Door Bookstore owner Janet Hutchison tells the tale of running
an independent business in Schenectady
downtown Schenectady, the intersection of State and Jay streets
is affectionately known as “Ground Zero.” This is the pulse
point at which Schenectady’s economic and cultural health
might most clearly be divined. After a couple of decades of
disrepair, the intersection now bustles with cars and pedestrians
heading to Proctors, Movie Land, the new Bomber’s Burrito
Bar, or any number of businesses that have begun returning
to the area. One block away, Open Door Bookstore proprietor
Janet Hutchison has borne witness to this change for the last
26 years. As an independent retailer, bookseller, and board
member of the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. and Metroplex
Authority, she has weathered uncertainty in the local economy
and the bookselling world at-large en route to becoming a
prime mover in both.
Thirty years ago, Hutchison, a native of California, was working
as a children’s librarian at the Schenectady County Public
Library when she befriended Betty Fleming, who had opened
the Open Door as a bookstore specializing in children’s literature.
Her familiarity with the material allowed her to make the
easy transition to bookselling in 1983, and she managed the
store until 1992, when she and her husband bought the store
basics behind what’s important in a book store are the same
things that are important in a library,” Hutchison says. “You’re
trying to match people with books. It’s the same process of
talking with them about what they’ve read and what their interest
At a children’s bookstore, though, this exchange happens with
parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles, as often as it
does with a child, so the store’s decision to expand its catalog
was a natural one. When a neighboring paint store decided
to relocate in the ’80s, the Open Door began a series of expansions.
Today, the store sells art, jewelry and toys, in addition
to literature of all stripes. “It’s worked well over the years,”
she says, “because customers can come and they can work through
their gift list, getting a nice piece of jewelry or pottery.
We have a lot of toys that are obvious accompaniments to books.
Lots of [children’s books] have toy characters—stuffed animals
and stuff—that are meant to go with the book.” Additionally,
the store works with local schools and teachers to make sure
they keep up on the latest in children’s literature.
This approach tends to distinguish the Open Door from other
independent bookstores, which are, already, an increasingly
rare species. Hutchison says she refuses to utter the names
of the big corporate booksellers that are responsible for
the deaths of so many small bookstores, but she readily offers
reasons for why her store hasn’t suffered a similar fate.
isn’t any different than it was 20 years ago. People come
to an independent bookstore because of the personalized service
they get, and because they’re dealing with staff that get
to know them, that read, and know a lot about books. A connection
develops. You begin to learn that a certain customer enjoys
a certain kind of writing, and then you’re able to say, ‘hey,
there’s a brand new book by your favorite author right over
here.’ ” As a result, she has customers that come from as
far away as Schoharie and the southern Adirondacks who have,
in turn, produced successive generations of readers.
She’ll be the first to admit, though, that it isn’t just good
service that has allowed her business to survive a trying
economy. “[Consumers] are beginning to realize that by supporting
their locally owned businesses they are supporting their community
and local economy as opposed to sending their spending dollars
to some corporate headquarters that doesn’t care about where
they live. The consciousness has been raised about what all
this means, with movements like Local First. And that’s wonderful.”
The effect of this philosophy, she says, coupled with the
creation of the DSIC and BID, has yielded tangible results
for the whole downtown area. “The 400 block of State has been
completely redone and the other side is almost complete. The
facades are redone and everything is almost reoccupied. The
goal is to gradually extend all that so everything down to
the community college will be occupied and have attractive,
viable, vibrant businesses.”
Standing at Ground Zero, this goal doesn’t seem out of reach.
“Retailers,” she says, “tend to be optimistic people” and,
looking forward, Hutchison is confident about the direction
the Open Door is heading. “I went to library school way back
in the ’70s when Marshall McLuhan was on his kick about media.
That was 35 years ago and people are still reading books.”
As for the prospect of e-book technology cutting into her
business: “It doesn’t have that cozy, fuzzy feeling to it.
The influence of a parent sharing a story with their children
is just not going to be the same holding a Kindle.
been here long enough that I have young people with children
who look around and say, ‘I grew up in this store.’ That’s
what’s really been the distinguishing factor in a locally
owned independent store. It’s the part I love the most.”