A pair of IBM-ers took the leap into retail

by Phyl Newbeck

paper_peddlerIn 2007, Kathie and Dan Cooke bought The Paper Peddler in Maple Tree Place. Their 2015 move to Blair Park reduced their rent and gained them 1,000 square feet and better parking.

Dan Cooke thinks back to the day he and his wife, Kathie, decided to buy The Paper Peddler, a greeting card and gift shop at Maple Tree Place in Williston. He had been looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity and the store was on the market. “How hard can it be?” he remembers thinking. “It’s just things.”

Looking back, he shakes his head in amazement. “How stupid was that?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s really quite complicated.” Dan and Kathie may have taken a somewhat circuitous route toward owning a retail establishment, but they both find the work to be rewarding.

Kathie grew up in Essex Junction to a housewife mother and a self-employed father who worked mostly as a tax practitioner. She studied business at Champlain College after graduating from Essex High School.

Dan was 9 when his father died. When he was in eighth grade, he moved from Iowa with his mother to Essex Junction, and was in high school when his mother remarried, gaining him two stepbrothers and a stepsister.

Dan’s mother was a medical and X-ray technologist and high school science teacher, but her passion was playing classical music on the piano, harp, and organ. She mostly played for church services, he says, “but when she was 18, she played for the American Conservatory in Chicago.”

Dan and Kathie attended the Essex schools but traveled in different circles. He says he had an unrequited crush on Kathie when he was in eighth grade, but she has no recollection of him. They didn’t officially meet until their college years when both were working at Sears.

Dan started his undergrad studies at St. Michael’s College but dropped out before he and Kathie met. After they married in 1980, he wanted to return to his studies and chose DeVry University in Phoenix. They headed for Arizona, where he studied, and she taught computer skills to the staff at Good Samaritan Hospital and worked on the help desk.

In 1984, after Dan graduated, they came home to Vermont with Chris, their newly born son, in tow. Dan returned to St. Michael’s for a master’s in administration. Later he earned a Ph.D. in organizational management and leadership with a specialty in Internet technology from Cappella University.

A second son, Marc, was born in 1987, and Kathie worked part time as a tax preparer for her father and took care of the boys while Dan found work at IBM as a software engineer.

All along, the couple has remained interested in volunteer emergency rescue. Before they were married, Kathie had seen an article in the paper about the need for volunteers in rescue organizations. “I talked to Dan about it and we decided we wanted to at least take the course. After we completed it, we did join Essex Rescue. It was a huge passion of mine for many years,” she says, adding that she joined because she relished the opportunity to belong to an organization that helped people.

Both are EMTs (emergency medical technicians), EMTI (intermediate), and EMTD (defibrillator), able to do IVs and provide several types of medication. As soon as they returned to Vermont they rejoined the organization, where Kathie stayed for 15 years and Dan for 13.

In 1998, after 12 years working for her father, Kathie also joined IBM in inventory control, but they continued to volunteer with Essex Rescue. “We put in a thousand hours a year,” Dan recalls “and it’s not all sitting around at the station. Back then it was an all-volunteer force.” They rose through the ranks with Dan’s serving as president for three years and district chair for one year. Both held other officer positions, and Kathie spent time as secretary and supply officer.

Dan was the one who first saw that The Paper Peddler was for sale. Kathie had left IBM after eight years, and Dan thought it would be a great opportunity for her next venture.

“At first, I wasn’t totally excited because I had never thought about retail,” Kathie confesses. “It took me six months before I decided to give it a try.”

Dan was managing rental properties and expected this to be another avenue for business growth. “I had always had a desire to be an entrepreneur,” he says, “but my career was going so well at IBM that it was hard to give up. I knew Kathie had good vision capability for the kinds of things you need to carry and what would sell.”

Dan describes The Paper Peddler as a “distressed business” when they purchased it in 2007. “It was bleed, bleed, bleed,” he recalls, “but Kathie was doing things to change that and we were doing pretty well.”

The Maple Tree Place location had pedestrian access and was around other stores, but there weren’t many complementary businesses, and customers complained about the lack of parking. In July of 2015, the Cookes moved to a Blair Park location that’s 1,000 square feet larger and costs less to rent.

Despite the lack of nearby stores, Dan believes they have seen an uptick in traffic, in part because there is senior housing nearby, in part because of extra visibility, but he admits the move hasn’t helped the business as much as he would have liked. The extra space presents challenges in finding new items, since, in addition to restocking popular ones, there’s a need to add new inventory. “Kathie has to look through 50 catalogs a week and order six months in advance,” Dan says. “You’ve got to be ahead of the game all the time.”

Antonia Harkins of Arlington, a sales representative for 30 product lines, has worked with the Cookes since 2007. “Kathie is wonderful,” Harkins says. “She is one of my favorite customers.” Harkins recognizes how difficult it is for the store to turn a profit in the current market. “It’s tough being an independent retailer but they’ve hung in there,” she says. “I’m sure it’s not easy, but Kathie is on top of things. She’s probably the most organized person I’ve worked with. She has it all under control, and she’s just a really nice human being.”

Neither Dan nor Kathie has a title; they simply consider themselves manager members of the LLC. Dan, who retired from IBM in June, takes care of the financial and computer parts of the business. That includes maintenance. Kathie is in charge of inventory “and everything else — the whole shebang!” she exclaims.

They have had as many as 10 part-time employees but are now down to five, including their older son, Chris. Many employees start working for the company in high school and continue through college; one of their older employees has been with them for six years. Dan concedes that staffing can be difficult because they are unable to provide high wages.

“I’m not doing it for the money,” is how longtime employee Louise Nichols puts it. “I had never worked retail, but when my last daughter went off to college six years ago, Kathie hired me. It’s a really nice place to work; it’s a happy place because we sell nice products. You get to know customers on a first-name basis.” Nichols appreciates the flexibility Kathie showed when her sister was ill. “Kathie let me go when I needed to, no questions asked,” Nichols says. “She and Dan are just really good people to work for.”

“It’s a fickle business,” Dan says, “with lots of ups and downs. The last few years have been challenging.” In addition to competing against Web-based businesses, the company has competition from big box stores, which may have similar products, although Kathie is quick to note that the quality is not as high in those locations. They are trying to do more on social media but recognize that they have not been consistent.

Some product lines such as balloons have been discontinued, but the bread and butter for the business is greeting cards. “That’s our main drive,” says Kathie. “I’ve brought in more lines, and humor is a big seller.” The store also carries gift wrap, jewelry, handbags, and accessories, which have seen an industry-wide downturn of late, although she predicts a turn-around.

Kathie had no background in retail when they purchased the business, but she has done a lot of research and reading, and took some courses when she worked at Sears. More important, she says, is that she listens to her customers when they tell her what they’d like to see. “Having conversations with customers is an important part of retail,” she says.

For the last 26 years, the Cookes have lived in Williston. Kathie enjoys working in her flower garden while Dan is partial to video games. Soon they’ll be adding another activity to the list when their younger son’s first-born enters the world next spring.

Although the business has its challenges, they continue to find it rewarding. “Obviously I have good days and bad days,” Kathie says, “but I enjoy it and I know there are people who would be really unhappy if we closed.” Among those is a loyal cadre of regular customers, some of whom come to the store several times a week. “Customer satisfaction is the most rewarding part of the business,” Kathie says. •