, and his business had some tough times as well. With many shoppers opting for suburban malls instead of the downtown shopping district and with the number of large chain stores increasing, Hutchison’s first decade of running the store on her own was difficult. She’s met things head-on, joining groups and playing a leading role in entities such as the Jay Street Merchants Association, the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation, Metroplex, and the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce.
“I was always convinced by the closure of Jay Street, but we had to cross the street closing twice, the second time when they renovated it,” said Hutchison. “I also knew that a viable downtown business couldn’t survive without the surrounding environment being good, so you dig, put your head down, and get to work. It was terrible when the Carl Company closed, but then we got the Proctors back, thank goodness, and now we have a nice assortment of stores on Jay Street and wonderful restaurants in downtown Schenectady. We have come a long way.
Then came COVID-19.
“We discovered how incredible the support we were receiving from our customers,” said Hutchison. “They were very, very loyal. When we had to shut our doors for three months, our customers just went to our website and ordered books like crazy. We had curbside service, and luckily, being around the corner where we are, people could stop right by the door and we would run to give them their books. Some people called us and said, “I want to get my books from you. To have loyal people like that was just wonderful.
One of the ways Hutchison and The Open Door have gained this kind of loyalty from their customers has been by hosting a series of special events. One aspect of going beyond included book signings by local authors, some of them the biggest names in the business, such as “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire and Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy, both natives of Albany.
“We’ve had some wonderful author visits, but the two that stand out are William Kennedy and Gregory Maguire,” Hutchison said. “They have been very exciting days, and we have had Gregory Maguire here several times. They were exciting events and our customers always seem to enjoy them.
There were also special events related to the release of the Harry Potter books.
“It was a phenomenon in itself,” Hutchison said of author JK Rowling‘s huge success. “They sent us a lot of promotional material and we got on the bandwagon very early. We would have a “Harry Potter” event with our staff in costumes. We have had events with Bowtie Cinema and Proctors related to “Harry Potter”. It was probably the biggest buzz we’ve ever felt in the store.
Alongside big names such as Kennedy and Maguire, Hutchison has always reached out to local authors to offer them the opportunity to sign their books. Paul O’Brien, a teacher at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons for more than four decades, began writing memoir-style self-published books soon after his retirement in 2015. He will sign his fifth book, “Onward,” on the 4th. December at the open door.
“She really does a good job promoting your book and she’s always good at hosting your event,” said O’Brien, who grew up just outside of Troy and attended Catholic Central High School. “I’d have ‘Morning Edition’ in my car, and there I listen to NPR and hear an ad for The Open Door, and they mention my book. I’m like ‘Oh my God, it’s me.’ She does a great job of spreading the word.
‘Heart of the city center’
O’Brien says he was a fan of The Open Door long before he started writing books and looking for places to sell them.
“For me, it’s the heart of downtown,” he said. “It has been a very important part of my life at Schenectady. In my new book, I have four or five pages devoted to just visiting The Open Door. It’s like a second home for me and my wife.
Originally from Schenectady, Vicki Hoshko has worked at The Open Door as a part-time employee for 40 years.
“I think people love the store, and I love the store, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there that long,” Hoshko said. “People love what the store sells and they love the commitment Janet and John have to the community. There are also the wonderful staff who go out of their way to make people feel comfortable there.
Hoshko said the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how loyal customers are.
“This is the perfect example,” she said. “People were afraid to go out into a store, but they still wanted to be customers of our store, so we did the curbside pickup, we did personal shopping and at first we even did deliveries. Janet was determined to make it work, and she did.
Hutchison made the transition from librarian to bookstore owner, an education in itself.
“Running a store is a whole different world,” she said. “At the library, someone else is managing the budget and you don’t have to worry about the publicity. When you own the store, it becomes necessary to be a jack of all trades. But I still do what I love the most, and that is helping people find books to read. This is what I used to do in the children’s room in the public library, and this is what I am doing now.
Hutchison currently has around 20 people working in the store, which also includes a gift shop. Most of its staff are part-time and all are avid readers. Hutchison herself reads about six books a month.
“One thing that keeps me going is keeping up with all the new books that come out,” she said. “I’m not a quick reader and I don’t make a point of trying to read quickly. I am also very selective. If a book doesn’t capture my imagination in the second or third chapter, I’ll stop reading it. If I don’t care what happens next, if I don’t care about the characters, I stop. There are too many good books to read.
She says she enjoys fiction, especially historical fiction, and also enjoys biographies – but not necessarily those about famous people. She also says that she never reads a book twice, with the exception of Esther Hautzig’s 1968 work “The Endless Steppe”.
“This is a Jewish family in Siberia whose father was drafted into the Russian military,” Hutchison said. “I was a young child and it took me to a place like Siberia, which I didn’t know anything about, so I read this several times. I like to read books that take me to another time and another place. It must be something that will spark my interest and my imagination. “
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